Linguistic landscape macedonia

The representation of multilingualism in the linguistic landscape of Macedonia

Julian Nitzsche, Translation Megan Nagel

The research of linguistic landscapes in a multilingual region like Macedonia is an opportunity to find out more about prestige, hierarchies and the relationship of the used languages. The relationship of the two biggest language groups in Macedonia (Macedonian and Albanian) that are also equivalent to the two ethnics groups, has been full of conflict for the last 30 years. One group – the Slavic speaking Macedonians, mainly Christians – became the titular nation of the independent state in 1991 whose autonomy has been put into question by their neighbours in Bulgaria and Serbia in the past. The other group – mainly Muslim Albanians – stays a minority, although numerically strong. At the last census in 2002 they represented a quarter of the population. This percentage will have grown in the last 15 years. Against the background of the Kosovo war and independence as well as the armed riots in 2001 in the mostly Albanian Northwest of Macedonia, the situation between the two groups stays strained.

After the Ohrid Agreement in 2001 there has been a gradual easing of tension. The Albanian ethnic group has been granted linguistic rights and institutions – amongst other things a university – and the usage of the Albanian language in public has developed in a positive way. Nevertheless, there have been public confrontations, especially in the run-up to the parliamentary election, e.g. about the building of an orthodox church at the Muslim fortress in Skopje in 2012 or about the planned effectuation of another monumental cross in the suburbs of Skopje in March 2012. The discussion about the creation of a multilingual state was initiated after the change of government in 2017 and has been led controversially. While the Albanians insist on the implementation of their granted rights, the Slavic Macedonians fear a weakening of their national state – which already deals with an identity complex. The relevant law was passed in January 2018, making Albanian the second official language.

Against this background I have busied myself with the recent status of public multilingualism in already multilingual Macedonia, on the occasion of our field trip in September 2017. I have compared my observations with the impressions I made during my first stay in summer 2008 – almost a decade earlier.


As the capital and seat of political and economic power Skopje enjoys a special kind of prestige, which the government under Nikolai Guresvki has been expanding in an arguable kind of way in the course of „Skopje 2014“. The national prestige for the Christian and Slavic speaking Macedonia – demonstrated by the over dimensional cross on the mountain of Vodno that towers over the town day and night – counteracts with the fact that the Ottoman old town is predominantly inhabited by (Muslim) Albanians. In 2002 they represented a fifth of the population. However, Albanian was hardly present outside of the old town in 2008.

Picture 1: Inner city sign-posting in Macedonia, English and Albanian (Skopje)

Almost a decade later the signposts attract attention: whilst driving into the capital on the motorway they don’t only show the destinations in Macedonian and English transcription, but also in Albanian – in the same type size. During a city tour it is revealed that this also applies to the inner-city touristic sign-posting of the monuments. Merely the order of languages is noteworthy: Macedonian in first place; however Albanian isn’t in second place but rather English as a „tourist language“.

Picture 2: Bilingual notice in a window display in the old town of Skopje

The old town – mostly populated by Albanian Muslims – is located in the territory of the municipality of Çair, which handles things differently. The local street signs mention the Albanian name in first place, then the Macedonian translation in the same type-size. Numerous inscriptions on shops and in display windows are also bilingual, or rarer only in Albanian. In addition you can sometimes see Turkish, especially at religious and cultural facilities as well as facilities of the Turkish minority, which represents 1,7% of the population in Skopje.

Picture 3: street sign in Çair (Skopje) with Albanian in first place

Even the LED displays of the double-decker busses which were purchased in line with the project Skopje 2014 and supposed to add a cosmopolitan flair to the city, switch between Macedonian and Albanian. Then again Albanian is absent in places where it would be expected. The information board of the also newly erected Mother Teresa Memorial Church is written in Macedonian and English, even though undoubtedly Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was a native Albanian speaker. The statue in front of the church even bears an all-Macedonian plaque.

Picture 4: Information board at the Mother Teresa Memorial Church

Albanian as the second most spoken language in the country has also found its way onto the signposting along the motorways, e.g. on the “Mother Teresa Motorway” from Skopje to Tetovo. At the tollbooths you can see Macedonian in first place, then Albanian as well as the international languages English, French and Dutch.

Picture 5: trilingual sign-posting along the “Mother Teresa Motorway” from Skopje to Tetovo


In contrast to Skopje, Albanian predominates in Tetovo/Tetova located in the western part of the country, which is not surprising due to the Albanian majority of 70% in the community and its status as the “secret capital” of the Macedonian Albanians. Macedonian flags are also – in contrast to Skopje – hardly visible. The local signposting which is the community’s responsibility shows Albanian in first place, correspondent to the majority, followed by Macedonian.

Picture 6: Inner-city signpost in Tetovo with Albanian in first place


The population of Debra which is located in the western part of the country close to the Albanian border is also mostly Albanian. Therefore Albanian is in first place on the signposting, including town sings etc.

Centar Župa

The region of Župa above Debar Lake, inhabited mainly by Muslims, sets itself apart linguistically from the Albanian regions of western Macedonia. The Muslim inhabitants call themselves either Turks or Macedonian Muslims. The question of their ethnic of national identity could not be answered.

Macedonian predominates in the linguistic landscape and is also in first place on the town sign. Turkish is also present but generally subordinate. At the Atatürk Monument, representatively located in the centre of the village, Turkish is in first place (above the Macedonian inscription), but usually underneath. Albanian is not represented in public and is – according to the inhabitants – hardly spoken despite the geographical proximity to Debar.

Picture 7: The Atatürk Monument with Turkish-Macedonian inscription in Centar Župa

The relationship of the language groups does not seem conflict-free: most of the additional Turkish and Macedonian town names of the town sign of Dolno Melničani/Asago Melnican on the way from Debar to Župa had been sprayed over.

Picture 8: Sprayed over town sign close to Centar Župa

Dolna Gorica/Gorica e Vogël

Gorica is one of the villages at the edge of Prespa Lake right behind the Macedonian-Albanian border in which Macedonian is prevalent. In contrast to all other national minorities the Macedonians of Prespa enjoyed certain linguistics rights even during the communist regime of Enver Hoxha. The nationwide known writer Sterjo Spasse was an ethnic Macedonian from the Prespa villages, but mostly wrote in Albanian.
The community of Liqenas that is home to the Macedonian villages was officially renamed “Pustec” in 2013, its Macedonian name. The coat of arms of the community showsthe Vergina Sun, the Macedonian symbol par excellence which also decorated the flag of the Republic of Macedonia in the early 1990s.

Picture 9: The coat of arms of the community Pustec (Liqenas) with the Vergina Sun

Street signs, sign posts and information boards in public facilities of the visited towns in the municipality of Pustec are bilingual, with Macedonian as the local majority language in second place after Albanian though. At the (Christian) grave yard of Dolna Gorica Macedonian-Cyrillic grave inscriptions are prevalent, however a notable number is also written in Latin script, which must be due to the influence of the Albanian official language. It seems notable that the “temporary” wooden crosses built by the church community for the recently deceased were inscribed exclusively in Cyrillic script, while the grave stones – ordered by the families – were partly in Cyrillic and partly in Latin script. Scraped inscriptions (probably by adolescents) in Latin as well as in Cyrillic script were found on a building wall close to the church.

Picture 10: Gravestone (Latin script) and grave cross (Cyrillic script) on the grave yard of Dolna Gorica

In the school of Dolna Gorica lessons are held in Albanian was well as Macedonian. Placards created by the pupils hanging in the corridors are either in Macedonian (more often) or Albanian (rarer) but not bilingual. The Albanian flag and the old flag of the Republic of Macedonia with the Vergina Sun are both standing on the headmistress’ desk.

The information board at the campaign office of E. Temelko, candidate for mayor, was almost completely written in Macedonian, except the name of his electoral alliance which probably needs an Albanian name due to legal reasons. Two electoral posters in the building’s windows were also completely bilingual with Macedonian in first place.

Picture 11: Information board at the campaign office of the candidate for mayor


In Ohrid, as the almost mythically charged “cultural capital” of Macedonia and one of the most meaningful places in Macedonian and Greek history, the Macedonian language is prevalent. However, – mostly Albanian and Turkish – Muslims represent a fifth of the town’s population which is not visible in the official signposting, but on shops in the old town (Čaršija). Turkish and Albanian is also present here, the kebab stands are called “Adana” and alongside the usual churches you can buy postcards of Atatürk.

Picture 12: Multilingual window display and Kebab stand “Adana” in the old town of Ohrid

The notices with tariff information in the state-owned post office of Ohrid were entirely bilingual, Macedonian-Albanian.


Through the linguistic landscape of the researched places it becomes clear that Macedonia is a multilingual country – more than its neighbours Bulgaria, Greece and Albania – even though the linguistic minorities aren’t always considered and represented. The presence of Albanian as the second most spoken language has grown in comparison to 2008, especially in Skopje. It remains to be seen in what way the appreciation of Albanian as the second official language and the conversion of Macedonia to an officially bilingual state will diversify the streetscape. Especially the impact of the new regulations on the smaller language minorities, in particular the Turkish, will only be revealed in the course of the process.