The origin of the language

The distant ancestors of today's Vlaški and Žejanski (Vlashki and Zheyanski, also, Istro-Romanian) speakers and their families were the Balkan Vlach nomadic shepherds who settled in Istria in larger groups in the early sixteenth century. It is likely that they moved there together with Croatian-speaking populations. The study of numerous Istrian toponyms, originating in the language, suggests that they likely initially occupied a much larger area of northern and central Istria than they do today.

It is quite certain that they migrated from their former home in the mountainous regions of Northern Dalmatia in order to escape the Ottoman Turk invasions and/or at the initiative of the local Venetian and Austrian authorities in Istria who sought to populate areas of the peninsula that had been deserted due to long periods of war and disease. This is the case in Žejân/Žejane about which specific historical documents are available.

Many medieval Bosnian and Croatian chroniclers mention the presence of Vlachs and Romance-language speakers in the areas close to or contiguous to Central and Northern Dalmatia, so their presence in the region for several centuries seems to be beyond doubt. Linguistic evidence, including the existence of older, non-Istrian Croatian loanwords in the language and the types of Croatian dialects surrounding the Vlaški- and Žejanski-speaking communities, also suggests that the Romance-speaking Vlach and Croatian populations both inhabited the area of Northern Dalmatia before their groups moved further north together, to the island of Krk and to Istria. Similarly, the existence of loanwords from other South Slavic languages suggests that these Balkan Vlach shepherds had lived in other areas of the Balkans as well.

What is the origin of the Vlaški and Žejanski language?

Vlaški, Žejanski or Istro-Romanian is an Eastern, or Balkan, Romance language, and it  represents one of four historic branches of the Common Romanian family of languages. The three other branches are Daco-Romanian (which has its own dialects, one of which developed into modern Romanian), Aromanian (spoken by several larger linguistic enclaves in Albania, Greece, and Macedonia) and Megleno-Romanian (spoken by very small linguistic enclaves in Macedonia and Greece). For comparison, all other living Romance languages belong to the Western Romance group.

It can not be said with certitude when the four branches of Common Romanian split away from each other. Proposals range from some time in the second half of the first millennium CE to as late as the twelfth century, for certain branches. In any case, for reasons of geography and history, the speakers of these languages subsequently lived entirely separate linguistic, cultural and political histories.

The precise relationship of Vlaški and Žejanski to the other three branches of Common Romanian--and especially to the Daco-Romanian branch and  modern Romanian--is also far from certain.

Two main theories have been proposed by historical linguists and dialectologists who have dealt with this question. One group believes that Vlaški and Žejanski is the linguistic daughter of Daco-Romanian, while the other believes it is a linguistic sister.

The "non-autochtonous origin" theory suggests that Vlaški and Žejanski is one of the historic dialects of Daco-Romanian and hypothesizes that the ancestors of the Dalmatian Vlachs migrated there from Banat and southwest Transylvania in today's Romania before moving on to Istria with several probable stops on the way. This theory mainly rests on the existence of "rhotacism" in Vlaški and Žejanski (where, for example, one says "bire" rather than "bine" for "well"), which is also characteristic of some dialects of southwestern Daco-Romanian.

The "autochtonous origin" theory, on the other hand, suggests that Vlaški and Žejanski split directly from Common Romanian and is a linguistic sister to Daco-Romanian. According to this theory, the distant ancestors of today's Vlaški and Žejanski speakers would have originated from some area south of the Danube before migrating to the Dalmatian area and then on to Istria.

In addition to the two main "camps," a third, more recent theory has been proposed--the "polygenesis" theory. The polygenesis theory is based on the study of older loanwords, which can be attributed to different South Slavic languages of the Balkans and it suggests that the distant ancestors of the Dalmatian Vlachs and today's Istrian speakers of Vlaški and Žejanski would have come from different ethno-linguistic branches and occupied both sides of the Danube.

While clearly related to the other three varieties of Balkan Romance, Vlaški and Žejanski is sufficiently different from them on all levels of linguistic structure--lexical, phonetic/phonological, morphological and syntactic--that mutual intelligibility with any of the three other Balkan Romance languages is difficult, if not entirely impossible. Due to many centuries of separate linguistic development and the influence of different neighboring languages, Vlaški and Žejanski has introduced a variety of lexical and structural innovations that make it unique. The absence of historical references to this population prior to the eleventh century and a lack of any written records in their language before the nineteenth century, and in Daco-Romanian prior to the sixteenth century, suggest that this piece of the puzzle is not likely to be resolved beyond dispute any time soon.