Eastern Romance: part 2

Sep 20, 2010 by

In response to Martin Lewis’ question/comment on an earlier posting, I’d like to clarify the situation re: the four Eastern Romance languages. The four languages in the Eastern Romance branch are: Romanian (with over 20 million million speakers in Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine and Israel), Aromanian (with 120,000 speakers; 50,000 of them in Greece and the rest in smaller communities in Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia), Megleno-Romanian (with 3,000 speakers in Greece and another 2,000 in Macedonia) and Istro-Romanian (with 560 speakers in Croatia). How distinct are these languages?

First of all, the four linguistic varieties are distinct enough to be considered separate languages by the linguistic definition of mutual unintelligibility. This is not surprising since they started diverging somewhere between 500 and 1000 C.E. The main reason for this divergence is in the languages that had the most effect on the four Eastern Romance varieties: Slavic languages in the case of Romanian and Greek in the case of the other three. Furthermore, the differences are not only lexical (if they were, linguists would consider them four dialects of the same language rather than four separate languages). While all four Eastern Romance varieties are members of the Balkan sprachbund, not all four exhibit the characteristic properties of the “Balkan prototype” in the same degree.

Take, for example, Aromanian. It shares many grammatical features (not to mention a good chunk of its vocabulary) with other Romance languages: for instance, it is a null-subject language allowing sentences with no overt (pronounced) subject, similar to the Spanish Baila bien ‘He/she dances well’ or Italian Piove ‘It rains’. Furthermore, Aromanian shares with Romanian some Eastern Romance features not found in other Romance languages, such as the suffixal definite article. And yet, Aromanian also has grammatical features not found even in Romanian and which place it squarely in the Balkan sprachbund.

One such feature is a complete disappearance of infinitive forms of verbs. The tenses and moods that in Romanian use the infinitive (e.g., the future simple tense and the conditional mood) are formed in other ways in Aromanian. For the same reason, verb entries in dictionaries are given in their indicative mood, present tense, first person, singular form. The lack of infinitive form is a typical Balkan feature, found in such languages as Greek and Serbian. For instance, in Serbian the subjunctive form is used instead of the infinitive, as in želim da pišem literally, ‘I want that I write’ (instead of the more natural English ‘I want to write’ — to write is an infinitive). Compare this Serbian construction with the one in Croatian (a very similar linguistic variety which some linguists even consider to be the same language as Serbian). In Croatian, one would say želim pisati literally ‘I-want to-write’. (For those unfamiliar with the term “subjunctive”: it is the form used in sentences like It is necessary that he understand this. For most verbs, the subjunctive form is the same as the bare form of the verb. The clearest exception is the verb be, as in If I were a Rothchild… instead of If I was)

Another feature that separates Aromanian (and Megleno-Romanian) from other Romance languages (e.g., Portuguese) is the formation of the pluperfect (cf. past perfect in English). While in Romanian the pluperfect is formed synthetically, Aromanian uses a periphrastic construction with the auxiliary verb ‘have’ in the imperfect (aveam) and the past participle, as in French (except that French replaces avoir ‘have’ with être ‘be’ for intransitive verbs. This is another feature typical of the Balkan sprachbund.

As for Megleno-Romanian, it too shares a great deal of its vocabulary and grammar with other Eastern Romance languages, but it also exhibits characteristic Greek and Albanian influences, not found in Romanian. Among the Greek lexical borrowings are such words as proaspit ‘fresh’ (from the Greek prósfatos) and chirămidă ‘brick’ (from the Greek keramídi). From Albanian come such words as brad ‘fir tree’ (from the Albanian bredh) and bucuros ‘beautiful’ (from the Albanian bukurë).

Moreover, Megleno-Romanian has some unique phonetic characteristics, not found in the other Eastern Romance languages, such as the presence of five long vowels (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū) and the loss of the unaccentuated initial /a/, as in adaugdaug (‘I add’) and afarăfară (‘outside’).

As for Istro-Romanian, it too shares a lot of its vocabulary and grammar with the other three Eastern Romance languages (e.g., suffix definite article) and also has peculiar features of its own. One difference between Istro-Romanian and Romanian is in that the rhotacism of the former: the intervocalic /n/ of Romanian corresponds to /r/ in Istro-Romanian, as in lumină (‘light’ in Romanian) corresponding to lumira in Istro-Romanian).

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