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

15 Comments Add yours

  1. lynda says:

    What way of criticizing…as if all English people speak correctly. I can tell you that you are entirely wrong.You don’t have the faintest idea! You should learn more about the Romanian language. ..the variety spoken in Cluj isn’t either a correct one. The correct version is that you learn from books, and there are a lot of people who speak correctly. What can you tell me about Cockney speakers? Are they speakers who use the language right? Where are they from? Think twice before you write anything? It seems that you stayed in Cluj since you’ve arrived there…so it’s time for a change and perhaps you’ll be surprised…


  2. Shoona says:

    I totally agree with you that there could well be added a ponaersl finance class to the currant curriculum to better prepare kids for their future but what class would it replace? English, math, government, history, are classes you need to prepare for the future. You may not think so until your out there and then realize you still didn’t learn enough to not feel like a dummy sometimes. Gym, computers, typing and art aren’t as needed perhaps but lend stimulation to a part of us thats just as important as our intellect. So whats the answer? Perhaps another hour of school a day? Or perhaps take a college course at the community college after school hours or after you graduate. Theres ways to find this stuff out and the schools can’t be blamed for everything. You live in the US. Theres nothing to hold you back from knowing almost anything you want to learn about except a attitude that blames others for the lack of knowing and a lack of motivation to go seek it out for yourself.


  3. Anonymous says:

    bro, here: Din cauza uneori errori la upgradeaza softului.

    Correct version: Din cauza uneori errori la upgradearea softului .

    I recommend studying Romanian syntax,
    a upgrada – verb, infinitive tense(basic form of the word)
    upgradeaza- verb again or adverb depending of usage in the syntax in relation with other words in the sentence.
    upgradarea – substantive . Here you have to use the substantive form, the predicate is pointing at this word as a location where the subject occurs making the forms above incompatible :-)

    It pains me that I forgot a lot of romanian morphology and syntax, it is indeed a difficult language, but a sexy one. I hope you can perfect it- once you thing you nailed it, Academia de Politie test de admitere and give it a shot ;0


  4. Alex says:

    Just read this post, I am conflicted whether to agree with you or be upset :))
    I agree that some people are smug about their English for no reason, but I also think that you will find a lot of Romanians who speak perfect English when it comes both to pronunciation and grammar. I think we have learning foreign languages in our DNA somehow :D


  5. Vlad says:

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

    Cuvintele care ţin de informatică sunt un caz special. Majoritatea au fost împrumutate fără ezitare din engleză, habar n-am de ce, deşi pentru unele dintre ele există şi echivalente în română (pe care nimeni nu le foloseşte în registrul colocvial). Un lucru e sigur: în engleză acele cuvinte sunt mult mai scurte.


    1. Vlad says:

      A, şi am uitat să spun că lucrul e valabil şi pt restul ţării, nu numai pt Cluj :)


  6. Megan says:

    Ahaa, this explains the high useage (sp?!) of words like ‘luviu’, ‘misiu’ etc and most recently: ‘mitu’ (me too) I have been stumbling upon among the 18-20 year olds I talk to! I think it’s cute how the words sound like English but are spelled in the way that they pronounce them :) I have taken to writing them like that too.

    Plus it would explain the comment I recieved about my pronounciation, which was ‘your accent is perfect, *even better than most Romanians!*’, which I was confused about… Very interesting indeedy! :D


    1. Sam R. says:

      You got it! :D


    2. Zergu says:

      That way of writing probably stems from the fact that Romanian is a phonetic language while English is not. Oddly enough, with the contact with the English language Romanian is slowly srifting apart from its almost strict phonetic writing. (The latest ortographic and orthopepy Romanian dictionary was a huge mess with words such as „feeling” being declared as correct Romanian while there were higly used Romanian words with the same meaning and the spelling was not phonetic.)


  7. Hahaha says:

    LOL @ “binye”….rofl….XD

    Hm…I think can relate to a lot of random stuff in this post…the “prestige dialect” thing is sort of strange…it also happens in Korean, where the Seoul dialect is called sth like the way “cultured people” speak in official terms @_@…hahaha I’m too stupid to understand a lot of other dialects b/c I grew up just speaking that one, kind of like the thing you mentioned not being able to understand other ppl…

    Hahaha…for German, I did not understand Hochdeutsch (?) at all…

    The concept of a “prestige” dialect really annoys me….@_@…though diff. dialects can sometimes be hard to understand…



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