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!