The Balkan Peninsula is a world-famous multicultural and multilingual area, and has a millennial recorded history. It is situated on the fringe of the Mediterranean region, which has been thoroughly studied by philologists and anthropologists, and shares with it many cultural characteristics.

Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam are well rooted in the Balkans and have contributed to the proliferation of different writing systems: the Greek, Latin, Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets and the Arabic script. The Balkan nations and their languages bear the imprints of the rise and fall of three empires that ruled for centuries over the region: the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires.

Austro-Hungary made its presence count in the northwest of the peninsula. Although only part of the Balkans was technically included in the Soviet sphere of influence, the disintegration of the USSR strongly affected the whole region, which thereafter underwent dramatic social and political changes. Western Europe, while appropriating the Classic legacy of the Balkans, has always been wary of their later developments, treating them as its prototypical Other. The authoritative source on the relations of the Balkans with the West and the Western views of the Balkans is Maria Todorova's Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

In the social sciences the modern study of the Balkans was inaugurated in 1960 by the Berkeley conference on The Transformation of the Balkans since the Ottoman Era, which led to the publication of Charles and Barbara Jelavich, eds., The Balkans in Transition: Essays on the Development of Balkan Life and Politics since the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963). In the late 1960s, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council sponsored a field study which led to the publication of Charles Jelavich, ed., Language and Area Studies. East Central and Southeastern Europe: A Survey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), which contained articles on all the disciplines; and Paul L. Horecky, ed., Southeastern Europe: A Guide to Basic Publications (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), the bibliographical supplement to Jelavich. Updates of these articles included: Michael Impey, The Present State of Romanian Studies in the United States and Canada, Modern Language Journal, 59/5-6, 1975, 262-272; Kostas Kazazis, Albanian, Hungarian, Modern Greek, and Rumanian Linguistics: 1966-1976, Balkanistica, 4, 1977-1978, 132-145; and Michael B. Petrovich, American Work on East European History, 1966-1976, Balkanistica, 4, 1977-1978, 89-122.

An early textbook treatment of the area was Robert Lee Wolff, The Balkans in Our Times (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1956), which unfortunately omits Greece. This was followed by what became the seminal textbook on the Balkans, L. S. Stavrianos' The Balkans since 1453 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1958). In 1974, the first volume of the University of Washington's multi-volume A History of East Central Europe, edited by Peter F. Sugar and Donald W. Treadgold, appeared; the series is still incomplete. A worthy successor to Stavrianos appeared in 1983: Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans. Volume I: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Volume II: Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Besides being a distinct geopolitical entity with a fascinating history and culture, this region is also the locus of Balkan linguistics, an academic discipline with its own theoretical discourse going back to the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries and to work by Johann E. Thunmann (1746-1778), Jernej Kopitar (1790-1844) and Franz Miklosich (1813-1891). During this period insiders and outsiders voiced with growing certainty the insight that all that superficial linguistic diversity that characterizes the Balkans masks an underlying unity, which seems to be the doing of one ubiquitous driving force working behind the scenes. 

The official starting point of Balkan linguistics is considered to be Kristian Sandfeld’s Linguistique balkanique – problèmes et résultats (Paris: Mouton, 1930), which summarized and systematized the results of the considerable research that had been conducted until that time.

Balkan linguistics studies the similarities in morphosyntax, semantics, vocabulary and phonology found in the Balkan standard languages, which belong to various Indo-European branches (Albanian, Greek, Romance and Slavic), as well as their regional varieties and the languages spoken by minorities in the area (Romani, Judeo-Spanish, Gagauz, Balkan Turkish etc.). These similarities, called “balkanisms” and considered to be the outcome of convergent development due to centuries of language contact, have been presented in a number of surveys and comprehensive studies. Numerous contributions targeting specific aspects of the interactions of the Balkan languages have been published as separate monographs and in specialized international journals, many of them interdisciplinary. Situated at the intersection of genetic, areal and typological linguistics, Balkan linguistics builds on their achievements and contributes to them.

The computer era has opened new perspectives for the corpus-based study of authentic Balkan language use and the statistical analysis of linguistic variation over time and space.