Code-Switching in Romanian

As I’ve joked about before, learning the Romanian language is quite a daunting task, especially when it comes to grammar and syntax.

One additional difficulty is that the few textbooks and online resources available only cover “official” Romanian and do not adequately address the issue of code switching, which is a substantive issue.

To understand the term “code switching”, think of the way you speak to your friends, a kind of joking, slang-filled, euphemistic pattern of speech and then contrast that to perhaps how you would speak during a job interview, a lot more formally, grammatically correct and little to no slang.

In the United States, “code switching” predominately refers to African-Americans who grow up learning “ebonics” (now known as AAVE) and then often fail to learn “white English”, a necessary skill for any kind of well-paying career.

In fact, years ago I went to a “temp agency” and was given a grammar test. I expected it to be complicated, addressing such things as incorrect pronoun usage or perhaps tricky past participles or something. Actually (although of course it wasn’t labeled this way) it was simply a “code switching” test, with questions like “We (is/are) going to the store” and the like.

Which brings up the topic of a prestige dialect, which exists in all cultures. Certain ways of speaking, including both pronunciation as well as euphemisms, slang and vocabulary are judged to be “the right way to speak” and others are marginalized, insulted and disrespected.

All you have to do is imagine a professor giving a lecture to understand “prestige dialect”. If this professor speaks English, is he going to say “Today we will study the carbon molecule” or is he going to say “Hey y’all, today we’re fixing to study the carbon molecule”?

The second version is my imitation of a southern accent (in the United States), which is not a prestige dialect and therefore even if the professor grew up speaking in a southern way, he will likely have modified his speech to imitate the prestige dialect by the time he’s actually hired on as a professor to give the lecture.

In the United States, the “prestige dialect” is a combination of “sounding educated” and having a flat, Midwestern style of pronunciation. Meanwhile southern, urban Boston, ebonics and other variants are considered “uneducated”.

In British English, the “prestige dialect” is called “RP” and is essentially how the Queen of England speaks while other styles like “Cockney” are considered of less quality. Similarly, in Spain the Madrid dialect is the prestige one, while Andalusian and other variants are less valued. And so on and so forth.

I mention all of this because all Romanian educational material is taught concerning the prestige dialect, or in simpler terms, the “correct” way to speak.

While this is useful, in reality very few Romanians speak the prestige dialect and so it is important to go beyond just what is considered “correct”, if only so you can understand what the heck is going on around you.

One of the serendipitous events of my life is I learned most of my Romanian in the city of Cluj (where I live now) and this city has a disproportionately large number of speakers of the prestige dialect. In simpler terms, there are a lot more people speaking “correct” Romanian here than in most other places.

In terms of respect and admiration, the very best thing you can do is always speak using the prestige dialect (otherwise known as “correctly”). People here will understand you better and you will earn a lot of respect for this accomplishment.

That being said, what’s important is that you learn to understand that most Romanians are horrendously inept at code switching. In other words, if they’re a peasant from Moldova, they’re going to speak one certain way (which is not even close to being the prestige dialect) and find it very difficult or impossible to speak any other way.

I’m not just speaking about accents or pronunciation when I mention “dialects”, although that’s certainly a part of it. A native of Moldova is going to convert more “e” sounds into “ye” sounds due to the heavy Slavic influence, saying things like “bin-ye” for the word “bine”, etc.

It’s also about vocabulary usage as well. As I mentioned in this post, the standard prestige dialect (or “correct”) way of saying “I am” is “Eu sunt”. But there is a different dialect which says “Eu is” instead.

Again, it’s something of a conundrum. First you have to learn “correct” Romanian and then that’s the best way to speak, both in terms of being best understood as well as earning respect and admiration. But then all around you are going to be Romanians speaking “incorrect” Romanian and it’s just a fact of life that you need to understand them.

As mentioned before, one of the most common variants from the prestige dialect concerns numbers. While the “correct” way to say the number 14 is “paisprezece” it is quite often contracted to “paispe”. Likewise, 50 is often said “cin-zeci” rather than the prestige dialect version of “cinci-zeci”. For a full list of Romanian numbers, see here.

Another example: the word “this” in English (technically called a “determinative demonstrative”) has a number of declensions in Romanian, which is not only tiresome but also confusing.

“This dog” is “acest caine” but “this bread” is “aceasta paine” because dog is male and bread is female. There are also plural variants as well as differences on whether the word “this” comes before the noun or afterwards (acest spital vs spital aceasta).

Therefore the common, non-prestige dialect modality is just to say “asta” regardless of whether the noun is female or male. Sometimes this is pronounced “asta” and sometimes “âsta” (a with a hat, making it a deep gutteral “uh” sound).

“Incorrect” but common Romanian therefore makes it “caine asta” and “paine asta” as a form of simplification.

One of the primary reasons I have for writing this blog is simply to introduce you to a lot of the most common non-prestige dialect variants of Romanians because these are never covered in books or “proper” language guides. Some of the non-prestige variants are slang words (which I write about a lot) and others are things like “incorrect” verbal usage, etc.

It sounds kind of weird to say this but if you learned Romanian entirely from textbooks and classes, you would be understood everywhere in Romania but you would only barely be able to understand most people around you.

One of the most joyful experiences of my life here in Romania came when a guard (speaking a Bucharest variant) incorrectly identified me as a Romanian from Transylvania because I had code-switched to a Cluj variant of Romanian, which took me years to learn.

In general, one of the most interesting code-switching practices in some (especially Cluj) variants is the increased mixing of English into Romanian grammatical structures.

A few examples I’ve heard recently:

  • Vreau sa printez asta (I want to print this)
  • Din cauza uneori errori la upgradeaza softului (Because of a mistake when upgrading the software)
  • Ieri am cumparat un hard cu 300 de giga (Yesterday I bought a hard-drive with 300 gigabytes)

Clearly these are English words (print, upgrade, software, hard drive, gigabyte) that have been modified, declined and conjugated according to Romanian grammar rules.

Other times, “straight” English is mixed into a Romanian conversation for no particular reason, other than it has become “encoded” into the way some people speak, especially younger, more educated Romanians. It’s completely normal to hear two people speaking in Romanian and then one utters some brief phrase in English and then switches immediately back into Romanian again.

As I mentioned, Romanians are notoriously poor at “code switching” and this often includes a very hardened attitude towards speaking English. Most Romanians who speak English learned it from a combination of Romanian teachers, television shows and movies and speaking it to other Romanians.

This leads to a murky soup of poor enunciation, horrendous pronoun misuse (Yesterday I went at the mall), shambling verb conjugation (especially the past tense) and mixed or muddled euphemisms and slang. All of this would be fine except that most Romanians who speak this kind of English are dogmatic in their belief that their English is correct and yours, as a native speaker, is not.

Honestly in general this means speaking Romanian to a Romanian who doesn’t speak English is often easier than speaking English to a Romanian who thinks s/he speaks English. Of course, brief conversations like directions to a cathedral can be parsed out in this sort of pidgin hybrid, but this becomes a serious barrier when any kind of conversation in depth is desired.

In simple terms, as I’ve already advised, speak simple English in a slow way with Romanians.

Of course I’ve met a few Romanians over the years who are fantastically bilingual (or trilingual) and speak English even better than I do! No doubt. But in general, what I’ve described is what you will find here.

One of the hallmarks for anyone who wants to learn a new language is how easily you “code switch” already. People who can imitate accents, impersonate people’s voices, switch between slang talk and job interview talk, etc are those who are going to excel at learning a foreign language as well.

I’m not the most original comic in the world but one of my oldest, most standard jokes comes when people ask me how many languages I speak.

Person: So how many languages, in total, do you speak?
Me: As in fluently?
Person: Yeah, fluently.
Me: None.

Always gets at least a chuckle ;)

In reality, I consider all of the codes I can switch to as a separate “language” rather than strictly English as one and Romanian as two. I actually speak several kinds of Romanian:

  • Cluj variant of Romanian
  • “Correct” or textbook Romanian
  • Romanian as a Hungarian would speak it
  • English with Romanian nouns interspersed
  • Romanian with English words when I don’t know them in Romanian

Etc, etc. Sometimes I mix and match them within the same situation, as in I might speak Romanian to the person to my left (as they aren’t as comfortable in English) and then turn around and speak English to the person to my right.

For some inexplicable reason, you’re reading all of this because you want to learn this fantastical language. It’s easy to get bogged down in technical, linguistic terms and therefore I do my best to break them down in ways that make them easier (and more fun) to understand.

Whatever you do, don’t give up hope! Throughout the years I’ve had the chance to meet many trilingual (or more) speakers who also spoke Romanian and we’re in universal agreement that Romanian is indeed a special and unique language.

And never forget that if I can do it, so can you! :D

16 thoughts on “Code-Switching in Romanian

  1. Please take this article as interesting for the phenomenona it describes, but the Romanian examples given are full of mistakes. I’ve heard some of your interviews on youtube, and I have to say that, while your Romanian doesn’t expose you as American so easily as it would for other Americans I know, it is quite obvious you are a foreigner because of the grammar mistakes, and the way you can’t pronounce the ă and â sounds correctly. You also have a Cluj accent, which is very nice indeed.
    If you want to put the adjective after the noun, you can only do it by using the definite article.
    acest spital -> spitalul acesta/ spitalu’ ăsta (colloq.)
    asta is not valid for both male and female, as you say. Asta is the feminine form and ăsta the masculine/neuter. When we talk about a general situation, and our subject doesn’t have an obvious gender, we always, for some reason, use the feminine form.
    “This sucks.” -> “Asta e aiurea.”
    “What do you think about this?” -> “Ce crezi despre asta?”
    “I don’t like this” (situation) -> Nu-mi place asta.
    “I don’t like this guy” -> Nu-mi place ăsta.

    “Din cauza uneori erori la upgradarea softului.”
    Eroare is spelled with one r because it entered Romanian in the 19th century from French, and in those times all loanwords would be phonetically spelled into Romanian. It is still the way the Romanian Academy deals with some recent loanwords too, though it has stopped working in most cases. For instance mouse can also be spelled maus, according to DEX, while management and upgrade are spelled as in English only.

    More people in Cluj speaking “correct” Romanian? I wouldn’t say that. Maybe the Transilvanian dialect isn’t so different grammatically to the upper southern variant that got to be encoded as literary correct Romanian in the first Romanian language prints. But believe me, no one in Cluj can go undetected to other Romanians when they speak.

    As for the “e” pronounced as “ye” in Moldova, I’d say that’s more of a way someone from other regions would try to clumsily imitate a Moldavian accent. The actual way a Moldavian would transform “e” is to a straight “i” (ee in eng). “bine” -> “bini” (in an intermediary urbanised Romanian Moldavian version) or “ghini” (in rural Romanian Moldova and almost everywhere in the Republic of Moldova).
    The Moldavian accent in Romania has suffered great alterations in the last decades with the avenge of widely available television. The colloquial forms for the definite article “ălă” “ăsta” “aia” (versus acela, acesta, aceea in standard Romanian) used to be almost unheard in Romanian Moldova just 20 years ago. Everybody used either the literary correct form, or the Moldavian variants “așeala”, “aista”, “așeea”. Today the shortened forms “ălă” “ăsta” “aia”, which used to be specific to the South are widely used in both urban and rural contexts. It’s interesting how an “incorrect” dialectual form gets to replace other “incorrect” forms because of the spread of television and pop music, which are controlled to a large degree by Bucharest. It’s interesting how the colloquial Moldavian forms were kept in the Republic of Moldova, and that the shift in Romania has been more slow in some counties like Botosani or Vaslui, whose inhabitants sound a bit more “Moldavian” to someone in Iași for instance.


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