BalkaNOMAD – Balkan Nomads Oral Material Annotated & Documented (FWF)

Project BalkaNOMAD

BalkaNOMAD – Balkan Nomads Oral Material Annotated & Documented (FWF) 

Due to the close juxtaposition of regions of different altitudes, and also the changing seasonal climatic conditions and associated vegetation cycles, the mobile herdsmen of south-east Europe drove their herds over long distances between the high altitudes in summer and the lowlands in winter. During the transitional seasons they would cover up to 400 km in a few weeks. For pastoral peoples it has always been important to find and use the best summer and winter grazing land. Relief, soil, climate and vegetation dictate the various forms of grazing management. The economic and political uncertainty in the past and today have also contributed to the development of nomadic pastoral family communities.

Based on field research, a distinction can be made between those communities that move between the same grazing areas every year and those that repeatedly seek new grazing grounds. The attempt to characterise the different economic forms practised by these nomadic herdsmen necessarily involves consideration of the terms ‘mountain grazing’, ‘transhumance’ and ‘nomadism’. The variety of husbandry forms can be best understood by studying ownership. For instance, with nomadism the cattle belong to the head of the family and are inherited by the eldest son, whilst with transhumance the nomadic herdsmen do not own any cattle, but instead are paid by stationary herd owners who pursue other activities. With mountain grazing, the herdsmen own their cattle in the proximity of inhabited settlements and in the summer move into the mountains with their families or seasonal workers. Lastly, concerning stationary husbandry, paddocking and single animal husbandry, the herdsmen own their animals and keep them either permanently in grazing areas (continuous grazing) or alternate between grazing and mowing (rotational grazing).

The formation of national states during the 19th and early 20th centuries brought fundamental changes to the life of the nomadic herdsmen. In the Byzantine and Ottoman empires they had been able to drive their herds unhindered over great distances. Now, however, they were forced to pay high customs tariffs at the borders, until eventually, with the erection of the Iron Curtain, those borders were closed completely. Subsequently, this obliged them to settle down. However, as a result of their nomadic life, they were able to escape administrative control, and as such became a thorn in the side for many politicians. The settlements also underwent considerable changes. The pure pastoral villages, which for nomadic groups consisted of groups of temporary huts or tents gave way to two-storey houses or cabins. The modest housing, which because of the materials used (straw, wood), merged very well with their natural surroundings, was replaced by a type of dwelling absent of any touristic or aesthetic value. They were generally made of concrete slabs or bricks with a corrugated iron roof and plastic sheeting to protect them from snow and rain. Even today, however, although widespread nomadic herding has been extensively abandoned, grazing management remains important for the preservation and design of the cultural landscape of south-eastern Europe.

The target group for the research was shepherds with an active knowledge of Aromanian, Greek, Albanian and/or Macedonian. In addition to pure vocabulary lists, the questionnaire aimed to obtain direct information about linguistic contact, language acquisition, assimilation and multilingualism. Furthermore, texts that were in the everyday language and used by the shepherds, including biographical reports, legends or descriptions of migrations, equipment and processes, could be collected. For the terminology section, older individuals who possessed the most complete specialist pastoral vocabulary were included. Some of them were nomadic shepherds for their entire life, and who have only recently become sedentary. In order to document the changeability of the terminology (dynamics or loss) as a result of contact with other ethnic groups, family members of the first interview partner were questioned irrespective of their profession. Likewise, as were shepherds who pursue strategies other than long-range pastoralism (local pastoralism, stabling, animals as a secondary occupation etc.).

About 90% of the interviews were digitally recorded on DVD and/or preserved in movie form. In particular, the biographical sections and the “shepherd stories” are of extremely high value. All material can be viewed for further scientific use in the Phonogram Archive of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

The border triangle involving Albania-Greece-Macedonia (FYROM) is characterized by high mountain ranges (Pindos, Grammos, Baba, Nemerçka) with several elevations exceeding 2,500 metres, as well as deep gorges, river valleys and polje. For the nomadic shepherd populations, the distant plains and the Adriatic, Ionic and Aegean coastlands are important supplementary landscapes. Even today, the climatic conditions and vegetation force a large part of the shepherd population towards a high degree of mobility.

Much of the specialist pastoral terminology, especially the designations for dairy and wool products, hide colours and livestock breeds are similar in Albanian, Greek, Macedonian and Aromanian despite belonging to different languages and language families. Many etymologies cannot be explained from these languages, so we have to assume that some forms are based upon an unknown substrate. We tried to describe the activities and contact situations which are typical for nomadic shepherds and which bring about the cultural exchange between shepherds belonging to different linguistic communities and the non-pastoralist population. The observation of this process of reorientation to other survival strategies provides us with a better understanding of the social and professional conditions, contact situations and processes of linguistic contact as well as of assimilation and acculturation in the past and present. To reach this aim, a cultural-geographic and ethno-linguistic documentation in the border triangle of Albania, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was compiled.

The comparison of the pastoral terminology referred to objects of everyday use, products and processes of long-distance pastoralism and their designations in the four languages concerned, in addition to the dialects spoken in the study region. The most important method for approaching this question was extensive field research, using a questionnaire compiled on the basis of various models which have proved useful in earlier, past projects. Most interviewed persons were mobile pastoral shepherds who have renounced nomadic pastoralism and now pursue local pasture farming or other professions.

The variety of dialects in the region is very high, for instance we find Albanian with the variants of Tosk, Çam, Lab, and Aromanian with Rrămăneşti and Armâneaşti. In addition, we find Greek with the dialects σαρακατσάνικα, κοπατσαραίϊκα and “βορειοηπειρώτικα”, and some small dialects of Macedonian (makedonski). Many interviewees were polyglot individuals who speak one language within the family and a different one in public, and possibly use another one again for economic relations or religious matters. This shows that culturally autonomous shepherd settlements in the research area were predominantly mono-structured and endogamous and even that monolingualism traditionally prevailed in them. The emergence of the Balkan sprachbund, i.e. the typological convergence of Albanian, Greek, Romanian, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian and their variants cannot therefore only be explained by the multilingualism of large population groups, but is more likely as a consequence of the coexistence of ethnic diversity and rudimentary multilingualism. If communities had spoken the language of their neighbours, the emergence of numerous linguistic interferences would have been highly unlikely.

Based on interviews, the contact situations among shepherds and non-shepherds could be described and articulated. In particular, the sedentarisation of nomads had resulted in numerous new constellations of cultural contact. In the case of the shepherd / non-shepherd relationship, socio-professional dependencies can lead to situations of cultural contact which in the past created a basis for similar elements in their folk cultures and which are reflected (even if the languages concerned are very different) in identical or similar designations. The specialist terminology in some cases is comprehensible even in different languages – and that limited communication is possible even between Albanian, Greek, Aromanian and Macedonian pastoralists across the barriers of the four completely different languages.

In the case of the shepherds, the vocational reorientation not only results in social change, but also linguistic change. Generally, it can be said that in certain cases one has to expect the death of a language once its specialist vocabulary has been abandoned. For example, as the only language which is not standardised and which does not receive state support, Aromanian seems to have relatively poor chances of survival following the loss of its significance as a pastoral language. It is where Aromanian is especially wealthy (e.g. in the field of pastoral terminology), that it is losing its specialist vocabulary and is thus robbed of its richest segment.

Out of the numerous possibilities at its disposal in order to name the various objects of reference, language makes its own choices, which may in part coincide or differ at the inter-linguistic level. The degree of similarity is expected to be greater in languages that are related or were in direct contact with each other for a long period of time. One of the most frequent phenomena is isosemy. Of the languages (dialects) used in the broader Pindos Mountain region, Greek, Albanian, Aromanian and Macedonian belong to the Indo-European language family, but are not closely related. However, they have been “neighbours” for millennia, a fact that has led to characteristics being shared by the two languages, among which is isosemy, something which is of great interest.

We can distinguish the cases of parallel evolution from those of semantic borrowing, through translated loanwords (calques). This view includes cases of: (a) Calques, formed on the basis of erroneous etymological analysis; (b) Semicalques, which preserve elements of the model-language; and (c) Taking into account the manner of formation of words that present isosemy. The isosemy observed in pastoral vocabulary is part of a broader framework. As stockbreeding is one of the oldest productive activities of the region’s residents and since popular pastoral terminology has been created by rural people, it is expected that there will be an increased degree of isosemy in relation to other semantic fields of the languages being examined.

The online publication BalkaNOMAD offers annotated documentation of a descriptive fieldwork in original languages (Aromanian, Albanian, Greek, Macedonian) and includes data from the FWF project "Terminology of mobile shepherds" (P 19406). Dedicated to the pastoral cultures of the southern Balkan Peninsula, it consists of an online database in an innovative multimedia format that combines audio and visual material with scientific annotations (including bilingual subtitles).