The ISTROX Project

Reel-to-reel tapes
© Johanneke Sytsema

ISTROX is a two-year interdisciplinary project (2018-2020) developed in the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics at the University of Oxford. Based on a body of sound recordings donated to the Taylor Institution Library in Oxford, the project combines linguistic research and community-sourcing to explore a significant portion of the history of a severely endangered language: Istro-Romanian. Fifty years after these recordings were made by the Oxford linguist Tony Hurren, we plan to engage the remaining speakers of the language, through an online platform, to transcribe, translate, and open up this material to specialist linguists and the Istro-Romanian community alike.

The material donated to the Taylor Institution Library has never been published, and its existence is still virtually unknown to the wider world. Although Tony Hurren drew on it for his doctoral thesis, for his outline grammar of the language, and for some published research articles on the Istro-Romanian aspectual system, the recordings constitute an exceptional, and almost wholly untapped, repository of information about the language. In fact, they represent a significant portion of the attested history of the language and of its speakers.

Hurren gathered recordings from about 40 informants, covering nearly all the villages in which Istro-Romanian was spoken, and thereby capturing material for a description of the major linguistic subdivisions (there are two major dialects). He also worked with a large representative sample of speakers, of all ages. The recordings are not just of crucial interest to linguists, but also contain unique documentation of the history of the community that spoke, and still speaks, the language. They are not merely responses to a linguistic questionnaire, but also include folktales, accounts of local traditions, and autobiographical remarks and stories. An unusual feature of Hurren’s approach is that he sometime asks informants to read out published texts in the language, and then invites his informants to re-narrate these in their own words.

The materials present an unusual problem. Linguists are used to facing written records of earlier stages in the history of a language, and then applying their philological skills to discern the spoken reality which those written texts reflect. The present case is the other way around: our historical material is almost exclusively aural, and an essential preliminary task is to fix it in written form. Without this it will be substantially inaccessible to potential users. The Hurren donation includes field notebooks with written material corresponding to the recordings, but these are not a complete written description of them. Much was initially unclear, and essential preliminary cataloguing work has been done in matching narrations on the tapes to the transcribed material, and identifying which informant is speaking, and which dialect is represented. Nearly all of this information has been pieced together, but it has required painstaking matching of notebooks with tapes, and with information contained on the covers of the original reel-to-reel and cassette recordings with the contents of those recordings.

It is essential to provide an account of the content of the recordings, in the form of fairly literal translations, tagged to the relevant portions of the recordings (probably sentence by sentence). The tapes are unlikely to be easily intelligible to anybody other than a native speaker of the language. Even for many of Istro-Romanian descent, the recordings will present problems of comprehension without the aid of a basic translation, and therefore a significant portion of their linguistic heritage will be inaccessible to them.

The effort of translating this material has to be made if the recordings are to come alive and be of utility both for the wider scholarly community and for the Istro-Romanian community at large. Istro-Romanian is possibly the least-known of the surviving Romance languages and its phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon are of enormous interest to linguists generally, and to Romance linguists in particular: for some examples of the kind of linguistic novelties that have already been identified in it, see for example Kovačec (1968), Hurren (1969), Sala (2013), Maiden (2016). A written representation will be an indispensable tool in engaging with, and analysing the structure of the linguistic material. Of course, that representation will be open to criticism and correction as other linguists explore the material, and refine the interpretation, but the transcription we aim to provide will be an essential vademecum in the linguistic analysis of the material.

There are three particularly well-known published accounts of Istro-Romanian: Popovici (1909-1914), Pușcariu (1906-1929), and Kovačec (1971, 1998). Hurren himself produced an outline grammar, unpublished, on the basis of his research, in 1999. Of these, by far the most valuable and detailed description is Pușcariu's, based on texts collected at the turn of the last century. For direct illustration of the language linguists have had to turn to the collections of texts provided Pușcariu or by Popovici. Various other collections of texts exist, some from as early as the mid nineteenth century, but these are unaccompanied by in-depth linguistic analysis, e.g., Cantemir (1959), containing materials collected in the early 1930s. Other important contributions in recent years have been the linguistic atlases by Filipi (2002) and Flora (2003), and the dictionary by Neiescu (2011). The Hurren collection gives a relatively recent detailed and extensive illustration of the language, for the Istro-Romanian villages, is sound-recorded, rather than written, and includes spontaneous discourse and narration. In short, the Hurren collection is a major repository of information about the language in all its varieties, from a period in the second half of the twentieth century when the community still numbered about a thousand, just before the major decline in the population brought about by emigration, and it is material to which Romance linguists and others should have access.

Beyond opening up the holdings of the Taylorian Library and producing new linguistic analyses based on previously unknown material, ISTROX has remarkable potential to tap the linguistic and cultural knowledge of the remaining pockets of Istro-Romanian speakers worldwide. By the end of the project, all data from the research, and all other materials currently part of the Hurren bequest, will be made available online to the scholarly community and the public.

In the longer term, our project will be an important foundational element for a History of the Istro-Romanian Language. This work will seek to cover, drawing on all available published and unpublished material, not only the structural history of the language, but also the language's 'external' history, dealing with its historical origins, the migrations of Istro-Romanian speakers through the Balkans, and especially the history of its speakers in what are, probably, its dying decades.

Project Timeline

ISTROX has two phases which correspond roughly to the two years of the project.

Achieving the goals of the first phase of the project is an essential prerequisite to proceeding to the second stage.

The first phase of the project, which started in September 2018, involves the following tasks:

  • the production of a detailed description and index of the contents of the sound recordings
  • the segmentation the recordings into coherent 'snippets' to be further used for linguistic analysis
  • the production of a detailed description and index of the contents of Hurren's field notebooks, and of the other written materials contained in the Hurren Donation
  • the correlation of the written materials with the sound recordings (e.g., we have identified the linguistic questionnaires to which the recordings contain responses, and the passages in the audio recordings which are transcribed or translated in the notebooks)
  • fieldwork conducted in Croatia, to trace Hurren’s original subjects, or their surviving relatives, and obtain their consent to use the photographs and recordings for our research, and to make them publicly accessible online
  • The selection and editing of the ambiguous or obscure passages in the recordings whose interpretation will benefit the help of the wider Istro-Romanian community.

The second phase of the project, to start in spring 2020, involves crowdsourcing and interpreting linguistic data. On a customized crowdsourcing platform, we will upload selected audio samples whose linguistic meaning or structure is in doubt or otherwise problematic, and we will invite the Istro-Romanian speakers worldwide to help us interpret them by listening to the audio clips, commenting on them, and responding to our questions. To learn more about this see Community Sourcing.


  • Cantemir, T. (1959). Texte istroromâne. Bucharest: Editura Academiei.
  • Filipi, G. (2002). Istrorumunjski lingvistički atlas. Atlasul lingvistic istroromân. Atlante linguistico istrorumeno. Pula: Znanstvena udruga Mediteran.
  • Flora, R. (2003). Micul atlas lingvistic al graiurilor istroromâne (MALGI). Bucharest: Editura Academiei.
  • Hurren, A. (1969). ‘Verbal aspect and archi-aspect in Istro-Romanian’. La Linguistique 2:59-90.
  • Kovačec, A. (1968). ‘Observations sur les influences croates dans la grammaire istroroumaine’. La Linguistique 1:79-115.
  • Kovačec, A. (1971). Descrierea istroromânei actuale. Bucharest: Editura Academiei.
  • Kovačec, A. (1998). Istrorumunjsko-hrvatski rječnik (s gramatikom i tekstovima). Pula: Znanstvena udruga Mediteran.
  • Maiden, M. (2016). 'Romanian, Istro-Romanian, Megleno-Romanian, and Aromanian'. In Ledgeway, A. and Maiden, M. (eds), The Oxford Guide to the Romance Languages. Oxford: OUP, 91-125.
  • Neiescu, P. (2011-). Dicționarul dialectului istroromân. I. A–C (2011), II. Č–K (2015), III. L– Pința (2016). Bucharest: Editura Academiei.
  • Popovici, I. (1909-1914). Dialectele române din Istria. I. Referinţele sociale şi gramatica (1914), II Texte şi glosar (1909). Halle a.d. S.
  • Pușcariu, S. (1906-1929). Studii istroromâne (with M. Bartoli, A. Belulovici, A. Byhan). I. Texte (1906), II. Introducere – Gramatică – Caracterizarea dialectului istroromân (1926), III. Bibliografie critică – Listele lui Bartoli – Texte inedite – Note – Glosare (1929). Bucharest: Cultura Națională
  • Sârbu, R. and Frațilă, V. (1998). Dialectul istroromân. Texte şi glosar. Timişoara: Editura Amarcord.