IMAGE:  August 2003
LINK:  Research
Next Generation  
LINK:  Features
Moment of Decision  
Chicago's Ivy League  
The Weeds of Change  
The CMS Syndrome  



LINK:  Class Notes
Alumni News  
Alumni Works  

LINK:  Campus News
Chicago Journal  
University News e-bulletin  

LINK:  Also in every issue
Editor's Notes  
GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 6

GRAPHIC:  ResearchInvestigations
Speaking of the Balkans

Victor Friedman, AM’71, PhD’75, began his first serious linguistics work as a nine-year-old living in Hyde Park, when he became interested in foreign curses and obscenities. “My grandfather’s brother and my father used rather harsh Russian expressions humorously as terms of endearment,” explains Friedman, a grandson of Russian and Romanian immigrants. He started a collection, to which his parents’ friends cheerfully contributed.

On weekends he mined the lexicons at Harper Library. By the time he graduated from the Lab Schools and left for Reed College he had accumulated 2,000 words and phrases, all carefully written down on 3 x 5 cards. Some he took from familiar languages such as French and Italian (Va a l’inferno!), others from more exotic languages, including Xhosa, Chinook, Assyrian, and Ashanti (Wo’samanfo mfa ye nankasa!—“May your ancestral spirits chew their own bones!”). Many are unprintable. He still keeps the cards in a cluttered upstairs room in his Blackstone Avenue house, a few blocks from where he grew up. “I don’t use this stuff very much anymore,” he said recently, flipping through the collection. “But I can’t bring myself to throw it away.”

IMAGE:  Wedding celebrants in the Romani quarter of Skopje, Macedonia. Friedman first met Roms in the 1970s and is one of the few experts on their language and culture.
Photo by Richard Mertens

Wedding celebrants in the Romani quarter of Skopje, Macedonia. Friedman first met Roms in the 1970s and is one of the few experts on their language and culture.

Friedman, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of humanities and chair of the Department of Slavic Languages & Literature, is one of the foremost experts on Balkan linguistics, best known for his research into verb systems and the problems of creating standardized languages. But few aspects of language and culture do not interest Friedman, 53, who joined the University faculty in 1993. In a recent course on Romani, the Gypsy language, he expounded with equal authority on Romani dialectical variations; on the Romani method of making dimija, the baggy trousers traditionally worn by Muslim women; and on the nuances of drinking rakija, the fiery native brandy made in backyard stills throughout the Balkans. “You don’t gulp it in one swallow, the way the Russians do,” he told the students. “You sip it.”

Linguists first studied the relationships among languages by determining how they were related and tracing them back to common sources. Balkan linguists take a different approach. They study what happens when unrelated languages rub up against each other over long periods of time. The modern Balkan languages, including Albanian, Greek, and several Slavic and Romance languages, evolved over centuries among people who spoke each others’ languages and interacted daily, sharing words and speaking manners, so that eventually their languages began to resemble one another. That polyglot world no longer exits: urbanization, the rise of nation states, and ethnic wars have all hastened its demise. But under the Byzantine and Ottoman empires the Balkans were an extraordinary mosaic, a world that still survives in its languages. The whole discipline of contact linguistics, as it is sometimes called, began with the Balkans.

Like many Balkan linguists of his generation Friedman was drawn to the region as much by its music as by its languages. During the 1960s he regularly joined gatherings in Hyde Park, where he danced to Israeli, country, and Balkan music. Later, as a Chicago graduate student, he spent a month in Macedonia, the southernmost republic of Yugoslavia, and fell in love with the place. He liked almost everything about it: the language, the dancing, the drinking, the food—and most of all the energetic hospitality of the people.

At the crossroads of the Balkans, Macedonia was a linguist’s paradise. When Friedman returned to Skopje, the capital, in 1973–74 to research his dissertation on the Macedonian language, he lived on a block that was a kind of miniature Balkans itself. “The landlady was Macedonian, but she spoke fluent Turkish,” he recalls. “The next-door neighbors were Turks. There were Gypsies who lived upstairs, Albanians across the hall. It was a real multiethnic, multilingual encounter. I had to concentrate on my dissertation, but it was wonderful hearing all these languages going on all at the same time.”

Four language groups make up what scholars call the “Balkan linguist league”: Slavic, Romance, Albanian, and Greek. Friedman has written on all four, as well as on Turkish and Romani, also spoken in the the region. He specializes in verb forms that indicate the degree of commitment a speaker invests in the truth of what he is saying. Whereas English speakers say “supposedly” or “allegedly” to express reserve, some Balkan languages use distinct verb forms. Friedman’s most exciting moment in more than three decades of research, he says, came in 1992 when he discovered such forms in a dialect of Arumanian, a Balkan Romance language in which they were thought not to exist. Brian Joseph, a Balkan linguist who edits Language, the Linguistic Society of America’s journal, says Friedman’s understanding of such linguistic subtleties reflects his deep knowledge of the Balkan languages and the cultures from which they spring. “He sort of understands them from the inside, the way very few linguists do.”

In recent years Friedman has chronicled and aided Macedonian Roms’ efforts to create a standardized language from their several dialects, in part so that Romani children may study their own language in school. Few Balkan linguists know Romani to the extent Friedman does. One of the first to study it in the context of other Balkan languages, Friedman also has helped bring the language into larger theoretical debates. A large minority group, Roms lack their own state and are scattered across the region, living at society’s margins. Rarely taught at American universities, their language has only recently captured many linguists’ attention, as a new generation of activists and intellectuals gives them greater access to the Romani people.

Access has never been a problem for Friedman. While researching his dissertation he made friends in Skopje’s Romani quarter and kept a notebook of sentences and paradigms. There were few books on Romani at the time, but back in Chicago he found a 19th-century dictionary and grammar at the Newberry Library. The library forbade him to photocopy the book, so he spent weekends copying it out by hand. He reached the Ks before he finished his dissertation and left to work at the University of North Carolina. The next year a Swiss publisher came out with a reprint, and he got his own copy. Still, Friedman says, “I learned a lot of Romani in the process.”

—Richard Mertens



Search WWW Search

Contact Advertising About the Magazine Alumni UChicago Views Archives
uchicago 2003 The University of Chicago Magazine 5801 South Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-0495