Contrary to accounts of recent invention, there are no historical records that precisely describe the origin or migration of the Istro-Romanian people into Istria, so there can be no certainty as to when they actually arrived or under what conditions.
The first historical record of Romanians in the Istrian region, however, purportedly dates back to 940 A.D. in a Greek document, De Administrando Imperio, written by the scholarly Byzantine Roman Emperor Constantine VII (Constantine Porphyrogenitus) between 948 and 952 A.D. in which he states that there were Latin-language speakers in this area calling themselves Romans but who did not come from Rome. Indeed, this historical fact is consistent with what has been taught for generations in the schools of Romania - namely, that their elusive distant cousins, the Istro-Romanians, were mercenary soldiers who had been recruited by the Romans from a region of Romania now known as Transylvania and sent with their entire families to protect the border of the Empire along the Arsa (now called Raša) River and Valley. The location of that border since Roman times is well-recorded and indisputable, and yet the ancient Latin-speaking people who have lived along that border for perhaps more than a millenium have been repeatedly redefined and systematically assimilated into other ethnic and linguistic groups by Istria's revolving door of rulers.
The highly respected Oxford Dictionary defines "vlach" to mean "a member of the indigenous population of Romania and Moldova, claiming descent from the inhabitants of the Roman province of Dacia". A 1329 Serbian chronicle mentions that a Vlach population was living in Istria, making it the first certain mention of Romanians living in Istria, not as 15th or 16th-century immigrations as is commonly believed. The chronicle also mentions someone named Pasculus, a name of obvious Latin origin, if not outright Romanian. An earlier document from the second half of the twelfth century preserves the name of a leader in Istria called Radul, a name that likewise may have been Romanian. Recent findings also suggest that the Istro-Romanian people (more probably Vlachs in general) were already present in certain regions of nearby Friuli going back to the 13th century, as evidenced by the close similarity between the Friulan (Furlan) and Istro-Romanian languages.
Istrian historian Carlo de Franceschi (1809-93) wrote that the "indigeni carsolini di razza romanica, che, giusta lo storico Fra Ireneo, ancora intorno al 1700 fra loro denominavansi Rumeri (Romani), ebbero dai triestini il nome di Cicci". Ireneo Della Croce (1625-1713), in his book Historia antica, e moderna sacra, e profana, della città di Trieste, described them as a people who, "beside the Slavic idiom common for all the Karst area, speak also their own and particular language, which is similar to Wallachian and contains many different Latin words." [See I nostri Chichi.] In contrast, the Romanian linguist, philogist, folklorist and poet Ovid Densusianu (1873-1938), did not admit that Istro-Romanians were native to Istria where he found them in the 1930's while doing research for his book Histoire de la langue roumaine (I, p. 337). He stated: "Un premier fait que nous devons mettre en evidence, c'est que l'istro-roumain n'a pu se developper a l'origine la ou nous le trouvons aujourd'hui". His suppositions were already stated by Prof. Dr. Iosif Popovici (1876-1928), who had travelled extensively in Istria and endorsed the theory that the Istro-Romanians were natives of Tara Motilor (Western Transylvania) who had emmigrated to Istria sometimes during the Middle Ages - that is, between the 5th to 15th centuries, not the 16th century or later as modern revisionists of history claim. (Dialectele romane din Istria, I, Halle a.d.S., 1914, p. 122 urm.)
Insofar as Romanian linguists and historians are concerned, the opinions are divided. Some believe that the Istro-Romanians migrated on their own initiative directly from Transylvania to their present region of Istria between 600 and 1,000 years ago, while others are more skeptical and would like to see Istro-Romanians as the native tribe of that region - that is, Istria and Northern Dalmatia - in a possible filiation with the mysterious and colorful "Black Romanians", the so-called Morlaks (Morlacchi, Morovlachi or Morlaci), a distinctly different Vlah group that had settled in great numbers in Dalmatia. They undoubtedly spoke their own language, now extinct, and not the Istro-Romanian language that is still alive but seriously endangered. [Silviu Dragomir: "Originea coloniilor romane din Istria" ("The Origins of the Romanian colonies of Istria") and "Vlahii si Moralacii", 1924 ("The Vlachs and the Morlachs".)]
The Transylvania connection is emphasized by linguists but, more importantly, remains alive in the memory of some of the Rumeni (Rumeri) who still live in Istria, as well as the greater numbers who were compelled to leave Istria and resettle in other countries all over the world in the 20th century. Although their dialects being nearly identical, the Romanians of Istria today break themselves into two distinct groups - the "cicci" or "cici" of surrounding Mune and Žejane area who have preserved some of their Romanian customs and folklore, and the "vlahi" of the Arsa Valley region who have preserved only the rudimentary language. The current labels of "Zejanski", "Vlashki", and "Ciribirski" to identify their language are strictly Slavic terms, and not replacements for the more historically accurate labels of "Rumeno", "Romeno", and even Rumunski which had previously been used up to the early 21st century even by neighboring Slavic-speakers. Interestingly, Popovici entitled his book Dialectele Romåne din Istria (Halle, 1909) - that is, "The Dialects..." not "The Dialect..." Thus, he admitted indirectly that there were several Istro-Romanian dialects spoken in Istria.
The image on the right is derived from a map published in 1926 by Prof. Sextil Puşcariu (1877-1948) which we scanned from the original book and modified by adding color for improved clarity. It shows the geographic distribution of native speakers of the two variants of Istro-Romanian (that may have evolved due to their physical separation by the Ciceria Mountains) that were spoken in Istria in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We have also created an expandable table and map that is based on Puşcariu's map.
In his volume entitled The World's Major Languages, published by Croom Helm Ltd. 1987, Bernard Comrie (1947- ) of the University of Southern California, when examining the Istro-Romanian (istrorumero), finds surprising similarities between this idiom and the 16th century texts of a certain Romanian dialect of the Maramureş area of Transylvania. Monrie said:
"16th century texts of Transylvania show evidence of rhotacism (with intervocalic n becoming r): "lumira" ("light" in Istro-Romanian and Transylvanian dialects for the today's literary Romanian "lumina") "lira" ("wool) - from "lina", "plira" ("full) for "plina" etc. This is a feature also of Istro-Romanian."
No other Romanian dialects (Macedo-, Megleno-) or regional variation (Moldavian, Wallachian, etc.) have this feature. This leads the linguist to conclude that the ancestors of Istro-Romanians might have had the same roots with the speakers of a dialect of certain Mountain Transylvanian Romanians. The very same opinion is shared by Martin Harris and Nigel Vincent (one of them is the Dean of Manchester University, England) in their volume The Romance Languages, Routledge, London and New York.
More recent research by Dr. Maria Iliescu (1927- ) of the University of Bucharest, a respected and competent linguist, found unexplained similarities between Istro-Romanian and Friulian / Furlan (Romansch dialects of the Alps), respectively. She regards Istro-Romanian as a bridge between the Rhaeto-Romansch, Ladin, Friulian and Romanian proper, hence very stable, and formed in Istria at the very same spot where it is spoken today. This theory has gained recognition in recent times.
The Romanian linguist and folklorist Iosif Popovici (1876-1928) and the Romanian poet, philologist, linguist and folklorist, Ovid Densusianu (1873-1938) located what they believe is the area where the ancestors of Istro-Romanians originated - Tara Motilor - which include the regions of Beius, Bihor and Arad, where the name "Cicera[n] / Chichera" is a common name in the Muntii Apuseni region of Tarapeak Motilor. In fact, there is a peak in that area called "Chicera Plesoaia." On an internet website that no longer exists, there were illustrations of Romanian national costumes which included the traditional folk costumes identified with the Romanian regions mentioned above, and which were similar to those of the Istro-Romanian "cici" (Italian "cicci"), as were the costumes from regions which are part of or are bordering Tara Motilor (Tara Hategului, Tara Padurenilor, and Banat) and, of course, other regions of present-day Romania.
On the other hand, a current authority, Prof. Petru Neiescu of the University of Cluj, who has studied the Istro-Romanian language and people for more than three decades, suggests that the origins of the Istro-Romanians is Alba Iulia in Hunedoara County, situated in the South-Western part of Transylvania, where the Apuseni Mountains meet the Meridional Carpathians. He also suggests that the people settled in Istria around the year 1420 near the Ciceria mountains to repopulate areas that had been devastated by the plagues. Links of anthropological value from that region in present-day Romania are the humble wooden churches in Lunca Motilor (Hunedoara) and Troas (Arad) which are preserved "in situ" under the auspices of The Museum of the Romanian Peasant. There are no comparable structures in Istria.
Irrespective of their ancestors' origins, the Romanian people of Istria almost totally vacated their hamlet and village homes in Istria after World War II, the majority emigrating as refugees to other countries of the world, while most of those who remained moved to less isolated parts of Istria. Those remaining in their ancestral villages have been called the "smallest ethnic group in Europe". The non-slavicized native speakers of this group of Istrians call themselves Rumeni, Rumeri, Romeni, Istrorumeni, Istroromeni and Cici. They are also known as Tschitschen (the German translation of Cici) by the Austrians who had ruled over that part of Istria for centuries up to World War I, and since then as Rumunski, Istrorumunski, and Vlahi (or Vlachs, a blanket label that is not exclusive or unique to Istria), as well as Cici, by the former Yugoslavs (Southern Slavs) who currently rule over Istria. In more recent times, they have also adopted the Croatian labels "Žejanski" and "Vlaški" that came into existence after the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 which awarded most of Istria to Yugoslavia.
Consistent with all human speech that does not evolve in total isolation, the Istro-Romanian language (or dialect of Romanian) has loan words from other languages: Venetian, Slovenian and other early Slavic dialects that were established in Istria centuries ago, and loan words that were brought in after World War II by the influx of newer tongues that are now assimilating Istro-Romanian into their own language. According to objective historians and accomplished linguists, however, the historical language of the Istro-Romanian people is an ancient Latin tongue that falls under the Italic branch of the Indo-European linguistic tree and not under the Slavic one. This fact is confirmed not only by reputable professionals spanning nearly two centuries of dedicated study of the Istro-Romanian language and people, but is also mentioned in the Ethnologue, Languages of the World, a 1,248-page catalogue of the world’s 6,909 known living languages which is now in its 16th edition.
The Istro-Romanian people, not just their language, are now on the verge of extinction through assimilation. As the last remaining native speakers pass on, they leave behind descendants who do not even understand, let alone speak the language that was taught to their mothers at their mothers' breast; nor do they even identify themselves as Istro-Romanians because of the social and political stigma that was attached to such association with the "poorest of the poor" Istrians. The revolving door of rulers of Istria in the last century alone has done irreversible harm in changing the face of all of Istria, but especially that of the Istro-Romanian region on both sides of Mt. Učka (Monte Maggiore).
The Istro-Romanians Today
The language known as Istro-Romanian is spoken by people who call themselves Cici, Vlahi or Rumeni / Rumâni / Rumâri, but which were nicknamed as Ciribiri by the local surrounding population (a term that native speakers still remember was a derogatory label only for the language they spoke) and Istrian Vlachs (1) and Cici by linguists. There is no literary tradition, however. In 1905, Andrea Glavina, himself an Istro-Romanian by birth and upbringing but who received his higher education in Romania, published "Calendaru lu rumeri din Istrie" ("The Calendar of the Romanians of Istria"). Since then, a few collections of folk tales and poems have also been published, the most recent being in 2011 by a native Istro-Romanian speaker and language professor, Antonio Dianich, in his Vocabolario Istroromeno-Italiano. La varietà istroromena di Briani (Bəršćina).
In the aftermath of the World War II, most Istro-Romanian families were forced to become political and economic refugees of the incoming communist state that took charge of Istria, leaving entire villages almost totally abandoned. Some settled in Italy, France, Germany and Sweden, while others went to other continents: North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, etc. It is commonly believed, but remains statistically unverified, that the vaste majority emigrated to the United States and settled mainly in the New York City metropolitan area.
While the majority of Istro-Romanians have been scattered around the world, the number of native speakers who have remained in Istria is estimated today to be less than 1,000 (less than 500 is probably more accurate), and the language is listed as "seriously endangered" in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages.2 The native speakers are concentrated in approximately ten villages, although some have emigrated to the larger towns of Istria - Labin (Albona), Pula (Pola), Poreč (Parenzo), Opatilja (Abbazia), and Lovran (Laurana) - and to neighboring cities such Rijeka, Trieste, and possibly also Ljubljana. There are may other Istrian villages with Romanian-style names which are not counted in their number today but which were of Romanian ancestry as reflected in the underlying meaning of their names: Buzet (lips), Katun (hamlet), Gradinje (garden), Letaj, Sucodru (forest), Costirceanu and Rumania.
In 2010, the Croatian Constitution finally granted the Romanians ("Rumunji") of Istria status as one of 22 national minorities. Romanians in Slovenian Istria, however, who live in two very small villages, do not have officially recognized status as a minority.
How many Istro-Romanians are left in the Istrian region?
Apart from participating in the broader exodus, the numbers of Istro-Romanians were also reduced due to assimilation: in the 1921 Italian census (made shortly after World War I when Istria was awarded to Italy) there were 1,644 recorded Romanian speakers in the area. That number does not necessarily corrolate to the actual number of Romanian speakers. One evidence of that is given by a Romanian scholar, Sextil Puşcariu (1877-1948), who in his Studii istroromâne, Vol. II, Bucureşti (1926), estimated their number to be about 3,000.
According to the 1991 Croatian census, only 810 persons declared themselves as Romanians and 22 as Morlachs. "In reality this number is categorically higher", assures us Dr. Ervino Curtis of the Association of the Romanians of Istria. "In many a case, Istro-Romanians living in Fiume or in other cities of Croatia, failed to declare their real national background hence their trace is lost. In these last years, the interest of the Istro-Romanians is to make their cultural plea heard in the scientific and academic ambience, so to make themselves heard and within the reach of political and public opinion. We need to act concretely to save this moribund culture, which is the fruit of a centennial tradition. With the death of a culture, something within all of us is dying as well, and it is indispensable to stop this process before it becomes irreversible."
There have been several efforts in the last two centuries by different Romanian and Italian linguists, and more recently by Croatians, to document the Istro-Romanian language. Lacking a common goal and methodology for preserving the spoken language of the native speakers who are scattered around the world, some of whose speech was as much Slavicized as that of those remaining in Istria. Losing their original identity (Italic -Romance Language) by assimilation and/or transformation into a Slavic dialect guarantees their total extinction, most likely in the next generation. Thus, they shall follow in the footsteps of the nearby Vegliot Dalmatian language which was likewise squeezed out by the neighboring Slavic tongues.
Echoes of Vegliot: The Sound of Silence
Once thought to be a language that bridged the gap between the Romanian language and Italian, the extinct Dalmatian language is only distantly related to Istro-Romanian. Among their few similarities are some consonant shifts that can be found only in the Dalmatian and Romanian languages.
Vegliot is the name given to the northern dialect of Dalmatia and is derived from Veglia, the Italian name of Krk, an island in the Kvarner Bay. On the inscription dating from the beginning of the 4th century, Krk was named as "Splendissima civitas Curictarum". The current Croatized name is derived from the Roman name (Curicum, Curicta), while the name Vecla / Vegla / Veglia (meaning "Old Town") was created by the Byzantines in the medieval Romanesque period.
The last identified speaker of any Dalmatian dialect was Tuone Udaina / Antonio Udina (birthdate unknown), who was killed by a landmine on June 10, 1898. His speech was studied by an Istrian scholar, Matteo Giulio Bartoli (1873-1946) who visited him in 1897 and wrote down thousands of words, stories and accounts of his life which he published in a book that he wrote in Italian and translated to German ("Das Dalmatische") in 1906. The book provided much information on the vocabulary, phonology and grammar of the language. Unfortunately, the Italian language manuscripts were lost, and only the German translation remained. In 2001, it was finally re-translated back into the Italian language. Also unfortunate is that Udina was hardly an ideal informant. The Vegliot Dalmatian was not his native language, and he had learned it only from listening to his parents' private conversations. Moreover, at the time that he acted as the informant, he had not spoken the language for 20 years and he was deaf and toothless besides, thereby making his pronunciations and speech formations less than accurate. Is such compromised and corrupted representation to also become the fate of the "moribund" Istro-Romanian language that is already gasping its last breath? One has to have undying faith to believe otherwise.
Sources and other links:
This and other articles and materials that are provided on this site, as well as other websites, that relate to the Istro-Romanian people and language are written by individuals - be they historians, scientific researchers (linguists, anthropologists, etc.), ordinary journalists, native speakers and even self-serving politicians - none of whom can claim to be authorities on this subject.
There are no historical documents showing irrefutable evidence of the origins of the Istro-Romanians, and yet there continues to exist an overabundance of professional and unprofessional theories and hypotheses being promoted by people of diverse backgrounds and agendas. Some claims are pure conjecture based on modern popular beliefs, undocumented legends and personal prejudices, while others are likewise unsupported and/or contradictory, both about the origins of the Istro-Romanian people and about their language. What is irrefutable, however, is that greatest numbers of native speakers from throughout the Arsa Valley region vacated Istria and were scattered around the world mainly right after World War II. Only a skeleton few remained in Istria where their language was no longer actively spoken in public. Meanwhile, the language spoken in the private homes has since become dramatically assimmilated into the predominant Croatian language and continues to decline in usage as a unique language at an accellerated rate.