Spaces of birdsong

29. Juni 2013 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar


After twelve straight days of cycling it’s high time for a rest. I’ve chosen the charming lake-side town of Ohrid and here a 200-year old Ottoman guest house for this purpose. So far so good, but it’s also time to write about languages, the core theme of this journey. And it’s not easy. Let me make a comparison. One of the emotional highlights of the trip is cycling through spaces of birdsong. Literally, when I’m on my own in a remote and beautiful region on a barely travelled road, I experience this ‚ekstasis‘ where I perceive my surroundings as a natural work of art, an installation, say, or a performance, in a sun-filled three-dimensional room with sudden butterflies or dragonflies hovering around my nose and the song of birds and cicadas acousticall furnishing that room. It’s hard to describe because the whole thing only happens as I move and everything moves with me, bt at different speeds, in this bubble of bliss. And it only works if I don’t wait for it to happen.
In any case, my point is that it would be silly and vain to want to capture this moving installation and perhaps put it in a museum or an album of sorts. Something similar holds true for the liquid phenomenon of the languages that I’m pursuing across Europe. As already hinted in my entry of 31 July last year and on 19 July the year before, I’m finding it ever more difficult to pin down those languages or to even count them. It’s still a topic for me, and I still do detours for them, but they’re a bit like quicksilver and I should never wait for them to ‚happen‘ to me.
In Kotor I talked to a female threesome who were guarding the lower entrance of the fortress, actually just a bend in a steep footpath. One of them took 3 euros from me, and I struck up a conversation on the grounds that they now had to change Lonely Planet, as it said 2 € there. I found out that the dark-dyed middle-aged cashier was the mother of the naturally dark twenty-something who spoke better English, and the older woman was a neighbour, a former journalist, who make herself understood very well. I asked them two questions, and the answers conflicted in different ways. Had the times under Tito, in the tenuously unified Yugoslavia been better? They had definitely, said the older women. Everybody had been given work. The daughter, though too young to know from her own experience and also living on a precarious job, disagreed. What language do you speak at home? Serbian, said the neighbour and the daughter, Montenegrin the mother, and she laughed a proud laugh. Montenegrin is a bad language, the journalist said, and upon my protest, started to explain: it’s the pronunciation, you know, and some words. It’s the way we speak, said the cashier. They introduced letters artificially to make it appear like another language, but it isn’t really. And for my benefit: in Serbian, we say mleko for milk, in Montenegrin it’s mljeko, as if this would help me. Later, I find a telling quote in Wikipedia: „Most mainstream politicians and other proponents of the Montenegrin language state that the issue is chiefly one of self-determination and the people’s right to call the language what they want, rather than an attempt to artificially create a new language when there is none.“ That’s probably precisely where we were at that evening at the foot of the fortress. I remember we all laughed because the differing replies to my question came simultaneously. It was as if they had silently agreed to some sociolinguists‘ (e.g. Alastair Pennycook) call to disinvent the notion of language.
Then another language, or let’s call it ‚linguistic variety‘ disappeared in front of my very eyes. When I was in Prizren, Kosovo, where obviously Albanian now reigns supreme, I inquired about possibilities to get across the Mali Sharr massif by an unconventional route: through the mountain stronghold of Dragash to the large village of Restelica and then along a 40 km winding gravel road over a 1800 m pass down to the valley of the Rastika and Mavrovo. This is now in a different country, Macedonia, but it’s part of the old settlement region of the Albanians. If there was a tunnel, it would take 20 minutes for Prizrenites to visit their Tetovo cousins. The route through Restelica would still have meant two arduous days for me, the cyclist. The attraction would have been to visit the valley in which the – hmmm – variety of Goranski is at home, literally mountainish. The Gorani are Slavic muslims who have lived in some seclusion from their Serbian ethnic cousins. One theory suggests that they were Orthodox-Christian Slavs who came from Bulgaria in the 13th century, migrating across the former Yugoslavia to Bosnia. The settlers in southern Kosovo, therefore, would be more closely linked to Bosnians than Serbs. Their dialect-if-not-language is characterised by a lot of similarities to Bulgarian, or at least Bulgarian linguists would have it that way. There are also loads of Turkish and Albanian loan words, but the children at school are asked to use Serbian, I read.
From what the Wikipedia article says, you might think these people treasure secret troves, so many other groups have claimed them (well, some also distance themselves from them):
„The ethnonym Gorani, meaning „highlanders“, is derived from the Slavic toponym gora, which means „hill, mountain“. Another autonym of this people is Našinci, which literally means „our people, our ones“.They have been claimed by Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Macedonians and Serbs but the general view is that they should be treated as a distinct minority group, which is their own view of themselves. By the last censuses at the end of 20th century in Yugoslavia they have declared themselves to be Muslims by nationality. In Republic of Macedonia their identity is also based mainly on their religion.In the mid 1980s, the Macedonian press labeled them Torbeši (Macedonian Muslims).In Albania, they are known by the Albanians with several exonyms, such as Bulgareci („Bulgarians“), Torbeshë („bag carriers“), and Poturë („turkified“, from po-tur, literally not Turk but, „turkified“, used for Islamized Slavs).“
Alas, I’ll never get to talk to them and find out for myself now, because all the people I asked (among them, through a Swiss friend, the Kosovo Railways director’s wife) advised me against the mountain road: too high, too weather-exposed, and above all: not an official border crossing. I resigned myself to another detour, this time not in favour of discovering a new language, but of leaving Goranski hover in its secretive state of nearliness. Ah well, I haven’t heard all the kinds of song birds that exist in Europe either.


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