About the Etymology of the Albanian Ethnonym

Christo Tamarin

Senior Member
I was provoked by this thread: m -> b, b-> m (m -> b, b-> m) which was started by Villeggiatura and to which many others contributed: Gavril, ahvalj, berndf, AndrasBP.

I am suggesting an etymology of the Albanian ethnonym.

Albanians have an ethnonym of there own, shqiptar, meaning "eagle" according to the folk etymology. Vasmer makes an allusion that this can be a calque of the Slavic ethnonym. Whatever, in this thread, primarily, I mean the ethnonym of Albanians used by other people.

The following can be found for Albania in Etymonline.com:

Medieval Latin name of the country called by its inhabitants Shqipëri (literally "land of eagles," from shqiponje "eagle"), from Medieval Greek Albania, possibly from a pre-IE word *alb "hill" (also proposed as the source of Alps) or from the PIE root *albho- "white" (see alb). Roman Albania was a land by the Caspian Sea (modern Daghestan); in English Albania was occasionally also a name for Scotland.

First: please pay attention to the word Medieval: Medieval Latin, Medieval Greek. Medieval means after the 5th century AD. Before "Medieval", there was the "Roman Albania", a land in Caucasus. So, any references to Albania before the 5th century AD mean Caucasian Albania.

Next: several lands, without any connection between them, could be called Albania through the centuries: Albania on the Balkans, Albania==Scotland, and Albania in Caucasus (Daghestan&Azərbaycan).

The etymology of the name of the Caucasian Albania is discussed in this article. Then, that name from Armenian went to Greek and then to Latin. In the centuries 2nd..5th, some Romans, both Hellenophone Romans and Romanophone Romans, could know the name Αλβανία/Albania, though very few of them knew the location of that country.

Above, in the Etymonline.com quote, two IE-roots are suggested: *alb "hill" and *albho- "white". Both are quite improbable: {1} The word Albania was not attested with "European" meaning before late "Medieval" times. {2} The word Albania was very rarely used on the Balkans themselves. Anyway, Albania==Scotland could come from Latin with the meaning Terra Alba, enforced by a contamination with Caucasian Albania.

Thus, the etymology of "Albanian" in its Balkanic sense remains unclear.

In Greek, there is a bunch of forms of the Albanian ethnonym. They all are relatively new, not before Medieval times. These are: Αλβανοί, Αλβανίτες, Αρβανίτες, Αρναβίτες. They all seem mutually related. The most used ethnonym on the Balkans, Arnavut, seems to belongs to the same bunch (Gr. Αρναβίτες). The form of that ethnonym Арбанаси (Arbanasi) which is known in Bulgaria also belongs to the same bunch, obviously.

So, let us start..

Step 0.1: Let us start with romani. This can be taken as ethnonym by any part of the population of the Roman empire, not only by romanophone ones. Assuming not romanophone. Actually, it does not matter.

Step 0.2: Stress and length on the second syllable: the first vowel is omitted: rmani.

Step 0.3: Hard to pronounce rmani, add a prothetic a-: armani.

Milestone 1: Armâni is attested as an ethnonym for romanophones in some parts of Greek Macedonia.

Step 0.4: Change M=>B as discussed in the provoking thread: arbani.

Milestone 2: Arban-i is attested: Арбанаси (Arbanasi) in Bulgarian is an ethnonym for Albanians.

Step Change B=>V in Greek: arvani.

Milestone 3: Αρβανίτες (Arvanites) is an ethnonym for Albanians now used by hellenophones.

Step Metathesis in Greek: Arvanites => Arnavites (Αρναβίτες).

Milestone 4: Αρναβίτες (Arnavites) is an ethnonym for Albanians also used by hellenophones.

Milestone 5: Αρναβίτες (Arnavites) was loaned from Greek to Turkish as Arnavut: the ethnonym for Albanians used by Turks and Bulgarians.

Step Change R=>L. Arbani => Albani.

Milestone 6: Through Medieval Latin, Albani entered the international lexical fund: Albanians, Albanese, Албанци, etc.

Conclusion: The word Albania (in its Balkanic sense) is etymologically related to Romania, most probably.

Further discussion on Step Mixture R<=>L happens on the Balkans. The change L=>R is a basic feature of Romano-Balkanic, and a counter-action R=>L could be also expected. In Greek, e.g., there is a suppletive verb έρχομαι which demonstrates the change R=>L.

The Step 0.4 (Change M=>B) is discussed in the provoking thread and many examples are given there, including Balkanic ones.
  • Orel VE · 1998 · Albanian etymological dictionary: 7
    arbër~arbën m, pl. arbër~arbën 'Albanian (particularly, of Italy and Greece)'. A Proto-Albanian loanword with the assimilation of liquids, from Rom *albanus rendering the West Balkan ethnonym attested as Illyr Ἀλβανοί (Ptol.). The form arbëresh~arbënesh 'Italo- or Graeco-Albanian' reflects Rom *albanensis…

    The double forms represent Tosk and Geg variants.

    Concerning l>r:

    Orel VE · 2000 · A concise historical grammar of the Albanian language∶ Reconstruction of Proto-Albanian: 57
    In old and newly formed clusters …, Lat l is rendered as r:
    'to send' ⇐ Lat dēlēgāre id.
    grëmëratë 'beestings, clots of curdled milk' ⇐ Lat glomerātum participle of glomerāre 'to wind into a ball, to gather into a round heap'.

    Concerning ër~ën:

    "Christian" < *kërshtën < Latin christiānus id. (ibidem: 29)
    rëmër~rëmen "Valachian; shepherd" < Latin romānus "Roman" (ibidem: 58)

    varfër~vorfën "poor" < Latin orphanus "orphan" (ibidem: 37)
    lakër~lakën "cabbage, greens" < Greek λάχανον "greens" (ibidem: 102)
    mokër~mokën "millstone" < Greek μηχανή "instrument" (ibidem: 102).

    So, we have the toponym Ἀλβανοί attested in the 2nd century (Ptolemy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) in what later became Albania and two Albanian sound laws to get the modern arbër~arbën from it.
    Last edited:
    One more relevant evidence. Wikipedia (Origin of the Albanians - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) informs:

    In the 2nd century BC, the History of the World written by Polybius, mentions a location named Arbon (Greek: Ἄρβων; Latinised form: Arbo) … that was perhaps an island … in Liburnia or another location within Illyria.

    In the 6th century AD, Stephanus of Byzantium, in his important geographical dictionary entitled Ethnica (Ἐθνικά), … mentions a city in Illyria called Arbon (Greek: Ἀρβών), and gives an ethnic name for its inhabitants, in two singular number forms, i.e. Arbonios (Greek: Ἀρβώνιος; pl. Ἀρβώνιοι Arbonioi) and Arbonites (Greek: Ἀρβωνίτης; pl. Ἀρβωνῖται Arbonitai). He cites Polybius … (as he does many other times … in Ethnica).


    (1) the parallel variant with -r- is attested already in the 2nd century, as early as the one with -l- (and the above arbër~arbën, who knows, may have acquired its r from a contamination of the aboriginal counterparts of Ἀλβανός and Ἀρβωνίτης);

    (2) the relationship between alb- and arb- in Illyrian (or whatever language they belonged to) is unknown: I suspect their similarity was casual;

    (3) the only major phonetic shift would be in the medieval variant Αρναβίτες.

    P. S. In principle, judging from the evidence presented in #1 where the Balkanic languages prefer the r-variant, I think the root arb- found in Ἄρβων may have been the basic one for the ethnonym.

    Proto-Albanian experienced the shift *o>*a (Orel VE · 2000 · A concise historical grammar of the Albanian language∶ Reconstruction of Proto-Albanian: 2 — cp. modern natë "night"), while was still preserved intact in the first centuries CE (ibidem: 9–10, 32 — cp. Latin loanwords herë<hōra, pemë<pōmum, tmerr<timōrem), so the n-stems should have possessed the alternation Nom. Sg. *-ōn vs. Acc. Sg. -an-, and therefore the Proto-Albanian *Arbōn should have had the Acc. Sg. *Arbana (*m̥>*a — ibidem: 42, cp. avull<*abulas<*n̥bʰulos).

    Since the modern -ër~-ën comes, in particular, from -an- (see #3), arbër~arbën may be derived with one less step (comparing to alb->arb-) from this *Arban- of the oblique cases.
    Last edited:

    Parid Turdiu

    New Member
    Mr. Tamarin, your information is wrong.

    I'm from Tirana, Albania. There is a village near Tirana, which name is Arbana. It is the site of the city Albanopolis, described first by by Ptolemy, thus since ancient times, not in the Middle Ages, as you stated.

    Read here:

    Ptolemy (200 - 118 BC) is the earliest writer in whose works the name of the Albanians has been distinctly recognised. He mentions (3.13.23) a tribe called ALBANI (Ἀλβανοί). Google it.

    Also, it is mentioned by the Romans. Read here:

    Albanopolis (Albanian: Albanopolis/Albanët, Ancient Greek: Ἀλβανόπολις, tr. Albanópolis)[1][2] was a city in ancient Roman Macedon specifically in Epirus Nova, the city of the Albanoi, an Illyrian tribe. The editors of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World locate Albanopolis at the modern-day village of Zgërdhesh, near Krujë, Albania.[3][4] The ancient city may correspond with later mentions of the settlement called Arbanon and Albanon during the Middle Ages, although it is not certain this was the same place.[5] The city appears at 150 AD almost 300 years after Roman conquest of the region.


    Senior Member
    Ptolemy (200 - 118 BC) is the earliest writer in whose works the name of the Albanians has been distinctly recognised. He mentions (3.13.23) a tribe called ALBANI (Ἀλβανοί). Google it.
    1) The "problem" with Ptolemy's Geography is that the oldest manuscript we have is from 13th century, when the ethnonym was already known in the Byzantine and Latin authors. We don't know if this "Albanopolis" was in the original manuscript or was added later, to make the codex usable. It is strange that Albani and Albanopolis existed in 2nd c. AD close to the Egnatia, and are not mentioned again before the 11th century.
    2) When Ptolemy gives the name of the inhabitants of a city, he doesn't mean that these are a "nation" or ethnicity. For example, the people of Messenia (in South Italy) are "Messenii", of Catania "Catanaei", from Syracusae "Syracusii" etc. Γεωγραφική Υφήγησις, p. 400

    But here the question was about the etymology of ethnonym, not about the originis of a population.

    As far as the squip- root, there is an alternative: It is cognate with other words that mean various tools or weapons, including Greek σκήπτρον, σκαπάνη, scimitar etc. The "eagle" could be a folk etymology, from the byzantine double-headed eagle on the medieval banners.