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It is not uncommon, when studying history, to stumble across languages whose existence is well known but of which, apart from short texts or words, no evidence is available. They are called fragmentary languages (Restsprachen in German). But perhaps it is better to call them “languages of fragmentary evidence” since it is not the language itself that is fragmentary, but the evidence of it.
There are various examples of Restprachen. We will provide two from the European context. The first is the Gallic language. It was spoken by the populations that, in ancient times, were settled in an area that more or less corresponds to present-day France. We have only a small number of texts of the language of Vercingetorix, which are in no way comparable in length and completeness to the corpus of a language such as Latin. The same could be said of Etruscan, spoken by a population of which we know much, but of whose language, although testified by 13,000 inscriptions, we are far from having adequate and complete knowledge.
Very similar to these examples, at least until the 1990s, was Caucasian Albanian, spoken by the Albanians, an ancient population of the South Caucasus, settled roughly in present-day Azerbaijan. Before being Turkishised and Islamised at the beginning of the second millennium, they were a Christian people, with their own national Apostolic Church, just like their Armenian neighbours, and spoke a language belonging to the North-East Caucasian family (the same as modern Chechen).
Because of the many relations Albanians had with Armenia, we had long had a lot of information about them and their history. The evidence of the Albanian language, however, was extremely scarce, despite the fact that the entire Bible had been translated by a certain Bishop Jeremiah. They were essentially limited to the 15th-century manuscript Matenadaran 7177, containing only the Albanian alphabet, and very few inscriptions from the archaeological site of Mingachevir.
The turning point came in 1996 when Professor Zaza Aleksidze of Tbilisi State University made a sensational discovery in the library of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. During the Middle Ages, people used to recycle the expensive pages of parchment manuscripts (made of goatskin or sheepskin) by rewriting them after scraping off the previous text. These erased pages are known as palimpsests, and it is now possible to read what was originally written on them by using specific technologies in dedicated research centres. What Aleksidze discovered was a palimpsest dating to between the 5th and 6th centuries, written entirely in the Albanian language. Soon a few pages of the translation of the Gospel of John also came to light, further enriching the rediscovered corpus of the Albanian language.
The understanding of the rediscovered texts was facilitated by the knowledge of the Udi language, currently spoken by a few thousand people in a handful of villages in Azerbaijan, as it is the modern evolution of Albanian. Albanian is sometimes referred to as Old Udi.
In this way, Albanian has gone from being a language of fragmentary evidence to one of which we can rightly say that we have good knowledge. What we know of Albanian now goes far beyond the few inscriptions that in the past allowed us to glimpse only a few flashes of this language, which has finally managed to survive and come down to us.