Istro-Romanian / Vlashki / Zheyanski

The Vlashki or Zheyanski or Istro-Romanian (ISO 639-3: ruo) is an Eastern Romance language. The language is spoken in two separate locations in the northeast of the Istrian peninsula in Croatia: The norther location is the village of Žejane, located in the mountains off the road leading from Rijeka to Trieste (Italy). The second location comprises several villages with their adjoining hamlets further south, around the northern edge of Čepićko Polje. The villages are Brdo with several hamlets, such as Kostrčan and Zankovci, Letaj, Nova Vas, Šušnjevica, and Jesenovik.

There are approximately 110 fluent native speakers of Vlashki and Zheyanski in the villages. This number refers to speakers who learned the language as children. With a total village population of around 400 (453 inhabitants according to the 2001 Census), active, fluent, native speakers of the language–recognized as such by other community members–now form a minority in their home villages.

All villages were geographically isolated until only a few decades ago. The ease of access to local urban center led to a much greater mobility of the village populations. As a consequence, more Vlashki and Zheyanski speakers live now in local urban centers than in the native villages. Vlashki and Zheyanski is also spoken by numerous emigrants from the area who moved to other parts of the world, primarily to the United States, Canada and Australia, most in the immediate aftermath of the World War II and in the 1960s. There may be perhaps twice or three times as many first-generation speakers who live in local towns and urban centers. And there are another several hundred speakers living abroad, in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Most speakers who learned the language in their childhood and in their homes are now middle-aged or elderly. This seems to be true of speakers who live in Croatia as well as those who live abroad. All are also bilingual or multilingual, mostly in Croatian (local dialect and/or standard), Italian (local dialect and/or standard) and/or English.

The youngest speakers today are largely in their thirties (seldom in their twenties or younger), and they often learned Vlashki and Zheyanski from their grandparents, as a second or third language. Their dominant languages are the local majority languages – Croatian, English or another language used in school and in the society at large.

Vlashki and Zheyanski are two different varieties of what most linguists consider to be one and the same language. For historical and geographic reasons, speakers of the two varieties had only occasional contact with each other, so the two varieties developed independently over centuries resulting in a number of phonetic, lexical and grammatical specificities. However, speakers of these varieties can understand and communicate with each other without obstacles.

Like many vernacular languages used in everyday oral communication, but not in any formal context, the language is known under more than one name. In Žejane, the speakers call their language “Žejånski,” basing the name of the language on the name of the village. This is a common practice also found in the southern villages (e.g., “Novošånski,” “Šušnjevski,” “Brijånski,” etc.), but there, speakers also use a unitary term and refer to their language as “Vlåški.” In the academic community, the term “Istro-Romanian” has been in use since the19th century. This designation was devised by historical linguists and highlights the language’s linguistic connection to the Romanian language.

According to the language vitality factors outlined in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit’s Language Vitality and Endangerment Report, Vlashki and Zheyanski can be defined as a seriously endangered language. The language has also been included in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and also added to the List of protected intangible cultural heritages by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia in late 2007.

[Description delivered by the Istro-Romanian community for the Language Fair]