Going Down?


The other day I was walking in town and I passed a billboard with some admonishments to passersby on how to stay healthy. One thing “fun” about Moldova is that a huge percentage of billboards are used by the government, governmental agencies, or foreign NGOs to broadcast helpful information. Not quite sure if that’s due to a lack of commercial customers for the billboard owners or whether it’s some kind of local legislation on PSAs.

Whatever the reason, I saw a Romanian verb which reminded me of something I struggled with years ago when I was learning the language. Being an amateur etymologist, I’m always fascinated with the why of language and I only just recently found out the answer to this particular puzzle.

Walk, Don’t Run

If English is your native language, you might be surprised to learn just how weird and unusual the verb to walk is. Most languages, including both Germanic and Latin ones, really don’t have a proper equivalent to this verb.

Yes, if you learn Spanish you’ll be taught that caminar means “to walk” and correr means “to run” (Italian: camminare/correre) but in reality the first word means “to go down the road” while the second means “to move rapidly”. Nowadays they’re stretched to be the equivalent to English’s run/walk combo but they’ve never been truly identical.

Indeed, most languages simply started out with a verb equivalent “to go”. So saying “I’m going to the village” was automatically assumed to mean “I’m walking to the village”.

Down by Law

Modern Romanian still has a weird way of saying “to walk”, which is what I saw on the billboard the other day that triggered this article. In Romanian, to say “walk” you actually say “go by down” or “go by the down method”.

a merge = to go

a merge pe jos = to walk

Therefore:

Eu merg = I go

Eu merg pe jos = I walk

If you learn to conjugate the verb a merge (to go) then any time you want to say “walk” you just add the two words “pe jos” at the end, identical for both singular/plural and all gender forms.

Ex:

Noi mergem pe jos = We walk

Ea merge pe jos = She walks

Therefore, what the Moldovan billboard was exhorting me to do (in order to stay healthy) was mergi pe jos! or “be sure to do some walking every day!”

Fun fact: the French carmaker Peugeot sounds somewhat similar to “pe jos” when Romanians pronounce it, making it (approximately) sound like it’s saying “you’ll be walking with this car”, a hilarious mix-up similar to the Chevy Nova brouhaha. But, as far as I know, Peugeot doesn’t sell cars directly in Romania so it’s not a big problem. But now you know something cool to impress your friends with!

Ride, Sally, Ride

So why in the world does Romanian use “go by down” for walk instead of following the cue of other Latin languages? After all, drumetie in Romanian means “to hike”, and it’s based on the word for “road/path” (drum). So why not cobble together a similar word for “to walk”? Eu stradez, anyone? :P

The answer, as most secret things in Romanian are, lies in understanding Russian. This blog is not, and never shall be, a guide to learning Russian (whew!) but what I can say briefly is that Russian verbs for indicating motion are complex. In a nutshell, there are two very, very similar verbs, one that means “to go on foot” and the other “to go by vehicle”.

The second verb was invented long before anyone had cars, trains or planes to travel with so you need to look back in time to realize that the original meaning was to indicate to go by horseback. Therefore “walk” in Russian really means “to go” and “go by vehicle” really means “to go by horseback”.

A hundred years ago, of course, all cultures were heavily reliant on horses, which leads to fun modern words like caballero meaning “sir/gentleman” in Spanish based on the word “caballo” (horse) because only a gentleman would have a horse to ride. But that still doesn’t explain why Spanish, Italian, French, German et al don’t have this big distinction between going on foot (walking) and going on horseback (or by car, these days).

The true answer is two-fold. First, horses first originated on the huge grasslands called “steppes” in what is now Ukraine/Russia so the ancient forerunners of the Slavs were riding horses before anyone else was. Second, the Kieven Rus was overrun and conquered by the Mongols, a people who were fiercely fond of riding horses. Therefore, there was a huge cultural distinction between losers who walked (just “go” places) and winners who rode (“go” places on horseback).

In modern Russian, this translates to “I’m going to the restaurant” (with the verb “to go” in its “walk” form) and “I’m going to the restaurant (with the verb “to go” in its “by vehicle” form), nearly identical but hugely important (and a pain in the ass) to learn.

There’s no documentation on it but it’s pretty obvious that somewhere along the line Romanian people met some neighbor Slavs and inherited this deep cultural division between going somewhere and going somewhere on horseback.

Romanians didn’t split the concept into two verbs like Russian did but they did learn to distinguish between “going” (a merge) and “walking” (a merge pe jos), the second literally meaning “going by down”, which makes me laugh as a person who is walking is literally lower to the ground than someone on horseback.

And thus we arrive in modern days with sentences like this:

Eu merg in centru = I’m going downtown (UK: to the city centre)

Eu merg pe jos in centru = I’m walking downtown

Romanians aren’t fussy about distinguishing between just “going” and “going on foot” unless there’s a specific reason, i.e. a billboard urging you to get off your lazy ass and do some walking :D so you can just say “go” most of the time.

Bonus Points

Romanians often use the verb a plimba for “to walk” as well, but this verb means something like “stroll” or take a recreational, lazy, ambling walk. It’s related to the Spanish verb pasear.

A plimba is related to the same Latin root as the archaic English verb perambulate, which is completely dead in modern American English but still used by Britons in the word pram, meaning the little wheeled “vehicle” (USA: stroller) that you use to transport babies and small children in a leisurely, ambling manner.

Therefore:

Eu ma plimb in centru = I’m taking a leisurely walk around downtown

AND NOW YOU KNOW!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting article, Sam! It’s always fascinating to learn more about Romanian through the eyes of someone who learns it as a foreign language. But, as a little addition to your explanation, in Romanian we do have a verb for going somewhere on horseback/ riding a horse, which is “a calari”,which is different from “a merge” and “a merge pe jos”.

    Like

  2. xyz says:

    For even more fun with words, how about “Eu ma duc in centru” instead of “Eu merg in centru”? A te duce v a merge- a subject for another day, perhaps.

    Like

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