Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Istrian language: is it dying out?

One of the things which is unique about Istria is its language. The Istrian language is a dialect of Croatian and is quite different from standard Croatian. The language reflects Istria’s rich history with many words borrowed from Italian, and a few smatterings of German.

The Croatian language has three main dialects which are divided into many sub-dialects. The three main dialects are named after the way the word ‘what’ is pronounced in that dialect: čakavski, štokavski, and kajkavski. In Istria, the čakavski dialect is spoken, while štokavski is ‘standard’ Croatian.

There are several variations of the Istrian dialect and the accent and vocabulary can change from one village or town to the next. Like most dialects, this is not a formal written language, though some local writers and poets do write in the Istrian language for stylistic (and cultural) reasons.

While growing up in Canada, we would speak the Istrian dialect at home and this is the language I spoke with my grandparents and other family members when I would come to Istria for visits. This is why I struggle with standard Croatian and tend to understand old people best!

While older people tend to speak Istrian, I’ve noticed that today young Istrians are more likely to speak standard Croatian in everyday situations, though some make a point of speaking the dialect. There are several reasons for this; one may be increased literacy. My grandparents were not educated in Croatian but Italian, since Istria was part of Italy in their school-going days. The Istrian language was what was spoken at home. In my grandparents’ time, and even in my parents’ time, not everyone was able to go to school or complete their schooling. For this reason, they may have been less exposed to ‘Serbo-Croatian’, as the language was called during Yugoslavia. Fast forward two generations and today everyone is educated at least to the secondary level, with most students moving on to higher studies. Since all schooling is in standard Croatian, young people have a high proficiency in the language.

A poet from the village who writes in the Istrian language told me that another reason why the dialect is being spoken less today is because people do not marry within the same region anymore. While transportation links were poor in the past, making travel a challenge, today people can move around more easily. They go away to study in other parts of Croatia and often marry non-Istrians.

Since being fluent in standard Croatian indicated a certain level of education (at one time), Istrian is seen by some as a ‘peasant’ language, or a language spoken only by old people, hence a certain ‘inferiority’ complex on the part of Istrian speakers and a ‘superiority’ complex on the part of standard Croatian speakers (especially from outside Istria). As high literacy and education levels have now created a level playing field, I think (hope) that young people today speak Istrian because they want to speak their language, and by speaking it, they preserve it and a part of their identity and heritage.

I was curious to know what they think so I asked a few young people (in their 20s and 30s) from different regions of Istria a few questions and am including their answers below. Their answers are often contradictory and reflect the region of Istria they come from.

M is from a small town in central Istria.
G is from Pula, Istria’s biggest city, where standard Croatian is mostly spoken.
P is from a small town in central Istria.
L is from a small town in western Istria.
N is from Umag, a town in north-western Istria where standard Croatian is mostly spoken and Italian is also spoken by many.

Do you speak Istrian on a daily basis, or mostly standard Croatian? Why?

M: I speak Istrian on a daily basis as much as I can, in informal conversations with family and friends, but not my native dialect (from my homeplace) because it is very particular and people where I live now would not understand me. My native speech has a specific vocal system. So I adapted my Istrian a little bit to the one spoken in the environment where I live now but it is still Istrian, not formal Croatian.

G: I speak mostly standard Croatian. Čakavski is great for poetry and storytelling but not for everyday use.

P: Yes, I speak Istrian on a daily basis because this is the language in which I think and the language in which I find it the easiest to express myself. I consider Istrian as my mother tongue, it's the language I first learned and it somehow comes naturally. If I speak Croatian, I have to think about how to say something properly.

L: I speak Istrian on a daily basis with my family and some friends. Why? It’s our language as the standard Croatian is to others...so no why question needed here actually.

N: Yes. I speak two different Istrian dialects, Istro-Veneto (similar to Italian) and čakavski.

In which context do you speak Istrian?

M: Mostly with my friends and family. I speak my native language only with my family.

G: I speak čakavski only when telling jokes, stories or old sayings that sound better in Istrian. Or when speaking with my cousins from Pazin and surroundings. When speaking with old people I know they are Istrians. I was speaking it with my grandmother but she died three years ago.

L: In normal life situations with other Istrian people, whose dialect is the same as mine.

N: With my parents I speak mostly standard Croatian, with my grandmother, čakavski, and Istro-Veneto with my friends. So I use the dialect every day but mostly the Istro-Veneto dialect. This is because in Umag where I’m from people don't use čakavski except rare friends. The context is not important, I switch the language depending who I’m speaking with.

Is the Istrian language important to you?

M: Yes, very much! My graduation paper was about dialectological research of my native language and I even planned to publish it but... I haven't yet. It's important because a lot of Istrian words are forgotten from time to time, generation to generation, and instead of ensuring our heritage we replace it with foreign languages that usurp daily basic communication. Now instead of hearing a word 'pretel' (Istrian for 'prijatelj'/friend), you'll hear 'frend' (a Croatian variant of the English word ‘friend’). I try not to forget my native language because it's my heritage.

G: Yes. Čakavski is great for poetry due to the different rhythm, shorter words, simple syntax, it feels more Mediterranean and it’s easier to joke in čakavski.

L: Yes, it is important, every language is important as it carries a personality and lifestyle too; it’s not only communication. I speak five languages and am currently learning the sixth...there is no reason not to speak Istrian.

N: I think that the Istrian language is important as it is a part of our culture and tradition.

Do you think the Istrian language is dying out? If so, why?

M: The genuine, old one is dying, the Istrian spoken by our grandparents and parents. There are numerous reasons. During my research I found out that young people are even ashamed of their native language when they move to a bigger environment, for example when they go to school or college in some bigger city like Pula or Rijeka. The other reason is that they start to speak mostly Croatian so that people from all the other parts of Croatia can understand them. And also the biggest reason is the influence of mostly English language via TV, videos etc.

G: Yes. Parents are not speaking it with their kids so schools should introduce it in the curriculum.

P: I don't think it's dying out, at least not in central, eastern and northern Istria. There are so many different dialects of Istrian still alive in this area, and it seems to me that, at least for now, it's more than alive.

L: I think it is dying out because it is somehow considered ‘less worthy’ than Croatian so young people tend to be embarrassed to speak it (it happened to me when I was younger).

N: Unfortunately Istrian is dying out in the Umag area but not in the inland of Istria where all the young people speak Istrian, the same as far as I can tell for Buzet and its surroundings (they use a lot of Slovenian words).

Do you think it’s important for children to learn Istrian today?

M: Yes, it's important because it’s their heritage, a part of their identity. But not only important for them but for the language itself. In order to survive, every language needs to be in use. It's like a living organism that's living inside of us, the speakers. If we don't use it, it will eventually die, or only persist written in some books. But a language is not a language if it is not spoken.

G: Yes.

P: It is and I'm happy that they still learn it and use it. It's very rare to find a kid who uses Croatian in everyday situations.

L: Of course it is important for young children to learn it while (I repeat) any language can be only something that enriches us, never the contrary.

N: From the practical side for the children it is not so important to learn Istrian because it’s not so useful. On the other hand, it is important in terms of conserving tradition and culture.

If you’d like to see some examples of Istrian words, this English – Istrian – Croatian – Italian Dictionary is a great resource.

Istrian speakers will enjoy this (from Istrijanske šćike):


  1. Thank you for the Validation of information. I grew up with Istrian myself in Australia, which has a minor population. BUT you can always tell an Istrian by the Definitive accent, irrespective of what part of Istra Originated from.

  2. Very insightful post. I am of your generation and have a similar situation with respect to language. What clouded the learning of the dialect was actually standard Italian, as my family later chose to try and speak that language from time to time (English almost always) instead of dialect. They were also immigrants to Italy first, then Canada. They also never named the dialect, but hinted (as far as I can tell that there may have been some Istro-Romanian in it somewhere). Hard headed Istrians, can never really ask them about it to! :).


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