Words of the Day: Coaja – Piele

As you trip down the interesting highways and byways of the Romanian language, you come across some words that bisect in unusual ways with English and other languages.

An excellent example of this is the Romanian word coajă (kwah-zha), which refers to the “skin” of any plant.

In English, this “skin” on a fruit is usually called the “peel” while for trees it is usually called “bark” but in Romanian it is always called the coaja. It is often used for metaphorical “skin” as well, such as the crust on a piece of bread or a serving of mamaliga, or very rarely for the exterior surface of some man-made objects.

Meanwhile the skin of any animal (including humans) in Romanian is known as piele (pee-ell-eh). Because leather goods are made from the skin of animals, these too are also referred to in Romanian as piele.

So why is this so interesting? Well because in Slavic languages the word coajă (modern Russian: кожа or kozha) refers to animal (or human) skin and not the “skin” of plants and trees (a similar word is used however).

In English, by way of contrast, it is the word peel, which we refer to solely in the context of the “skin” of certain plants, that comes from the Latin root (pellis) for the word, similar to the Romanian word piele. Incidentally, the word “skin” in English comes from an old Norse/Germanic root.

Therefore in Romanian, the word for the “skin” of plants and trees comes from a Slavic root while the “skin” of an animal (and humans) comes from the Latin.

While all of the above is true for the nouns in question, the verb to peel, as in to remove the “skin” of either an animal or a plant in Romanian is generally referred to as “to clean” (a curăţa) the item in question. Therefore:

I peeled the potatoes = (Eu) am curăţat cartofi


PS – The other day I was reading the journal Teaching Classical Languages (PDF file) and came across this interesting and very relevant passage on page 85 about teaching Latin:

Her [my student’s] problem, as with many of my monolingual students, was not with the target language [Latin] but rather with English grammar. Not only did she not know grammatical terms but she did not seem comfortable with the usage of many formal English elements of grammar.

A lot of people ask me about learning Romanian and I generally point them towards a couple of books or else formal classes here in the country. I am neither trained nor inclined to teach Romanian to people and so I let others do that.

But that being said, I will tell you that if you want to get beyond memorizing a handful of nouns or phrases in Romanian, the very best thing you can do is master your understanding of English grammar.

Yes, I know if you grew up speaking English, it seems bizarre and not fun at all and tedious and boring to understand all the technical terms and what they refer to, but in the long run it will definitely help you understand and learn other languages. After all, most people are surprised that there is a subjunctive tense in English, and knowing what that is will help you assimilate its usage in other languages (especially Spanish).

Likewise, as I’ve mentioned before, understanding the technical differences between English pronouns will be extremely useful in understanding Romanian grammar’s distinction between the nominative and dative noun cases. Most native English speakers butcher their pronouns and besides driving me personally nuts, it is also a major impediment to understanding an inflected language like Romanian (or classical Latin).

Therefore my advice remains – if you want to learn Romanian, do yourself a favor and buy a good book on English grammar first. It will really help, I promise!