Naming and Shaming in the Balkans

What Critics of Macedonia’s Name Change Get Wrong

Protesters in Skopje, Macedonia, September 2018 Marko Djurica/REUTERS

In southeastern Europe, the name change game continues. A provisional agreement between Greece and Macedonia, under which Macedonia would change its official name to the Republic of North Macedonia, has tempers running high in both countries. In Skopje, parliamentary gridlock is threatening to sink the deal. In Athens, the controversy’s first causality is the Greek foreign minister, who resigned this week following a public cabinet spat over the name issue. In a recent article, “The Name’s Macedonia. North Macedonia,” I argued that despite these difficulties, the agreement between the two countries offered an unprecedented chance to put to rest a long-standing dispute over history, national identity, and language.

In “The Problem With North Macedonia,” Ioannis Kotoulas pushes back against my case for the agreement. Questioning my description of the dispute’s background, he writes that “our reading of history […] should not be based on factual inaccuracies.” This is sound advice, but Kotoulas fails to heed it himself.


Kotoulas begins by pointing out that Macedonia is “known internationally by its UN designation, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.” This is indeed Macedonia’s designation in many international contexts, but Kotoulas ignores the fact that 137 states recognize the country under its current constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

In his account of the links between the Ancient Greek and Ancient Macedonian languages, Kotoulas is simply mistaken. The exact relationship between the two languages is a matter of serious linguistic debate. Not a single sentence in Ancient Macedonian has survived the passage of time, so all that researchers have to go on are single words. Some of these words indicate that Ancient Macedonian did not undergo the sound changes common to all the Ancient Hellenic dialects. But ultimately, this fragmentary evidence is not enough to determine if Ancient Macedonian and Hellenic split from a common, pre-Hellenic source or derived from distinct Indo-European proto-languages. That is where the matter rests for serious linguists. Likewise, the claim that “Ancient Macedonian was a

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