100 Years of the Albanian Alphabet
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On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Albanian Alphabet
(For Parts I and II scroll down.)
After Gjerasim’s death, his family and friends carried on his spiritual, educational and patriotic program. The movement that he was a part of came to be known as the National Rebirth (“rilindja”, sometimes translated “renaissance”, which is just the French word for “rebirth”). It is striking that Gjerasim and other key leaders who had experienced a personal, spiritual rebirth helped to make possible a national, cultural rebirth. Gjerasim’s influence on the Rebirth was such that his hometown of Manastir (Bitola) and his later base of operations, Korça, became twin epicenters of the movement.
The crowning achievement of the Rebirth was the Congress of Manastir, a gathering of Albanians in November of 1908 to establish the alphabet. Gjerasim had been dead 14 years by this time, but the conference was hosted in the Qiriazi family home by Gjerasim’s younger brother Gjergj. Their two sisters Sevastia and Parashqevia also participated as well as Grigor Cilka, the pastor of the church that Gjerasim had founded in Korça, and several other evangelical believers. In fact the only non-Albanian present was missionary Violet Kennedy. (She was an observer without voting rights.)
In a recent interview in the Albanian Tribune, scholar Reshat Nexhipi said that Manastir is for Albanians what Mecca is for Muslims. Here is how Dr. Nexhipi replied when asked why the Congress was held in Manastir: “Because, in addition to others, the patriotic Qiriazi family operated here, five members, three men and two women, each more patriotic and civilized than the other. Especially Gjerasim, without which Manastir probably wouldn’t have turned into a center for the National Albanian movement and the birthplace of the alphabet. The two sisters – Sevastia dhe Parashqevia – were the most emancipated women in the Balkans and beyond. They spoke 8 languages, Parashqevia was the only female at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.”
So what about the alphabet? How can it be that the alphabet wasn’t established until 1907 when Gjerasim was already distributing Scripture portions in Albanian in the 1880s – not to mention the baptism formula in 1462 and the Meshari in 1555? Of course Albanian had been reduced to writing long before the Congress of Manastir, but there was no agreed-upon standard alphabet. The language was sometimes rendered with Greek characters, sometimes with Cyrillic, sometimes with Arabic, and sometimes with Latin. Naturally there were competing interests advocating each of these options. And even among those who favored Latin letters, there was no consensus as to precisely which letters and what each one should represent.
The Congress ended up agreeing on a Latin-based alphabet with 36 characters, each representing a single sound. The choice of Latin characters was not without controversy. In the aftermath of the Congress, Muslim clerics in the city of Elbasan led demonstrations insisting that use of anything other than Arabic letters would make them infidels. (Ironically Turkey itself switched to a Latin-based alphabet in 1928 as part of Ataturk’s reforms.)
Although the Albanians are still divided by religion and by national borders, their unified alphabet has helped them maintain ethnic identity in the face of overwhelming pressure from fierce enemies. And the choice of a Latin-based alphabet was a gesture which revealed the delegates’ desire to place their nation in a European/Western cultural framework.
I want to be tentative here, because I’m expressing a conclusion that as far as I know is original to me – always a dangerous undertaking – and one that I have reached only recently. There’s a good chance that I’m overreaching here. If so, I’m willing to be corrected.
Christian missionary work has often been accused of being an arm of empire. This is a legitimate charge – one that we must not only repent of but continually guard against. But the story of Protestant missions work among the Albanians seems to stand in sharp contrast to this all too familiar narrative. Rather than being a steam roller that crushed indigenous culture, the Gospel seems to have functioned as a subversive force that undermined empire and fostered freedom for an oppressed people. If this is true, it's not because those early missionaries to the Albanians had a healthier missiology than anybody else; in fact, it has much more to do with the historical circumstances in which they worked. The Gospel always seems to work better from a position of weakness than one of strength.
I can think of a host of caveats with which to quality this thesis. Of course there were a thousand other forces battering the Ottoman Empire by that time. (Even if the Gospel played a significant role in the Albanian Rebirth as I am arguing here, that movement was only one of a multitude of nationalist movements.) Of course there is always a dark side to any nationalist movement. Of course the Protestant missionaries -- and Gjerasim himself -- had their flaws. But despite all of this, it’s a really wonderful story.