An Albanian in New York

Julika Prifti

Julika Prifti

My childhood and early adulthood years were strictly ‘lived’ in a mono-linguistic world. I still remember listening to nursery rhymes and soothing lullabies. Even ‘requested’ my parents to sing one of my favorites before bedtime. It played in my head long after my head had rested on the pillow: “O ri- ri, – o ri- ri…”

My grandparents and siblings, my cousins and relatives all around Albania, my teachers and friends in and out of school spoke Albanian. I simply lived in a unilateral lingual strip of the Adriatic.
In the higher grades, I was taught that there is no comparison between Albanian and any other ‘foreign language’. As part of the the school curriculum, I memorized poems written by the Albanian Renaissance poets Naim Frasheri, Çajupi, Ndre Mjeda, Vaso Pasha and many more. The unforgettable verses of love for the motherland, the valiant Albanians and the gracious Albanian language were delightfully etched in my memory.
In the late eighties, Albania grew even more isolated with very little ties with the countries, cultures and people around us. The official daily refrain impressed upon me and my generation who had “the fortune of living in a country that walked on its own path,” was that we were free of all the sufferings and ailments that plagued all the other nations. In the spirit of safeguarding our ‘safe-haven’ in the little corner of the Balkans, the Albanian government launched a fierce campaign of ‘cleaning’ the language from foreign influences. Promoting the ‘pure’ Albanian vocabulary with deep roots in history meant uprooting terms of Turkish origin as well as those of Greek and Slavic languages. For the first time, I felt that my love of the mother tongue and my patriotism were out of alignment.
My most beloved figure of the Renaissance, Fan Noli, a devout bishop and an incredibly gifted poet, was also a superb translator. His original poems are brilliant creations that reveal the beauty and expressiveness of the Albanian language. Yet Noli borrows archaic Turkish expressions and words of Turkish origin. Educated in Harvard, with a music degree from Julliard, he had successfully established the autonomous Albanian church in the US. I imagined myself as a crusader taking a swing at the daily words such as: aksham, avdes, marshallah, inshallah, kismet, dynja, badiava, harram, hallal etc. Indeed purging the ‘borrowed’ terms from vocabulary required frequent remindings since the use of such phrases was widespread. It would have a be long term campaign of linguistic purification. With time, it might even have yield some results. I was certain that after all, no one would be able to ‘clean up’ Noli’s poems of its poignant use of terms like: xhehnet, derman, penxhere, shejtan etc.

In the early 1990s the winds of change were being felt throughout the Eastern Block. The ‘outside’ world came in stronger via TV and Radio signals, the contacts with tourists from Italy, France, United Kingdom, America, Germany became frequent. My linguistic misgivings grew ever so stronger. I questioned the theory of the Albanian language being ‘untarnished’ by cultural influences around it.
After the collapse of communism, my uncles, who lived in the US, were allowed to come visit us and their homeland. It was surprising to me that they spoke very good Albanian, even though they had not visited the country for over 40 years. When they converted to English with their friends at the restaurants, I was pleasantly surprised to notice connection and similar sounds with the Albanian such as: telephone, international, aspirin, airport, hotel, etc.
In the later 1990s, as a newcomer in the New World, for the first time, I was surrounded mostly by English speakers. The language universe was utterly altered. Interestingly English was not the only language of communication. Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Korean, Chinese were pieces of the language symphony in the streets of New York. And in the medley of the multi-linguistic cosmopolitan, one language made me feel more at ease as familiar words like corba, bardak etj pop up in the menu of any Turkish Restaurant.
Indeed, the non-Albanian vocabulary list of words such as, kismet, selam, xhind, xhep, have proved to ease my ‘entry’ as a newcomer in the fast-paced city by the Atlantic. I am delighted that ‘discarded’ words of Turkish origin were stored safely in my memory despite the swinging of my childhood ‘sword’! I cherish my Albanian heritage as well as celebrate the language ties and expressions it has embodied throughout its history.

JANUARY 16 2017