Kosovo or Kosova?

Typical Road Sign

The automatic spellchecker on this blog doesn’t even recognize the word “Kosova.” Change the “a” to an “o” and no problem…with spellcheckers. Most Americans are familiar with “political correctness” and know what words and phrases are and are not acceptable today, but the -o vs. -a ending here is not a matter of correctness, though it certainly is one of politics. This is my understanding of the situation.

Kosovo is the Serbian name for this geographic region; in Albanian (Shqip), it is Kosova (definite form) or Kosovë (indefinite).

Similarly, towns often have variant spellings: I live in Prishtina or Prishtinë; the Serbian name is Приштина or Priština (Latinized). Some towns have very different names: Ferizaj (Albanian) is the same town as Урошевац or Uroševac (Latinized).

Albanian & Kosovar Flags

Before the Kosovar War (1998-1999), the Serbian Kosovars attempted to “displace” the ethnic Albanian Kosovars; conversely, after the war, the ethnic Serbian Kosovars were “displaced.” Language was the ready identifier of both ethnicity and political alliance.

Today, both Serbian and Albanian are “official” languages here, and official documents bear both languages. In daily life, however, you probably will not hear Serbian spoken outside the protected enclaves and Serb-majority villages and regions.

The U.S. recognizes the independence of this country; however, it employs the -o ending. Americans living here–at least those with any political savvy–avoid saying the -o ending and, instead, say “ko SO va” or “KO so va” (stress on the capitalized syllable).

Kosovar or Albanian?

Blood Shirt

During my six months in Kosova, I never have heard people call themselves “Kosovars”; instead, they refer to themselves as “Albanians.” And I see the double-headed eagle Albanian flag more often than the official flag of Republika e Kosovës. (There is controversy about this name as well.) As I understand the Albanian situation and language:

Ethnic Albanians (as opposed to official citizens of the country Albania) descend from the ancient Illyrians. Those living north of the Shkumbin River (including today’s Kosova) developed a dialect and identity known as Gheg, while those south of the river were Tosk. As a language, “Official Albanian” (letrare) is based primarily on Tosk. While this may not be a completely fair comparison, Gheg is to letrare what Ebonics is to academic English.

There is a movement in Kosova to reassert Gheg identity and language. Recently, I saw a production of Blood Shirt (Këmisha e gjakut) at Prishtina’s Ethnological Museum. This incredible, 60-minute ritual performance re-envisioned Shakespeare’s tragic heroes from an Albanian sense of blood vengeance. The entire play was written and performed in Gheg.

Wearing the Plisi

While directing the Vietnam play, I learned that the play had been written in the early 1970s in letrare as was the standard practice at the time. Many of my actors felt that this “official” language did not fit their own Gheg heritage and values, nor did it fit my directorial concept, which emphasized the socio-economic disparities of the soldiers in the play. Our “solution” was to have the officer and sergeant speak “official” Albanian as written and for the regular soldiers to speak a modified form closer to that spoken in their home regions and villages.

Upon the completion of our production, my actors presented me with the plisi and made me an honorary Albanian. I wear it with pride.

About David McTier

Professor of Theatre Department of Theatre & Musical Theatre Sam Houston State University