Folks, Let’s Talk


Pull up a comfortable chair and get a glass of juice or something, because we need to sit down and have a little chat.

We need to talk about the Romanian language. Yes, it’s time for “that” talk, the one about the birds and bees of Romanian grammar, syntax, slang and all the rest.

The first thing we need to talk about is that we’ve got several ongoing problems with this language, all of which require finessing and management.

The second problem arises with the author of this blog, aka me, the one writing this sentence, because my head is an entire ciorba of languages, all of them regrettably similar and therefore often close enough that I get them mixed up.

Learning Romanian is a little bit like trying to catch a greased pig – the closer you get to it, the more slippery it becomes. You can take almost any sentence in English and find multiple ways to translate it into Romanian, especially taking into account regional idioms, slangs and usages into account, plus the hundreds (if not thousands) of different ways Romanians speak “incorrectly” on a daily basis.

Translating into Romanian is equally difficult because every time you say A = B then you almost invariably need to add the caveat “except sometimes C or D or E or F…” and the process is nearly endless.

A tiny difference or lack of understanding can lead to complete confusion. I’ve spoken English all of my life and yet the following story is true:

Nigerian: Please pass the potatOES
Me: The what?
Nigerian: The potatOES. You know, right there in front of you.
Me: The what?
Nigerian: The potatOES.
Me: Oh… you mean poTAToes.
Nigerian: Yes, of course.

Keep in mind that he was a native English speaker as well but the simple fact that he emphasized a different syllable of a simple word I knew quite well made it almost impossible for me to understand him.

An example in Romanian would be the word for “here”, which in the prestige dialect is aici pronounced ah-eetch. All fine and good until one day you meet a Romanian who pronounces this word ah-chee instead. It’s a small change and yet it’s completely unintelligible until it’s explained.

And that, my friends, is the point – the explanations in Romanian can be endless. Especially the Romanian language is like a tiny raft mostly made out of Latin being buffeted on all sides by a variety of other languages.

We’ve already seen through many slang words “of the day” that their roots are from German, the gypsy language, Hungarian or other foreign languages. Furthermore, regional differences in Romania are huge, with pljeskavica (Пљескавица) being sold on every corner in Timisoara while The Woman had to ask me what it even is, as she’d only vaguely heard of it.

And despite many Romanians’ inherent dislike of this fact, the Slavic grammatical elements, pronunciation, nouns and verbs in Romanian have a huge influence. I realize this fact is not studied in Romanian schools so it seems mysterious and debatable when, in fact, it is not.

The spelling in Romanian is not even close to being phonetic, and has a number of hidden elements (if you don’t speak Slavic languages) that seem “obvious” to people who grew up with the language but are very difficult to learn as an adult studying Romanian as a second (or third, etc) language.

And furthermore we have to ask ourselves the “Swedish Question”. Certain languages like English, German, Chinese or Russian are “international” languages, useful in a wide variety of countries and situations, including accessing information online.

But what about languages like Romanian or Swedish (hence the name)? They’re only primarily useful in their “homeland” because anywhere else, you can probably converse in a secondary language. Why ever bother to learn it (assuming you weren’t born here)?

This is an extremely worthwhile question, so let’s examine a few motives.

1 – Tourist

All you really need is a few expressions because learning anything else beyond that would require a lot of effort. Since you’re only going to be in the country a short time, it’s just not worth it as you’re never going to be able to carry on a long conversation in Romanian.

2 – Business

I can understand the need to learn a few basic phrases and perhaps want to understand a few basic nouns and verbs so you can understand the gist of what’s going on when Romanians are speaking.

But let’s be honest, in general, the Romanians are going to be speaking your language, not the other way around. There are millions of Romanians who speak English, German or Spanish but how many (true) foreigners know Romanian? You do the math.

That being said, focus on pronunciation over correct grammar every time. It’s far easier to understand mixed up grammar if you can understand the words coming out of the person’s mouth.

3 – You the Non-Romanian Know a Romanian

Maybe like that humorous videoclip from a few days ago, you want to impress a Romanian. Or maybe you have a Romanian friend or romantic partner.

Memorize a few phrases, focusing on pronunciation over comprehension, and the Romanian in your life will be utterly delighted. To them it’s all icing on the cake as they never expect you to “really” learn Romanian.

4 – Language Dilettante

Many people, including myself, like to “dabble” in foreign languages and learn a little bit. All that’s good and fine but there’s no need to drill down in depth to every possible nuance, variant and regional custom.

Since originally Romanian and about 100 other languages (including English) had the same root, sometimes it’s fun to poke around other languages to learn more about the ones you already know.

Example: Nu raspundem pentru pierderile.

Literally this means “We are not responsible for losses”, which is an accurate translation as well.

However it also literally means “We do not give a response for losses” meaning exactly the same in English, “respond” as in give an answer back to someone.

And from there you can learn that English has the same root, that to be “responsible for” something means you are required to answer or literally respond to someone in case something happens. And once you realize that, you suddenly have a new insight to the entire legal system, especially when it concerns (legal) responsibility for one’s actions.

Another example is the Romanian verb: tergiversa as in eu am tergiversat toata ziua.

At first glance this seems incomprehensible but then you realize English has an identical word of its own, beautifully preserved from the original Latin.

Once you know that, you see the Latin root is tergum (back) plus vertere (to turn) and from there you can easily remember the Romanian verb for “to turn” (in a circle), which is invarti.

Furthermore, many multilingual people I know (who also speak Romanian) enjoy Romanian specifically because it has such a powerful potential to be an elegant and musical language.

All of that being true, getting to the level of a fluent, easily conversant speaker of Romanian is a Herculean task so difficult that no rational person would ever attempt it purely to satisfy a whim.

5 – The Insane

I was going to include a category of people who live in Romania (or Republica Moldova) and so have an actual need to know but that’s simply not true – there is no need to truly speak, read and write Romanian even if you live here 20 years.

Therefore the only logical conclusion, once we strip away all other possibilities, is that you must be insane to “truly” learn to speak, read and write the Romanian language.

I fully believe this is true even as this category includes myself. I first came to Romania over 10 years ago with exactly one word in my “pocket” (opt – the number 8) and did just fine. So does everyone else who comes here, even those who know even less.

I can do everything from buy clothes, food and phones, get directions, lodgings and information, have long conversations, conduct business and travel on just about any form of transportation (including hitchhiking) all with just speaking English and pointing and gestures.

I certainly had no “plan” of ever learning Romanian – it’s just something that happened organically because a series of over-riding circumstances allowed it to happen.

In other words, I learned Romanian because I lived here and not I learned Romanian in order to live here. It’s a little bit like how I learned to own 10+ pairs of pants and am always buying new ones because that’s what people do here.

And yes I laugh and now tell the story in a jokey manner but it’s far more akin to one day I woke up and spoke/understood Romanian rather than ever deliberately setting out to make that my goal.

And partly it’s just because I’m a damn garrulous person :P Even my own mother will agree. I enjoy talking (and writing) and not being able to do it drives me personally crazy. I also enjoy listening to people speak as well, and listening to them in their native language can be quite a joy.

Since I also live here, Romanian is a language useful to speak. I can walk down to the corner store, have a simple and brief conversation with the clerk and both of us are on our way. Whereas if I walk in there as The Foreigner, especially the High-Status Foreigner, it can become a big show and hoopla and that’s not always desirable.

But really there’s no mileage in it, as we say. What’s the use in speaking Romanian? Besides the aesthetic pleasure, what’s the practical use in learning to speak or read (or heaven forbid, write) in Romanian? Besides saving me a few minutes at the store, is there anything truly “useful” about speaking Romanian?

No, not really. And that’s the honest truth.

But, as the saying goes, you’re never going to be the only crazy person on Earth, and so somewhere, in some mystical galaxy far, far away, there are other people who are learning Romanian on some kind of level for some kind of reason.

I write my grammar and language posts for these people, whoever they are or may be, as I imagine a lot of them will be read months if not years after I wrote them.

Furthermore, while I suppose there are more advanced blog writing options available, I do all of it “by hand”, including all the html coding, which while not exactly onerous, can be quite daunting sometimes especially with those tables.

Long story short – I do occasionally get things wrong and I’m always grateful for the corrections. Sometimes these are stupid typos and sometimes I’m just plain wrong. My brain, as I said, is like a soup of words, phrases and etymology and it’s a good day when I can write English correctly.

But it’s also a work of personal redemption for me. I found most of the textbooks and “official” lessons to be daunting and so difficult looking that it made me want to not even try. And now every time I write about something, it solidifies it for me even further, a wonderful (personal) benefit.

Romanian is a hell of a lot of fun once you get beyond the first, frustrating steps and let things fly. But once you start crunching out pithy, direct and yet touching phrases, this language can really sparkle for you. That is the spirit I try to write these posts in, both to defeat discouragement as well as to show you just how much fun you can really have.

Once you can write a sentence like te plac si nu am ce sa ma fac and realize not one word is over three letters, it is poignant, direct and so nakedly unashamed about its intention that you truly can begin to enjoy Romanian as opposed to looking at it as an uphill climb through a tangly thicket of dashes, s’s and t’s with a tail and silent letters.

For the Romanians reading this: imagine the act of tying your shoe. Now imagine trying to explain that process to a friend, without using either your shoes or making any kind of gestures or hand motions – do it solely with words. Difficult, isn’t it?

Once we begin to break down and analyze even “simple” every day things, we can always find complications. My mission, and I hope yours too (esp if you’re a regular commenter) is to avoid these complications, whenever possible.

Please don’t consider this a “scolding” of any kind, it’s just me rambling on, as I am wont to do :P I think everything has gone extraordinarily well on here and I thank all of you (commenters) for making that happen!

And with that, I’ll leave you all with a true story.

INSIDE A LARGE, INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IN USA (ARRIVALS AREA)

Overhead announcement: Bing-bong, will a Romanian speaker please respond to passport control station 37 for assistance. Repeat, will a Romanian speaker please respond to passport control station 37 for assistance.
Lady Behind Me In Line: *snort* Romanian? Who in the world speaks that language?
Me: *turns to face woman with icy smile* Me.

AND NOW YOU KNOW!

3 thoughts on “Folks, Let’s Talk

  1. Hey there. I can totally relate to your reasons for learning Romanian. I am Romanian myself and for no logical reason whatsoever I am learning Japanese. I have no intention to move there, I do not need it for my work, and I can say I discovered the culture through the language. I just like the “music” of it. For now what keeps me going (despite the 3 000+ characters each coming with at least 2 different way of reading them) is the satisfaction I get when watching a movie or listening to a song and being able to understand an idea without checking for the translation. It’s an amazing feeling.
    That being said, I have a German friend living in Paris who spend 6 months in Bucharest and liked it so much that he is learning Romanian. It started because he wanted to be able to speak with his friends (whom all speak English) and now he takes classes at the Romanian Cultural Institute here in Paris and he’s pretty good, he can have a decent conversation. He made me realize how lucky I was for not needing to learn Romanian as a foreign language :) Congratulations for your achievement, it is quite a hassle.

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  2. Sam, here’s my 2 bani:

    One’s mother tongue always seems easier to learn and almost always seems more logical than other languages. Also, once you become proficient in one language, you forget how hard it was at the beginning and how little sense it made. And how you thought you could never learn it. You can’t understand why beginner learners have problems with the basics that you yourself used to have problems with. It happens to me whenever I deal with beginners in English (mostly young relatives, because I’m not a teacher).

    That being said, I can confirm that Romanian is quite difficult to learn compared to other Romance languages or English, mostly because of case declension and verb conjugation.

    Regarding “aici – aci”… hehe :) What about “gonna,” “wanna,” “kinda” ? What about “twenny” instead of “twenty” ? Is the last day of the week “Sunday” or “Sundy” ? How about a “sundae” on a “Sunday” ? I could go on and on. How about French ? I can read Hugo without a dictionary, I understand Sarkozy’s speeches or documentaries on TV5, but I’ll be damned if I can make out more than a couple of words when a regular Frenchman is interviewed about the gas crisis.

    You say that the regional differences of the Romanian language are huge. That may seem so to a foreigner, even to one who’s lived here for a long time and speaks the language. But here’s what Wikipedia has to say about that:

    “The differences between these varieties are usually small, usually consisting in a few dozen regional words and some phonetic changes, but also grammar aspects. Standard literary Romanian language is identical when it comes to writing, regardless of the region or country. Like most natural languages, Romanian can be regarded as a dialect continuum. The dialects of Romanian are distinguished by minor differences in pronunciation. Romanians themselves speak of the differences as accents or “speeches” (in Romanian: accent or grai). Over the last century, however, regional accents have been weakened due to mass communication and greater mobility.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanian_language#Dialects

    I don’t know what pljeskavica is, but I’m sure not everybody in rural Montana knows the names of all those Mexican foods sold in the SW or in big cities across the US. But I think that Romanian and American English are much more homogeneous languages, compared to British English, French, Italian or German. I can understand amything any peasant from around the country might say to me, except for a few regional words and the fact that their pronunciation would make me chuckle.

    I really don’t think spelling is a problem for Romanian. On the contrary, once you learned the sounds for each letter and some rules, you’re good to go. The only problems are spotting diphtongs/triphtongs, the silent “i” ending and the fact that speakers of anglo-germanic languages have a hard time pronouncing Romance sounds.

    If you think reading/spelling is a problem, consider these:
    – no phone operator or desk clerk will ask you to spell your Romanian name or the name of your street — unless it’s a foreign name . They will just know. As we say, “se scrie cum se aude” – “spell it as you hear it”. By contrast, English or French surnames (except for the most common ones) are almost impossible to “spell as you hear them”.
    – there are no Spelling Bee competitions in Romania because every word that is not a recent loan word “se scrie cum se aude”.

    Meanwhile, American English speakers have a real problem with vowels. With all the slang and lazyspeak, it’s becoming a one-vowel language. You mangle your vowels beyond recognition and speakers can’t make the difference between “affect” and “effect” or they spell “definately” or “impossable.”

    PS: I totally agree with you, no one needs to learn Romanian. It’s a complicated, conservative and provincial language you won’t need outside Romania and you can do without it even in Romania. But we’re conquering the world one foreigner at a time and one day we’ll rule the world, mwahahaha !!!1ONE One day, when a little old lady will ask “Who in the world speaks Romanian ?” on any airport in the world, everybody around will turn to her and say “Me !” :))))

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    1. Awesome comment and a huge thumbs up from me :D

      Let’s be perfectly clear – the only reason I can write and speak English is because I learned it as a young child, otherwise I’d be hopelessly f*cked!

      Like

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