Copyright Romulic and Stojcic
November 28, 2022 – Have you ever heard of other Balkan-Romanian languages than Romanian? Unless you happen to be a linguist, the term is probably somewhat foreign to you, especially considering that the languages spoken in much of the region (but not all) are Slavic. Let’s get to know each other better with the little spoken Istro-Romanian language.
I have explored many of the dialects, sub-dialects and indeed the languages themselves as some linguists consider them to be spoken in modern Croatia. From the Dubrovnik (Ragusan) sub-dialect in southernmost Dalmatia to northwestern Kajkavian in areas like Zagorje, the ways in which people speak in this country deviate enormously from what we know as standard Croatian. That’s without mentioning too much about the old Dalmatian, Zaratin, once spoken in and around Zadar, Istrio or Istro-Venetian.
Istria in particular is full of culture, and its rather complex historical relationship with Italy and especially with the former powerhouse Venice has a lot to answer for. This brings us to a language that actually has nothing to do with Venetian and is only spoken by people who call themselves Romanians or sometimes Rumeri. It can only now be heard in a very few rather obscure locations, and with fewer than about 500 speakers, the Istro-Romanian language is considered to be critically endangered by UNESCO’s Red List of Endangered Languages.
Who are the Istro-Romanian people?
Istro-Romanians are an ethnic group from the Istrian peninsula (but not necessarily native) and once inhabited much of it, including parts of the island of Krk. It is important to note that the term “Istro-Romanian” itself is a bit controversial for many, and most people who identify as such do not use the term, preferring instead to use names taken from their villages. Those hamlets and small settlements are Letaj, Zankovci, the wider Brdo area, Zeljane, Nova Vas, Jesenovik, Kostrcani and Susnjevica.
Many of them left to start their lives either in big Croatian cities or in other countries, as the industrialization of Istria in the then Yugoslavia progressed at a fairly rapid pace. Following the modernization of Istria, which had enormous amounts of resources pumped into it by the state, the number of Istro-Romanians began to drop quite significantly, until they could really only be found in a handful of settlements.
The origins of the Istro-Romanian people are disputed, with some claiming that they came from Romania and others claiming that they originally arrived from Serbia. However, they have been present in Istria for centuries and despite efforts by both the Romanian and Croatian governments to preserve their culture and language – the Istro-Romanian people are still not classified as a national ministry under Croatian law current.
Back to the Istro-Romanian language
Like many dying languages, Istro-Romanian was once much more widely spoken in the Istrian peninsula, specifically in the northwestern parts near the Cicarija mountain range. There are two groups of speakers despite the fact that the language spoken by both is more or less absolutely identical, the Vlahi and the Cici, the former coming from the southern side of the Ucka mountain and the latter coming from the northern side.
In 1921, when the then Italian census was conducted, 1,644 people claimed to be speakers of the Istro-Romanian language, a figure thought to actually be around 3,000 some 5 years later. By 1998, the number of people who could speak it was estimated at only 170 people, most of whom were bi- or trilingual (along with Croatian and Italian).
The thing that will stick out like a sore thumb to anyone who knows anything about language families – the fact that this is called a Balkan-Romance language. Although classified as such, the Istro-Romanian language has certainly seen significant influence from a range of other languages, with around half of the words used originating from Standard Croatian as we know it today. It also draws some from Venetian, Slovene, Old Church Slavonic and about 25% Latin.
Istro-Romanian is very similar to Romanian, and to anyone who doesn’t even speak it, but is familiar with the sound, it could be easily confused. Both the Istro-Romanian language and Romanian itself belong to the Balkan-Romance language family, originally descending from what is known as Proto-Romanian. That said, some loanwords will be obvious to anyone familiar with Dalmatian, suggesting that this ethnic group lived on the Dalmatian coast (close to the Velebit mountain range, judging by the words used) before settling in Istria.
Most of the people belonging to this ethnicity were very poor peasants and had little or no access to formal education until the 20th century, which means that unfortunately there is very little literature in the Istro-Romanian language, with the first book. written entirely in it, having been published since 1905. Never used in the media, with the number of people speaking it decreasing at an alarming rate and with Croatian (and even Italian) flooding Istria linguistically , it’s unlikely you ever will. hear talking Some of this ethnic group living in the diaspora can speak it, but that too is on a downward trajectory.
This language has been described as the smallest ethnolinguistic group in all of Europe, and without much more conservation effort, the next few decades will almost certainly lead to the complete disappearance of the Istro-Romanians and their language.
For more on the Croatian language, dialects, sub-dialects and history, be sure to check out our lifestyle section.