The expurgated and unexpurgated online versions of the earliest dictionary of Macedonian Slavonic

By: | Post date: 2019-01-29 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Other Languages

In the leadup and midst and the aftermath of the Prespa Agreement, the Macedonia naming dispute has flared up again within Greece, and it’s never been terrain I’ve been enthusiastic about wading in to. I guess I’m on the side of those pro, being an διεθνικιστής “internationalist” = “anti-nationalist”, as my non-“internationalist” friend George Baloglou has smirked at me. (I’d prefer to refine it as an open, civic nationalist; I wouldn’t be moved to tears by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s assertion of love for Greece in the face of Greek racism, if I was a complete anti-nationalist.)

But there was a bit of misleading going on in a Facebook thread I waded into, that I’d like to correct.

There’s a language in the language that I often refer to in English as Macedonian, as indeed just about everyone in English does, and that I sometimes refer to in English as Macedonian Slavonic.

There is a discourse that objects to the name, and part of the armament of that discourse is to deny that it is a distinct language—in particular, a language distinct from the closely related language, Bulgarian.

Now, the earliest record of the Macedonian (Slavonic) language is an anonymous glossary written in the late 16th century. The glossary reflects the dialect of the Kastoria/Kostur region, and one of its phrases is oit koja strana da pojdime vo Bogasko “how do we get to Bogasko”; Vogatsiko (Macedonian: Bogatsko) is a village 15 km away from Kastoria. (Vaillant adds that “the village is now completely Greek, as Georgios Hatzikyriakes was happy to note in his Σκέψεις καὶ ἐντυπώσεις ἐκ περιοδείας ἀνὰ τὴν Μακεδονίαν [Athens 1906, pp. 60–61], a ‘topographical, historical, archaeological’, and not least patriotic survey of Macedonia.” In one of those ironies of fate that the Balkans abound in, it was the ancestral village of the Greek nationalist and politician Ion Dragoumis, who was one of the major pro-Greek agitators in the Macedonian Struggle—or as the Bulgarian Wikipedia terms it, Greek Armed Propaganda In Macedonia.)

(Why yes, Dragoumis is related to Dragomir.)

The grammar was published in 1958, and its title page is used in online discourse as a refutation of those who would say that Macedonian is not a real language:

Un Lexique Macédonien du XVIe Siècle. Par Ciro Giannelli avec la collaboration de André Vaillant. Paris: Institut D’Études Slaves de l’Université de Paris. 1958

“See? There’s a 1600s dictionary calling it Macedonian!”

Well… no. There’s a 1600s dictionary of a language variant we now call Macedonian. The dictionary does not call it Macedonian, nor was it likely to have, and it does not take the position that the contemporary international community takes on Macedonian. That does not argue against what the language should be called; it just does not argue for it, either.

I would not have waded in publicly, except that the link posted to the dictionary, and the version most readily found online, is the version on and It has “helpfully” taken out the foreword and commentary, and left just the lexicon. It has added a summary in English of the foreword and commentary, and it is a very very brief summary, that does not do the edition justice.

(For example: Giannelli, the scholar who found the manuscript and who wrote the foreword, speculated that the compiler of the glossary might have been a native speaker, and that speculation is reproduced in the English summary. The actual linguist involved in the edition was Vaillant, who wrote the linguistic commentary, and his conclusion was that there were too many grammatical errors for the compiler to have been a native speaker: he was likeliest a Greek cleric who worked in the area, and was curious about the language spoken there.)

Rather more offensive to me, the copy chops out the first sentence of the dictionary. The sentence where the compiler gives a name to the language he is recording.

Over the years, I have come across resources from the site. If you go looking for a bias in the site, you might notice that there’s a bit more Bulgarian presence than you might expect from a Pro-Macedonian website. But the site puts up its sources unexpurgated, and that is to its credit.

Those sources include the Giannelli–Vaillant dictionary.

Now, what Wikipedia says about Macedonian ethnic identity—which reflects on the nomenclature around the language—is fairly uncontroversial, at least in most circles:

The concept of a “Macedonian” ethnicity, distinct from their Orthodox Balkan neighbours, is seen to be a comparatively newly emergent one. The earliest manifestations of incipient Macedonian identity emerged during the second half of the 19th century among limited circles of Slavic intellectuals, predominantly outside the region of Macedonia.

[…] Yet, throughout the Middle Ages and up until the early 20th century the Slavic population majority in the region of Macedonia were more commonly referred to (both by themselves and outsiders) as Bulgarians. However, in pre-nationalist times, terms such as “Bulgarian” did not possess a strict ethno-nationalistic meaning, rather, they were loose, often interchangeable terms which could simultaneously denote regional habitation, allegiance to a particular empire, religious orientation, membership in certain social groups.

So you’ll have already guessed what someone in the region in the 1580s would have referred to Macedonian Slavonic as. And indeed, the first sentence of the dictionary, which the copy chops out, is:

Ἀρχ(ὴ) ἐν Βουλγαρίοις ῥιμάτου, εἰς κινῆ γλότα ἐρχομένη
Beginning of words in Bulgarian, coming [= translated] into the common language [= Greek]

Again: that does not argue against us now calling the language Macedonian. It does not argue for it, either.

For what it’s worth, the question of Bulgarian vs Macedonian as the name of the language does not occupy the attention of either Giannelli or Vaillant for a second. As far as they were concerned, back in 1958, it was the language of the Kastoria region (the Kostursko, as Vaillant adds); and the way for Italian and French scholars to refer to the langauge of the Kostursko in 1958 was as Macedonian.

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