Eastern Romance

Sep 9, 2010 by

In the previous several postings we examined in great detail languages and dialects of the Western Romance dialect continuum and touched on languages of the Southern Romance branch (e.g., Corsican). Today, we will look at the remaining branch of Romance: Eastern or Balkan Romance.

This branch includes several varieties of Romanian and a language called Aromanian, spoken by 50,000 people in Greece, as well as by smaller groups in Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia. Aromanian split from Romanian between 500 and 1000 C.E. and since then several dialects of it have developed. Today, Aromanian has no legal status in Greece, and as a result its speakers undergo rapid assimilation to Greek culture. While people over 50 are usually fluent in the language, many of those between 25 to 50 are passive speakers with limited knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. The knowledge of Aromanian among children and youth is even more limited; for example, many children attend Greek schools. Aromanian is not taught in schools except for one course at the University of Salonica. So even though some revival of the culture is in progress since the 1980s, the faith of the Aromanian language hangs in the balance.

Romanian, on the other hand, is spoken by nearly 20 million people in Romania, Moldova, Hungary*, Ukraine, Croatian, Greece and in emigre communities in the United States and Israel. It has an official status in Romania. In Moldova, the official language according to the constitution is “Moldovan” but linguists consider it the same language as Romanian. Furthermore, Romanian has an official status of sorts in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina in Serbia (together with Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Slovak, and Rusyn languages).

Romanian is clearly a Romance language: its lexical similarity with Italian is estimated at 77%, with French at 75%, with Sardinian at 74%, with Catalan at 73%, with Portuguese and Rheto-Romance at 72% and with Spanish at 71%. The higher lexical similarity with French and Italian may be explained by more recent lexical borrowings from these languages.

However, Romanian also exhibits strong similarities with its neighbors: Slavic languages and other languages of the Balkans. The Slavic influences on Romanian are especially noticeable and can be observed at all linguistic levels: vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. About 10% of Romanian words are of Slavic origin. The most likely explanation revolves around the migration of Slavic tribes, who traversed the territory of present-day Romania during the early evolution of the language. This process of “Slavicization” of Romanian was similar to process of “Germanization” of (northern French) Langue d’Oïl varieties and northern Italian dialects.

But the Slavic-Romanian contact may have been even more intense and intimate than that between Germanic and Western Romance speakers. Apparently, interethnic marriages were very common as Slavs settled among the Romanians and mingled with them very intensely. Indeed, some Romanian words describing family relations are of Slavic origin or show heavy Slavic influence: nevastă ‘wife’ (cf. the Russian nevesta ‘bride’) and plod ‘baby’ (cf. the Russian plod ‘fruit; fetus’).

And the influence of Slavic on Romanian goes beyond the vocabulary. Take for example, the grammatical construction used to express psychological and physiological states. In Romanian one says Mi-e frig, literally ‘to me is cold’. This is similar to the Slavic way of expressing it: for example, Mne xolodno in Russian (again, literally ‘to me cold’). In contrast, Western Romance languages express this by an analog of ‘I am cold’ or ‘I have cold’. Romanian also differs from its Western Romance brethren in preserving the Latin cases and neutral gender; this too is a Slavic influence.

Romanian’s location in the Balkans has also had a profound effect on its vocabulary and especially its grammar. While most of Romanian grammar is based on Latin, there are some features that are shared only with other languages of the Balkans and not found in other Romance languages. Other Balkan languages either belong to a different branch of the Indo-European language family (Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian are Slavic languages; Greek and Albanian are isolates within the Indo-European family) or do not belong to this family at all (e.g., Turkish). But despite their loose connection, Balkan languages share many grammatical features not found in their relatives.

For example, as mentioned above, Romanian preserves a case system, which has been lost in other Romance languages. Curiously, while the contact with other Balkan languages (primarily of the Slavic group) helped Romanian preserve the case system, this contact had the opposite effect on the Slavic languages of the Balkan. While West Slavic languages (e.g., Polish) and East Slavic languages (e.g., Russian) preserve a rich case system, Slavic languages in the Balkans feature a reduced case system. For example, they are known for the syncretism of genitive and dative cases (i.e., the forms for these cases are the same). Thus, in Bulgarian na Marija serves as both genitive and dative form of the name Mary, while in Russian the genitive form is Mariji and the dative form is Marije. In other words, Balkan languages exhibit a sort of convergence in their grammars: Romanian preserved a simplified case system (unlike other Romance languages which lost it altogether), while Balkan Slavic languages simplified their case systems (unlike other Slavic languages which preserved the richness and distinctness of forms).

Another peculiarity of Balkan languages is their use of a suffixed definite article. For example, in Romanian the definite article is not a separate word placed before the noun, as in English the wolf, but a suffix -ul, as in lup-ul (literally, ‘wolf-the’; compare the stem with the Italian lupa ‘she-wolf’). Similarly, in Bulgarian (a Slavic language) ‘the book’ is rendered as kniga-ta (literally, ‘book-the’) and in Albanian ‘the man’ is rendered as mik-u (literally, ‘man-the’). This too illustrates a convergence of various Balkan languages: other Romance languages have independent pre-nominal definite articles, which developed out of Latin demonstratives, while other Slavic languages have no articles at all. In fact, this phenomenon of suffixed definite articles is not found anywhere else in Europe except Basque and the Scandinavian languages (cf. the Icelandic hestur ‘horse’ — hesturinn ‘the horse’; the Norwegian stol ‘chair’ — stolen ‘the chair’; the Swedish hus ‘house’ — huset ‘the house’).

* Up until the Magyar invasion in late 9th century the population of what is now Hungary spoken a distinct Romance language as well.

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