The language and community today

Where is Vlaški and Žejanski spoken?

The Vlaški and Žejanski language (Vlashki and Zheyanski, also, Istro-Romanian) is spoken in two separate areas in the northeast of the Istrian peninsula in Croatia: The first is the northern village of Žejân/Žejane, which is located in the mountains off the road leading from Rijeka to Trieste. The second comprises several villages with their adjoining hamlets south of Žejân/Žejane, around the northern edge of Čepićko Polje, just off the road leading from the Učka Tunnel to the town of Labin. The villages are Bârdo/Brdo with several hamlets, such as Kostârčån/Kostrčan(i) and Zankovci, Letåj/Letaj, Nosolo/Nova Vas Sušnjevicę/Šušnjevicę/Šušnjevica, and Sukodru/Jesenovik.

All villages were geographically isolated until only a few decades ago. The introduction of paved roads in the 1970s and construction of a tunnel through Učka Mountain in 1981 brought the villages into easy contact with local urban centers, including Matulji, Opatija, Rijeka, Labin, Pazin and Pula, which are under an hour drive away from them. The ease of access to urban communities led to a much greater mobility of the population, which means that there is a greater number of Vlaški and Žejanski speakers now who live in local urban centers. Vlaški and Žejanski is also spoken by numerous emigrants from the area who moved to other parts of the world, primarily to the United States, Canada and Australia, most in the immediate aftermath of the World War II and in the 1960s.

Number of speakers and vitality of the language

We estimate that there are approximately 150 fluent native speakers of Vlaški and Žejanski in the home villages. This number refers to speakers who learned the language as children. With a total village population of around 400 (453 inhabitants according to the 2001 Census), active, fluent, native speakers of the language-recognized as such by other community members-now form a minority in their home villages.

There may be perhaps twice or three times as many first-generation speakers who live in local towns and urban centers. And there are another several hundred speakers living abroad, in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.

If we take a closer look at the village of Žejân/Žejane, for which we gathered the most detailed information, we will see that there are 53 native speakers of Žejanski out of a total population of 134, i.e. 39 percent. Additionally, almost four times as many, or 195, first-generation speakers live outside the village, regionally or abroad. The total number of speakers of Žejanski is currently 248. For comparison, at the end of World War II, the village had around 600 people and it is fair to say that vast majority were then fluent in the language.

The available information about the southern villages is less precise, but locals estimate that there are between 80 and 100 speakers of Vlaški among an estimated 250-285 residents, which represents around 30 percent of the total population. While the percentage of fluent speakers living in the southern villages is lower than in Žejân/Žejane, the number of native speakers living abroad is higher because emigration from the southern villages was more intense in the decades following World War II (and the total population numbers higher than in Žejân/Žejane).

Most speakers who learned the language during childhood in their homes are now middle-aged or elderly. This seems to be equally true for speakers who live in Croatia and those who live abroad. All are also bilingual or multilingual, mostly in Croatian (local dialect and/or standard), Italian (local dialect and/or standard) and English.

The natural transmission of the language from parent to child within a home was largely interrupted by the generations who came of age after World War II, especially those born in the 1950s or 1960s or later. The building of roads brought an end to geographic and social isolation of the area and industrialization and urbanization led to mass emigration and mixed marriages. Most parents, whether those living locally or abroad, gave preference to majority languages as a way for their children to achieve greater social mobility, and there aren't now, nor have there ever been, formal institutions to reinforce the use of the language and facilitate its preservation.

The youngest speakers today are largely in their thirties (seldom in their twenties or younger), and they often learned Vlaški and Žejanski from their grandparents, as a second or third language. Their dominant languages are the local majority languages-Croatian, English or other-which are used in school and society at large.

The name of the language

Vlaški and Žejanski are two different varieties of what most linguists consider to be one and the same language. For historical and geographic reasons, speakers of the two varieties had only occasional contact with each other, so the two varieties developed independently over centuries resulting in a number of phonetic, lexical and grammatical specificities. However, speakers of both varieties can understand and communicate with each other without obstacles.

Like many vernacular languages used in everyday oral communication but not in any formal context, Vlaški and Žejanski is known under more than one name, of which we mention only the most common. In Žejân/Žejane, the speakers call their language "Žejånski," basing the name of the language on the name of the village. This is a common practice seen throughout the southern villages (e.g., "Novošånski," "Šušnjevski," "Brijånski," etc.), but these speakers seem to prefer a unitary term and usually refer to their language as "Vlåški."

In the southern villages as well as in immigrant communities abroad, the language is also known as "ćiribirski" in Croatian or "ciribiro" in Italian. This term is believed to have come from the Vlaški and Žejanski words "cire" (hold) and "bire" (well). It is mainly used by those who do not speak the language themselves, especially the surrounding Croatian-speaking population, and it is often used in jest. As a result it may be offensive to some native speakers.

Among the academic community, the term "Istro-Romanian" has almost exclusively been in use since the early 20th century. This designation was devised by historical linguists and highlights the language's linguistic connection to the Romanian language. It was quickly adopted outside the community of native speakers, linguists and writers, and it remains widely used today.

Even the older generation of native speakers will on rare occasions use the term "rumunski" (Romanian) in Croatian or "romeno" in Italian to describe their language, especially when talking to outsiders, probably the influence of many Romanian ethnographers and linguists who visited the area to study the language from the mid-nineteenth century onward. However, linguistic connection is often mistaken for ethnic and/or national identity, and the term Istro-Romanian may be considered controversial when used outside linguistics. On this website, we have chosen to follow the usage that is most widespread among today's native speakers and refer to the language as Vlaški and Žejanski.

How endangered is the language?

Historically a small, bilingual enclave, Istrian speakers of Vlaški and Žejanski have long represented an endangered linguistic community with steadily dwindling numbers. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century the number of Vlaški- or Žejanski-speaking villagers in Istria was estimated at around 3,000. By the early 1960s, this number fell to 1,500; by the early 1990s it dropped further to 400, less than a decade later there were an estimated 200 native speakers of Vlaški and Žejanski in the villages, and we estimated their number to around 150 in 2010.

According to the language vitality factors outlined in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit's Language Vitality and Endangerment Report, Vlaški and Žejanski can be defined as a seriously endangered language.


  • Most of its youngest speakers are largely in the parent or grandparent generation.

  • The absolute number of fluent speakers is very small.

  • A minority of the overall population of the community speaks the language.

  • The language is used in a limited and continuously dwindling number of domains.

  • The language is not used in any new domains.

  • No practical orthography is available to the community.

  • Education is provided in the majority language(s) only and the language is not used in written form or institutional environments.

  • Only some members actively support language maintenance.

  • There are no language learning materials.

This project aims to address some of these criteria, such as the need for a practical orthography, development of language learning materials, education of the speakers about the endangered status and the value of their language and the need for their involvement in its preservation, establishment of local community centers, etc., but its scope is admittedly limited.

The language has also been included in the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger and also added to the List of protected intangible cultural heritages by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia in late 2007.