Romanian Grammar 101: Noun Cases

Many years ago, in my struggle to get a grasp on the Romanian language, I picked up a book that was simply entitled Romanian Grammar. It was filled with all kinds of complicated words like “genitive” and “declension” and “vocative” and basically made no sense to me – until years later when I already SPOKE Romanian and by then it was pretty much useless.

These days there’s lots of free, comprehensive information online, a good place being wikipedia.

But again, there’s lots of confusing terms so my mission here today is to break down what is probably the most confusing part of Romanian (to people whose first language is English), understanding noun cases.

Romanian is an inflected language, meaning the following:

  • Nouns have declension
  • Nouns have a gender and number
  • Adjectives match nouns in number and gender
  • Verbs are conjugated

In English, verbs are conjugated. This means they match the noun they are referring to. A simple example would be “I read” and “he reads”.

If you’ve ever studied perhaps Spanish, then understanding the adjectives “match” the nouns in terms of gender and number is fairly simple. For example:

Spanish English
El gato es negro The (male) cat is black
La gata es negra The (female) cat is black
Los gatos son negros The cats are black

However what makes Romanian “extra fun” is that the nouns too must be modified based upon what they’re doing in the sentence. This is called “declension” but is, for all intents and purposes, the same as “conjugating” a verb.

Romanian has 5 “cases” or ways in which nouns can be modified, officially known by their fancy terms as nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative. For now, forget the vocative as we’ll get to it later.

The good news is that the nominative and accusative are written the same (hereby known as N/A) and that the genitive and dative are also the same (hereby known as G/D) and so really there’s just TWO main ways to form the declension of the noun.

But how to understand these? First let’s look at one of the few surviving remnants of inflection in modern English today:

I threw the ball to him
He threw the ball to me

See the difference there between I and me and then between he and him?

In Romanian, the I and he would be the N/A case of nouns. It’s also known as the “subjective case” in English. It means, in general, that this noun is the one DOING the action.

In Romanian, the him and me would be the G/D case of nouns, also known as the “objective case” in English. It means that this noun is the one RECEIVING the action of the “objective” noun.

Native speakers of English fuck this up all the time in English so you really need to understand this if you ever hope to speak Romanian.

Me and my wife were laying in bed, watching TV Wrong
The package was delivered to me and my wife. Correct
I looked over there and I saw him at the bus stop Correct
Who went to the party? Well it was me, Tony and the gang. Wrong

Got it? It’s very important to know which noun is doing the action and which noun is, in essence, “receiving” the action.

The last remaining case in Romanian, known as the vocative, is super simple because it’s only used when addressing someone directly to their “face”.

These are used extremely rarely so here’s pretty much the entire list of every single one you will ever hear on a regular basis:

N/A Case Vocative Case English
fata fato girl
bunica bunico grandmother
om omule man/buddy/pal
sef sefule boss

The reason why the vocative case is used so infrequently is that in the singular (ie directly addressing a single person) it’s something you would only do with a person you’re very close to – a dearly loved relative or else one of your buddies. Walking up to a girl and addressing her as “fato” would be considered quite “fresh” and cheeky and not a way to make a good impression.

In the plural (ie addressing more than one person collectively) it’s not considered rude or overly familiar at all. It’s super simple to do because all you do is add lor to the normal plural N/A case of the noun.

The most common use of the vocative case in Romanian is what in English would be “ladies and gentlemen”, which is always said “domnilor” (gentlemen) si “doamnelor” (ladies), used in places like airports and overhead announcements and such.

I hope this clears up to you the essential understanding of how noun cases and declensions work in Romanian without so much of the fancy lingo.


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