The LSA is pleased to publish this essay in honor of the third anniversary of the death of former LSA President Eric Hamp [1920-2019], which coincides with Kosovo Independence Day, February 17, 2022.

Eric Hamp: The prince of Albanology

By Col Mehmeti

Eric Pratt Hamp devoted some 60 years of his nearly century-long life to scrutinizing Albanian, his first and ever-lasting love. Albanology had been bestowed with the good luck of having the leading authority of Indo-European studies so keenly and passionately dedicated at dissecting Albanian, its diachronic phonology and morphology. Indeed, his vocation was that of a genius: his interest conveyed a wide-range of languages such as Celtic, Breton, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Native Languages of America, Mongol, Slavic languages, Baltic, yet Albanian and its paleo-Balkanic prehistory remained as his enduring obsession. Hence, his outstanding contribution on Albanian is something for which we will forever be indebted: neither the fact that Hamp (while still living) received the honor of a commemorative stamp from the national postal service of Albania nor the fact that former president of Republic of Kosova Atifete Jahjaga honored him with the presidential medal of merit cannot possibly be anywhere nearly sufficient to thank him for his long-life interest on Albanian.

Perhaps the former professor of University of Chicago will get only the symbolic crown of gratitude by the new generations of Albanologists to come: as the learned Arbëresh professor Gianni Belluscio once said, Hamp is the prince of Albanology!

A larger-than-life personality, Hamp was quite compassionate and empathetic with the nearly one-century quest for Kosova’s independence. Being so intimately bound up with Albanian colleagues, the much-yearned dream of independence, which eventually came true on 17th February 2008, it was felt for him as a watershed moment in the history of Balkans. If the human life entails a domain replete with symbolisms, then his death on 17th February 2019 coincides with the foremost national day of the people which Hamp dedicated his scholarly passion.   

Reconstructing the past of Proto-Albanian

After Second World War, when the irreplaceable loss of Norbert Jokl (who died in a concentration camp at Vienna about May 8, 1942) was felt with grief and indignation, Albanology seemed to be in a deplorable state of shipwreck. It would take another decade until Çabej and Cimochowski restored the seemingly hollowed building of Albanology. As was to be expected, Hamp’s first contributions revolved on probing the murky period of prehistorical Albanian, this never-ending scholarly interest which is often encapsulated within these quintessential questions “What place does occupy Albanian within the Indo-European complex?”, “Where was it spoken in prehistory?”, “Is Albanian a continuation from Illyrian or from some easterly Balkans idiom, such as Dacian?”

Such questions, which are doomed to get different ambiguous answers, all the more so those who tackle the prehistory of a language, for a foreign scholar, with no axe to grind, are treated in a scholarly fashion. One of the first major contributions of Hamp during 1950’s was his often-cited study Albanian and Messapic [1]. By tracing the path of Bugge, Meyer, Curtius and Stier, Hamp compared Albanian and Messapic, the latter being considered at that time as a sibling of Illyrian. Beyond numerous instances of phonetic and lexical agreement, Hamp observed the most diagnostic commonality which, according to him, was the retention of “fourth” laryngeal coloring *X, which in turn was not shared by the rest of Indo-European languages. Although it provides a conservative element and not an innovation, this peculiarity provided the strongest structural agreement between Albanian and that ill-defined dialect of Illyrian in southern Italy.

Illyrian snippets

Nine years later, Hamp brought out his seminal article The Position of Albanian where he evaluated the state of knowledge mustered during the first half of 20th century. In this article, Hamp mildly subscribes to the arguments broached by W. Cimochowski (1958) and E. Çabej (1958) in favor of the Illyrian parentage of Albanian, and accepts cautiously those who clung to the satem character of Illyrian.  He further notes that the distinct reflexes of labiovelars in Albanian and Illyrian provided the capital proof of the Illyrian origin of Albanian [2].

In other ensuing articles, he was not reluctant to put in the limelight new agreements between Albanian and Illyrian: one of them, according to him, was that in both languages stops /*t/ and /*n/ before /*s/ were lost at a very early time. He hammered home the point, arguing that “If this syndrome of agreements in the treatment of sibilant clusters is significant, we have a valuable positive piece of evidence in favor of the relationship of Albanian with Illyrian” [3].

Whereas in another article, Hamp still drew comparison between Albanian and vestiges admittedly recognized as Illyrian: thus, he viewed the word ngjalë ‘eel’ (for which he surmised the proto-form *Vngʰellā) as relatable with the name of Ἐγχελάνες [4]. In the same vein, while archeological excavations provided a plethora of personal names, he compared the pre-Roman anthroponym Neunt(i)us, attested somewhere in Slovenia, with the Albanian numeral ‘nëntë’ (nine): nând - Tetovë; nëndë - Sofiko/Korinth; nánt – Zarë etc. [5]

Increasing skepticism, Illyrian as ghost language

For more than twenty years to come, namely the span of time from 1970-1990, Hamp almost completely renounced considering Illyrian as a language, let alone a predecessor of Albanian. His skepticism became greater as the time went by:

Framed Hamp Stamp in LSA Secretariat

  • In 1970, Illyrian was nothing but a mere “slippery entity” [6];
  • In 1984, to speak of Illyrian, for whom we have virtual ignorance, “it does no service to an argument to introduce ghosts” [7];
  • In 1986, the term “Illyrian is nearly useless in the present” [8];
  • In 1994, Illyrian should be dismantled from all discussion relating Albanian, “There is no place in our account for Illyrian since we have no clear evidence of their language” [9].

The Albanoid language

In meantime, Hamp alternatively brought forth a new paradigm which envisaged the primordial homeland of Proto-Albanian as a conceivable area stretching from both sides of Carpathian all the way down to northern Albania. Based on a handful of lexical items, mainly bucolic ones, he went on to state “an early IE dialect area which we may call Proto-Albanoid…embraced the territory of Western Ukrainian, southern Polish, Slovak, part of Czech, Romanian (including of course the south-Danubian dialects and therefore Aromunian, whence to northern Greek), Western Bulgarian and Macedonian and Banat dialects, Serbian and Albanian. The whole area forms a band roughly from the Carpathians to Northern Albania” [10].

By the same token, he described the coalescence of Romanian, for which he contended that “historically Romanian is Latin spoken with an Albanian stress system” [11].

His entire hypothesis hinged on the assumption that Albanian must have been once a linguistic substrate in Romania for he noted: “…I am convinced that Romanian is the descendant of a Latinization of an autochthonous population which earlier spoke an Albanoid Indo-European language – whereas Albanian represents the continuation of kindred dialects which, though accepting many loans and cultural influences, escaped Latinization. We may then expect, as in other instances, that Romanian may preserve in Latin dress the syntax and semantics of an earlier Albanoid form” [12]. He exemplified all this with Romanian ordinal întîi <*antaneus (ß Latin ante) asserting it as “simply a native calque in Dacian Latin on the indigenous Albanoid morpheme structure of the ordinal; it is a borrowing, or native carry-over, in Latin dress of the autochthonous morphology” [13].

Again Illyrian

Still working hard on Albanian in his 77th year, Hamp embraced once again his idea about its relation with Messapic. He confessed that “ ...I would recall that I now feel convinced that Messapic was ultimately related to Albanian and was a North European IE language in origin” [14]. A year later, he still persisted regarding the Messapic-Albanian relation: “From my past studies (based on a couple of features) I turn back (after 40 years) to my conviction that Messapic (I will say nothing for Illyrian) is related with Albanian. But it is very early for me to display evidences” [15]. Always diligent and meticulous, while assessing the clearer evidence, the genuinely learned linguist succinctly acknowledged the presence of such ancient Greek garden products in Albanian as pjepën ‘melon’ (< Gr. πέπων) and lakën ‘cabbage’ (< Gr. λάχανον), and warned “not to exclude Alb. rrush (grape) as a possible early borrowing from Greek or the southern Balkans” [16].

In his 88th year of age, in 2008, Hamp participated in a scientific conference held in Tirana. On this occasion, he delved into two Latin words handed down to us by the Messapian poet Ennius, namely for glosses sybina ‘a hunting spear’ and sica ‘a short dagger’, which in turn he compared with Alb. thypën and thikë, where /*s/ holds as the prototype of voiceless fricative /th/. At the heart of his argument stands the assumption that these words Latin borrowed from a pre-language, presumably Illyrian (?), which must have been kindred to Albanian [17]. More than once, Hamp has remarked about certain evidence accounting for the so-called Winter’s Law in Albanian, Illyrian and Messapic, which, according to him, provide a diagnostic isogloss that sheds light on the common prehistory of these closely related languages [18].

Etymologies regarding Prishtinë and Ohër

Hamp’s sharp eyes dissected even phonetic evolution of certain Albanian place-names which went hand-to-hand with the complex historical processes that underwent carriers of Albanian. Being himself an ardent neogrammarian, Hamp inferred peculiar phenomena as an outcome of the specific development of place-names: of major importance is his new etymology regarding Prishtinë, attested ever since, which he acknowledged as a derivative of  *pṛ-tu-, harking back to the Indo-European root *per- ,,passage, through”, cognate with Lat. portus and Eng. ford, while for the second element he surmised *stein-, a cognate with English ‘stone’, thus most likely a motivated name for a place between rivers. Moreover, vocalization ṛ > ri, which is notably Albanian, warrants that proto-Albanian has been spoken in Dardania before Trajan commenced to spread Latinization through Dacia [19].

In another note concerning the long-held idea that modern Ohrid represents a continuation of Illyr. Lychnidus, he remarked that its modern form displays some kind of a bilingualism extended back in time (or at least in contact), on the ground that the shift of /ly/ to /o/ through vocalic /l/ accounts for some influence from Macedonian, while the rhotacism of /n/ pertains to Tosk dialect [20].

About the Author

Mehmeti is a historian, freelance journalist and translator in Prishtinë (Republic of Kosovo). His scholarly interests convey classical history of Balkans and early Middle Ages period. Mehmeti has also translated some notable works of Hellenistic period (Marcus Aurelius, Artemidorus). 


[1] Eric P. Hamp, “Albanian and Messapic”. In Studies Presented to Joshua Whatmough, 1957, 73-89.

[2] E. P. Hamp, “The Position of Albanian”. In Ancient Indo-European Dialects, eds. Birnbaum, etc. 1966, 97-121.

[3] E. P. Hamp, “Loss of *t and *n before *s in Illyrian”. In Indogermanische Forschungen, 1961, f. 51; see also Hamp, “The Albanian dialect of Mandres”. In Die Sprache 11, 1965, 137-154.

[4] E. P. Hamp, “Albanain ngjalë ‘eel’”. In Gjurmime Albanologjike 2, 1969, 63-64.

[5] E. P. Hamp, “Illyrian Neunt(i)us”. In Indogermanische Forschungen, 1976, 43-4.

[6] E. P. Hamp, “Lat. ūber again”. In Glota, 48, 1970, 141-45.

[7] E. P. Hamp, “On myths and accuracy”. In General Linguistics, 24, 1984, 238.

[8] E. P. Hamp, “Polish bieszczad, Ukrainian beskyd”. In Zeitschrift für Balkanologie, 22, 1986, 163-64.

[9] E. P. Hamp, “Albanian”. In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (ed. R.E.Asher etc), 1994, 65-7.

[10] E. P. Hamp, “Strunga”. In Balkansko ezikoznanie, vol 20-21, 1977, 113-7.

[11] E. P. Hamp, “Yugoslavia – a crossroads of Sprachbunde”. In Zeitsschrift fur Balkanologie, 1989, 44-7.

[12] E. P. Hamp, “Albanian edhe ‘And’”. In Bono Homini Donum, ed. Yoel L. Arbeitman etc, 1981, 127-31.

[13] E. P. Hamp, “Albanian”. In Indo-European Numerals, ed. Jadranka Gvozdanovic, 1992, 835-922.

[14] E. P. Hamp, “Varia”. In Etudes Celtiques, 1997, 87-90.

[15] E. P. Hamp, “Whose Were the Tocharians? Linguistic Subgrouping and Diagnostic Idiosyncrasy”. In The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia, Vol 1, 1998, 307-346.

[16] E. P. Hamp, “Greek ϝρώξ ϝραγός, Albanian rrush, and Ragusa”. In Ztschr. f. Balkanol. 36 (2000), 130-133.

[17] E. P. Hamp, “Latin sica 'dagger' and sybina 'spear'”. In Studi linguistici e filologici per Carlo Alberto Mastrelli, 1985, 217-218.

[18] E. P. Hamp, “Indo‑European 'ego', Slavic ja = Runic ek, and Celtic Ø”. In Slavia Centralis, Vol 4, 2011, 5-13.

[19] E. P. Hamp, Studime Krahasuese për Shqipen, ASHAK, 2007. See also the article “Kukës and Prizren”. In RAlb 2, 1985, 57-8.

[20] E. P. Hamp, “On the Name Ohrid”. In Maked. jazik 32/ 33 (1981/82), 777-784. See also  Hamp “Postscriptum on Ohrid”. In Zeitschrift für Balkanologie 25, 1989, 42-3.