The Albanian people probably descended from the ancient Illyrians and therefore can claim to be the original inhabitants of this part of the Balkans. Apart from the present Republic of Albania, it also incorporates southern Montenegro, Kosovo, western North Macedonia, and the Epirus region in Greece. In all those areas Albanian is spoken. Altogether around 6 million Albanians live in the Balkan peninsula, with about half of that number in Albania itself.
A new generation of Albanians is now growing up in a country that is vastly different from the one of their parents. Their parents grew up in a repressive police state with no prospect of contact with the outside world, no possibility of travel abroad and surrounded by relentless propaganda messages displayed everywhere. Today’s young Albanians are now living in a more normal country. The adults too are happy to be free and for the traveller are among the friendliest people imaginable.
Although Christianised under the influence of the Roman and Byzantine Empire, the majority of Albanians nominally became Muslims during the centuries of Ottoman rule. In the remote mountain areas of the north, however, they remained Roman Catholic. After the death of their national hero Skanderbeg, who had managed to resist the Turks until 1480, the region of northern Albania and western Kosovo managed to remain virtually independent. The people adhered to the “Kanun of Dukagjin”, the Albanian highland law, named after Leka Dukagjin, who, after Skanderbeg’s death, led the resistance against the Ottoman Turks and formulated the code that is still important today. The Kanun regulates all aspects of life, based on Honour, Hospitality, Right Conduct, and Kin Loyalty. “Besa” (honour) is of prime importance as the cornerstone of personal and social conduct and applies to both Catholic and Muslim Albanians. The most controversial rule is the one that specifies what happens after a murder, which can lead to endless blood feuds. But Albanian people are well known for their hospitality and generosity to strangers.
The Albanian language (Gjuha shqipe) is a unique branch of the Indo-European family and is made up of two dialects: Tosk, spoken south of the Shkumbin river and Gheg, to the north of that river. Before the Second World War, when Albania was a princedom and kingdom, the Gheg dialect seemed the official language of the country. The country’s name on stamps in those days was in the Gheg form “Shqipënia” (spelled in a variety of ways). After the war, it became “Shqipëria”, the Tosk form. King Zog came from the northern Gheg-speaking mountains while communist boss Enver Hoxha was born in Gjirokastra in the south, and that could have something to do with it. The written language in Albania nowadays is the Tosk dialect. A peculiar feature of Albanian is that place names have a definite and indefinite form. Road signs and destinations on buses always use the indefinite forms, like Tiranë (to Tirana), Skhodër (to Shkodra) and so on; many maps show those forms too.