Gegs and Tosks
Among ethnic Albanians are two major subgroups: the Gegs, who
generally occupy the area north of the Shkumbin River, and the
Tosks, most of whom live south of the river. The Gegs account
for slightly more than half of the resident Albanian population.
Ethnic Albanians are estimated to account for 90 percent of the
The Gegs and Tosks use distinct dialects; there are also linguistic
variations within subgroups. Well into the twentieth century,
ethnic clans exercised extensive local authority, particularly
in the north. Some progress was made during the reign of King
Zog I (1928-39), however, toward bringing the clans under government
control and eliminating blood feuds.
After taking power in 1944, the communist regime imposed controls
intended to eliminate clan rule entirely and waged a continuing
struggle against customs and attitudes that believed to impede
the growth of socialism. Blood feuds were repressed. Party and
government leaders, in their effort to develop national, social,
and cultural solidarity in a communist society, publicly tended
to ignore ethnic differences.
Communist leader Enver Hoxha, first secretary of the Albanian
Party of Labor and head of state until his death in 1985, who
came from the south and received the bulk of his support during
World War II from that area, frequently gave preference to persons
and customs of Tosk origin. Most party and government executives
were Tosk speakers and of Muslim background. The Gegs, who had
dominated Albanian politics before 1945, were educationally disadvantaged
by the adoption of a "standard literary Albanian language," based
on the Tosk dialect.
Because of their greater isolation in the mountainous areas of
the north, the Gegs held on to their tribal organization and customs
more tenaciously than did the Tosks. As late as the 1920s, approximately
20 percent of male deaths in some areas of northern Albania were
attributable to blood feuds. Under the unwritten tribal codes,
whose purview included the regulation of feuds, any blow, as well
as many offenses committed against women, called for vengeance.
Permitting a girl who had been betrothed in infancy to marry another,
for example, could set off a blood feud. The besa, a pledge to
keep one's word as a solemn obligation, was given in various situations
and sometimes included promises to postpone quarrels. A man who
killed a fellow tribesman was commonly punished by his neighbors,
who customarily would burn his house and destroy his property.
As fugitives from their own communities, such persons were often
given assistance by others.
A man who failed to carry out the prescribed vengeance against
a member of another tribe or that individual's relatives was subjected
to ridicule. Insult was considered one of the gravest forms of
dishonor, and the upholding of one's honor was the primary duty
of a Geg. If the individual carried out the required act of vengeance,
he was in turn subject to retribution by the victim's relatives.
Women were excluded from the feud and, when a man escorted a woman,
he too was considered inviolable. In other respects, however,
a woman's lot in society generally was one of deprivation and
The isolation from influences beyond his community and the constant
struggle with nature tended to make the male Geg an ascetic. Traditionally
his closest bonds were with members of his clan. Obstinate and
proud, the Gegs had proved themselves, ruthless and cruel fighters.
Visitors from outside the clan generally were suspect, but every
traveler was by custom accorded hospitality.
Less isolated by geography and enjoying slightly less limited
contact with foreign cultures, Tosks generally were more outspoken
and imaginative than Gegs. Contacts with invaders and foreign
occupiers had left an influence and, before 1939, some Tosks had
traveled to foreign countries to earn money to buy land, or to
obtain an education. The clan or tribal system, which by the nineteenth
century was far less extensive in the south than in the north,
began to disappear after independence was achieved in 1912.
Data as of April 1992