Hey, Hey, It’s the Genitive A!


If you’re learning Romanian, you’ll soon find out that there are a metric ton of strange and confusing grammar rules. The vocabulary and verb conjugations are relatively easy, but understanding noun cases is pretty tricky. And probably one of the most difficult things to learn is when and how to use the genitive “a”.

If you remember my post The Case of the Frustrating Cases, then you already know that Romanian nouns have five cases. One of those is the genitive, usually referring to something being of, about, or belonging to something else.

Formulating the genitive A is relatively easy, but you must remember that the “a” always depends on the object being described, not the possessor or beneficiary of that noun.

Singular: a (feminine) or al (masculine/neuter)
Plural: ai (masculine) or ale (female/neuter)

With the format being:

NOUN + (ADJECTIVE) + GENITIVE A + GENITIVE NOUN

I won’t even begin to describe exactly when and how to use the “genitive A” because it’s a subject tricky enough that my wife is studying it at the university and it’s a regular feature on TVR and other shows where they correct native speakers on grammar mistakes. In fact, here’s one I saw just the other day:

WRONG: Cele mai bune prietene ale ei = Her best (female) friends
RIGHT: Cele mai bune prietene ei = Her best (female) friends

To understand why that’s wrong, read below. Remember though that this is a university level subject so we’re just covering the basics here.

When to use the genitive A:

  • If the sentence is NOT describing ownership
  • If there’s a word between the object noun and the genitive noun
  • If the genitive noun comes before the connecting noun
  • When you’d use “of” in English between two nouns

Let’s look at a couple of brief examples:

Casa capitanului = The captain’s house
Casa de vara a capitanului = The captain’s summer house (the “a” is female because it’s describing the house, not the captain, which is a masculine noun)

Stema Chinei = China’s coat of arms (China “owns” their coat of arms)
Harta a Chinei = The map OF China (since China doesn’t “own” maps of their country)

When I used to live in Cluj, one of the most prominent buildings was the Casa de Cultura, literally the “House of Culture”. But the full name of that building is Casa de Culture a Studentilor (literally “The House of Culture of the Students”). Students are plural and masculine, but the word “house” is singular and female, so it gets the singular “a”.

I was reminded of all this when I was up at the American embassy for the tenth time this year (especially odd since I neither work there nor need my passport updated, etc) and saw the huge plaque outside listing the name of the country in three languages.

The official name for my natal country is “The United States of America”. This translates into Romanian as Statele Unite ale Americii.

This breaks down as:

Statele = The states (neuter plural nominative case, so treated as female)
Unite = united (female plural form of adjective)
ale = of (female plural version)
Americii = America (genitive singular case of the female noun “America”)

or

“The States United of America”

The short version of this in Romanian is SUA, pronounced sue-ah.

If there was just one state in America (and it was united), the form would be:

Statul = The state (singular nominative case neuter, so treated as masculine)
Unit = united (singular masculine adjective)
al = of (masculine singular version)
Americii = America (genitive singular case of the female noun “America”)

If all this gives you a headache, don’t sweat it. Romanian is a brain breaker precisely because you have to adjust every word in a sentence based on one tiny change. Assuming you didn’t already know how to translate “The United States of America” into Romanian, here is the thought process you have to go through:

  1. The adjective comes after the noun, so start with the noun (States)
  2. Remember that “stat” (state) is neuter, so masculine in the singular and female in the plural
  3. Begin with the nominative case (Statele) in the plural female form
  4. Adjust the adjective “United” to be female and plural because “States” are female and plural
  5. Realize that there’s a word (United) between the noun (States) and the other noun (America) so you’ll have to include the genitive A
  6. Add the plural female form of the genitive A (ale)
  7. Remember to finish with “America” in the genitive form

I promise, you won’t need to learn this until you’ve made huge progress elsewhere in learning Romanian grammar! I mainly wrote about it today to explain why the USA is “SUA” in Romanian.

Bonus points: USA is EE.UU. in Spanish and SSHA (США – pronounced “suh-sha-ah”) in Russian.

AND NOW YOU KNOW!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. unu says:

    If we have such an easy rule, how come is the article “a” (“ai”, “ale”, etc.) missing? That’s a very good question!
    My guess is that it got cut out from the literary language for cosmetic (phonetic) reasons, like to avoid having too many vowels close toghether:
    “Cartea a Mariei” became “Cartea Mariei” or “Caii ai mamei” became “Caii mamei”
    It is still used precisely that way in the southern dialect (Aromanian) which is more conservative, and also got very little academic interference:
    “Caii ali dadii”
    Easy to understand following the rule!
    Sometimes living things alone, the way they evolved for hundred of years is much better than messing up with them.

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  2. Oberon says:

    It is a bit more complicated Nevertheless it is difficult, even for a native Romanian, to match everything correctly.

    The particles “al”,”a”, “al”, “ale” forms of what is called ” the genitival article”. Its function is to differentiate from the other horrid case, the “dativ” case.

    When in doubt, try to use some helper questions: Whose? (genitiv), Whom? (dativ).
    Îi dau o carte prietenului meu – I give a book to my friend. To whom?. This is dativ. Of course there is no genitival article here
    Cartea prietenului meu. My friend’s book. Whose book? This is genitiv

    No article? When there is a definite article involved and the atribute sits next to the noun, there is no genitival article. It simply sounds bad.

    Cartea interesantă a prietenului meu. The interesting book of my friend. Whose interesting book? This is also genitiv, but there’s some other word in between (interesantă). Here we must use the genitival article.

    O carte a prietenului meu. A book of my friend. Whose book? The genitival article is used for indefinite article, or a “plain” noun to clearly differentiate from dativ. {îi dau o carte prietenului meu – Whom do I give a book? I give a book to my friend).

    I tried to be as “brief” as possible. Hope it is of any liitle help. And sorry for my English, I am not a native speaker, there are probably some mistakes in this text.

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  3. unu says:

    It really ain’t that bad; nowadays spoken Romanian has only three possible noun cases: G/D, N/A, and V which is rarely used. Of course there are 3 gender (M/F/N) and 2 number (S/PL) variations, just like the other latin based languages. So to make a long story short, when it implies ownership (who/se does it/ they belong to? ) it gets an “a, ai, ale” , but when it shows a direction of somthing given (to who/m?) it doesn’t.

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