an article by IGOR GARDELIN
Above the former „Austrian Riviera“ and its principal town Opatija rises Mount Učka, Istria’s highest mountain. Immediately beneath it, on the northern and the southern side of the mountain, lie typical Istrian villages that wouldn’t be anything special if it weren’t for their very interesting inhabitants. They are home to about 200 Istro-Romanians, a community that differentiates from the rest of the Romance (Italian) and Slavic (Croatian) speaking community in Istria by their language, history and culture.
The Istro-Romanians, that are also known to their neigbours as Vlahs, Cici or Ciribiri, are located in two lingustic enclaves that are geographically separated by Mount Učka and totally surrounded by Croatians. In contrast to other speakers of Romanian dialects they are Roman Catholics. They live in the village Žejane (ir. Jeiăn)on the northern side of Mount Učka and in the villages Šušnjevica (ir. Șușńievițe / Susńievița), Nova Vas (ir. Noselo), Jasenovik (ir. Sucodru), Letaj (ir. Letai), Brdo (ir. Bârdo) and Kostrčani (ir. Costârceån) as well as in Miheli, Škabići, Trkovci and Zankovci on the southern side. The latter villages are located around the Čepić’s field area on the formeer shores of the drained Lake Čepić. While there were 1500 speakers of Istro-Romanian in 1971, today their number in total is about 200 speakers, therefore it is the smallest of the historical Romanian dialects by number and is listed the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. Because of the unfavourable structure of it’s active speakers, most of them are people above 50 years of age, it is estimated that the language will become extinct within the next 20 Years.
There are several theories about the origin of Istro-Romanians, but the one mostly accepted today is the one by Josif Popovici, who claimed that the ancestors of Istroromanians came to Istria from the western part of the Daco-Romanian territory. The first mention of Vlach shepherds in Istria is from the 12th Century, but the ancestors of today’s Istro-Romanians probably came to Istria at the end of the 15th and the begining of 16th Century from inner parts of Northern Dalmatia. At first they migrated to the island of Krk (Dubašnjica, Poljica) and later to Istria, where they resettled the areas that were devastated by Plague and Malaria, to renew the local agricultural economy. According to the toponyms in the broader area, in the past the Istro-Romanians were not only settled in the present villages but also in the villages of inner Istria, the hinterland of Gulf of Kvarner and part of northern Dalmatia.
Istro-Romanian is one of the four historical romanian dialects, alongside with Daco-Romanian, Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian. In fact, it is the westernmost dialect of the Romanian language. The language that has since developed in Istria is therfore a Daco-Romanian dialect that has continued its way without any connections with the Romanian language. Thus there are no traces of Turkish or Neogreek loanwords in the Istro-Romanian Language, although there are words of Slavic origin that are used in the Romanian language with addition to the newly borrowed words from the Croatian language as well as from the Italian language.
Istro-Romanian has always been a spoken language, there are no works of literature nor any newspapers or books in the language. It has always been used as means of communication at home and in the village. It is interesting that there is a lack of common national identity between Istro-Romanians based on the language. The term „Istro-Romanian“ is newly coined and came into use by ethnologists and linguists in the recent period. Most of Istro-Romanians identify themselves as Croatians or Italians (or even Istrians), that speak Croatian, Italian with addition to „po nåșu“ (in our language). There seems that the Istro-Romanians have developed a local identity based on the village where they live, which leads to the fact that is no awareness of a common identity with the villages on the norhern side and southern side of Mount Učka. People in the North will often say that they speak po jeiånschi and po vlåșchi in the South. The inhabitants from the North will say that their language is different from the one in the South and vice versa, although they mostly understand each other. Nowdays, under the influence of romanian linguists some people are beginning to call themselves rumuni and their language rumunschi.
Istro-Romanian is more or less the language of the elderly and the middle aged people, while the younger generation only knows the language pasively. One of the reasons that the youngsters give up the language of their ancestors is because the functionality of Istro-Romanian is limited only to the villages where the community lives. Since the Croatian language has a more advanced vocabulary, the Istro-Romanians borrow new words from Croatian or switch to it altogether since it is more useful.
It is amazing that the Istro-Romanian community has managed to preserve itself for five centuries surrounded by more dominant languages such as Croatian and Italian. The main reason for this is in the fact, that the villages where the Istro-Romanians live are located in the mountainous and peripheral areas of the Istrian peninsula and were isolated from the main routes. Paradoxically, the same reason that has preserved the community in the past is now the cause that people tend to leave these rural areas for the nearby cities to work or to study, where there is a good chance of quicker assimilation since they do not get the chance to speak their language there.
As the future of the existence of the Istro-Romanian looks very grim, one can only hope that by growing interest of linguists in their language and people that are interested in their cultural heritage as well by their own initiative, the Istro-Romanian community will manage to retain their culture and tradition and pass it on to the next generation. Istro-Romanians represent a shining cube in the mosaic that enriches the value of multicultural Istria and their presence there makes the places where they live so special and unique.
Katunar, Danijela: Istrorumunji – jezik i zajednica. http://hrcak.srce.hr/file/34286
Filipi, Goran: Struktura i stratifikacija Istrorumunjskoga leksika. http://hrcak.srce.hr/file/76183
The Istro-Romanians in Croatia: http://www.istro-romanian.net
Preservation of Vlaški and Žejanski Language: http://www.vlaski-zejanski.com
Bire ac verit is the Istro-Romanian phrase meaning „Welcome“
Igor Gardelin is a student of History in pursuit of Master’s degree at the Faculty of Humanities in Koper (Capodistria) in Slovenia. He is interested in the History of the Upper Adriatic, especially of Trieste, Rijeka (Fiume), the region of Istria and German-Polish relations in the Baltic area. His field of research is also German nobility and the Slovene national movement in the 19th century.