This seems to be Nicholas Whyte day at LH; not only did he provide the wonderful McDonald’s language quiz, he had earlier forwarded me an article (which I just read — I’ve been slowly catching up with my inbox) on the language brawl in Moldavia, where some people want to speak Romanian and others Moldavian, despite the fact that they’re the same language. The original TOL article (by Vitalie Dogaru) is not accessible unless you subscribe, but happily it’s been reproduced at LINGUIST-LIST. Here’s the gist of it:

The reason for this proliferation of ambiguities is highlighted in the conflict that produced the title Our Language Day. After 1989, when Moldova was still part of the Soviet Union, it was called Our Romanian Language Day to celebrate the decision, on 31 August 1989, to proclaim Romanian Moldova’s official language. Then, in 1994, three years after gaining independence, the country’s second freely elected parliament stated that the state language was “Moldovan.” The word “Romanian” was subsequently removed from the name of the holiday.

Linguists across the world are, though, in agreement: “Moldovan” is Romanian. Since the linguistic battle over the nature of Moldovan Romanian began in 1994, numerous international conferences, symposia, and workshops have demonstrated that, linguistically, there is no distinctly Moldovan language. There are no longer conferences on the issue. For academics, the issue has been resolved.
But not so for the Moldovan government and many Moldovans. For them, naming the language of the country’s ethnic majority is more than a matter of linguistics. The persistent question “Is our language Moldovan or Romanian?” has been mirrored in the paradoxical existence of publications written in the same language but which, below their title, carry the tagline “periodical in Romanian” or “periodical in Moldovan.”
And in the bookshops, a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary (the equivalent of an English-American dictionary) has become a bestseller, though as a curiosity rather than as an academic work. (The academic credibility of the dictionary were, in passing, undermined when Vasile Stati, its author, was unable to explain the meaning of a short story written by a talkshow host using only the distinctively “Moldovan” words taken from the dictionary.) In the classroom, the United Nations Development Program, which was trying to promote Romanian-language courses among ethnic minorities, two years ago tried to sidestep the problem by saying that its courses were taught in “the language that unifies us.”

You’ll have to read the complete article to learn the political background to all this, but I think the linguistic absurdity is quite striking all by itself. (Incidentally, the LINGUIST-LIST version has had the apostrophes and quotes stripped out; I’ve restored them from the e-mailed article.)


  1. I recently got a cheap Romanian dictionary and have been waiting for my moment. This is off topic, but only somewhat.
    One of my pet ideas is the proliferation of “Romes”: Rome, Ravenna, Constantinople, Moscow, Aix/Aachen, Vienna, Avignon, Romania, the Crusader kingdoms in Greece, the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia (in eastern records, anyway).
    Romanian glossary:
    Rom: Gypsy
    Roman: Roman
    Roman (caret over a): Romanian
    Romansa (sedilla on s, little curve over a*): (Swiss) Romansch
    The interesting ones are these:
    Ruman (caret over a): serf, villein, peasant.
    Rumanie (caret): serfdom, feudal dependency.
    So anyway, Rumania and Romania apparently aren’t really interchangable. The former apparently has a pejorative flavor.
    Sorry about my HTML-phobia!
    *And what DO you call that little thingie which marks unaccented syllables in poetry?
    Ruman (caret over a):

  2. From what I’ve read the differentiation of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish seems almost as silly, along with the Norwegian differentiation between bokmal and nynorsk (sp?), but since the Scandinavians are such nice, sensible, efficient, prosperous people we forgives them.

  3. Ah, nationalism. A friend of mine who was once a technocrat in Belgrade told a similar story about a Serbian law requiring subtitles for Croatian movies. Most of the audience reacted with laughter rather than patriotic fervor.

  4. Everyone I know from Moldova speaks only Russian and Yiddish. Guess they didn’t get the memo.

  5. Mr. Berger – au contrair, they ‘ve got the memo all right. That’s why they’re here and not there.

  6. So, I’ve sometimes wondered, how significant are the differences between Catalan and Valencian? Is there a distinct Balearic Islands dialect? And how different is Gallego from Portuguese? Is there a dialect of Catalan in Andorra?

  7. language is to talk to friends and prevent ones neighbours from understanding. ‘Tis very simple, me ol china,keep the tit for tat on.

  8. Zizka, the differences between Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are not that silly. Danish is really quite hard for a Swede to understand and speak unless they come from Skåne. Obviously, if you can read Swedish, you can read the other ones. And I can talk Nordish with Norwegians and be perfectly well understood. But this is not true with Danes. The pronunciation even of simiar words is very hard to understand.

  9. Zizka, the differences between Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are not that silly. Danish is really quite hard for a Swede to understand and speak unless they come from Skåne. Obviously, if you can read Swedish, you can read the other ones. And I can talk Nordish with Norwegians and be perfectly well understood. But this is not true with Danes. The pronunciation even of simiar words is very hard to understand.

  10. Zachary Sholem Berger’s remarks above and Tatiana’s response echo what I’ve been thinking about Moldova. The non-Romanian ethnics who live there, especially in the capital city, don’t speak Moldovan/Romanian; they speak Russian. (And the older Jewish ones speak Yiddish.) They are Russian, Ukrainan, Jewish and any other of the many “nationalities” of the former USSR. I spent two weeks in Kishinev (I know they call it something else now but I can’t spell it or pronounce it) around five years ago. Moldova proved to be a friendly country. Despite being a Soviet state, the Moldovans don’t hate their Russian speaking neighbors. You can hear Russian spoken freely in the markets as well as Moldovan/Romanian. I wish the Baltics would follow suit, especially regarding Russian/Jewish/Ukrainian ethnics living in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

  11. In the Baltics, though, Russophones have to learn the local languages. In Moldova, they don’t.
    It doesn’t strike me as a good thing in Moldova that Russophones see no need to learn the language of the majority of their country’s population, and it doesn’t seem fair to me that Romanian/Moldovan-speakers have to bear the burden of an unequally-distributed bilingualism.

  12. The Baltic residents I’m referring to are Russian- speaking adults, over the age of 40, some even older, who are not able to get citizenship due to their lack of mastery of Latvian. These are not Soviet oppressors, but humble Russian-speaking workers, many of whom have never lived outside of the Baltics. It’s one thing to teach Latvian and other Baltic languages in the schools to a new generation. It’s another to punish grown-ups for their inability to learn a hard second language as an adult. The Moldovan solution is much more humane.

  13. I worked in Romania for 18 months and during that time travelled to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau on three occasions.
    My observation at the time was that Moldovian was Romanian spoken with a slavic accent. 🙂
    As mentioned previously there are a mixture of ethnic backgrounds present in the region that now makes up the Republic of Moldova. As the maps at the following links show, the control of this region has passed backwards and forwards between the Romanian principality of Moldova and various empires over the centuries:
    In the period between the world wars the region was part of Romania. In the closing stages of WWII the Soviet army took control of the region claiming it as enemy terrority, despite the fact that the Romanian army was by then also fighting against the Nazis. Based on the accounts I’ve read/heard, the Soviets sent many Romanians to their deaths in the gulags while transplanting enthic Slavic people from Russia into the region. While the region was part of the USSR, I’ve been informed that the Romanian language and culture was suppressed in the State controlled society – education, business and government was conducted in Russian. Probably during this time the Soviets informed the Romanians that they were enthic Moldovans to break any national ties they felt with Romanians in Romania. Thus I believe it was Soviet social engineering that began the concept that there is an Moldovan language and identity distinctly independent from the Romanian language and identity.
    Although independent from the USSR since 1991, Russian forces have remained on the slim section of Moldovan territory east of the Dniester River. In that small area a majority of the population are Slavic, mostly Ukrainians and Russians. They have proclaimed a “Transnistria” republic with their own currency.
    As a whole Romanian is still the majority enthnicity in the Moldovan population. For more information see the wikipedia entry on Moldova:

  14. Andrew, the same could be said for the various dialects of Italian, German, or even English. But having three or four standard languages for about 20 million very similiar people speaking very similiar languages seems excessive.
    In another mood, of course, I praise and celebrate the useless stubbornness of the squareheads.
    BTW, where did Scandinavian orthography come from? They seem to have solved the Germanic-vs-Romance vowel surplus problem very effectively. Who was responsible?

  15. Something from a post I wrote many blogs ago:
    The roots of Moldova’s identity crisis are not hard to discover when you look at its history. In essence, Moldova is a chunk of Romania bitten off by Stalin. It is the eastern half of the medieval state of Moldova, which, along with its neighbour Wallachia, was one of two “Latin” principalities that existed in the Balkans and was overrun by the Ottoman Turks in 1512. Three hundred years later, between 1792 and 1812, the Russians muscled in on eastern Moldova (known as Bessarabia). The tsars tried hard to russify the region but shortly after the Russian Revolution, Bessarabia declared its independence as the Republic of Moldova in February 1918. Within two months, it had followed its natural bent and amalgamated with Romania. The new rulers of Moscow were undaunted however and cobbled together their own version of Moldova, the “Moldavian Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic”, from some scraps of Ukrainian territory just over the frontier. The population of the new ASSR was only 30% Romanian. In 1940, Stalin got his big chance. As part of the secret deal he had cut with Hitler in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet troops overran Bessarabia. Stalin then fused it with the predominantly Slavic Moldavian ASSR to create the new Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia. Within a year he had lost it again to the Romanians who had allied with Germany, partly in a bid to get their territory back. But the Red Army returned in August 1944 and reintroduced the previous, Soviet-defined borders.
    Stalin immediately set to work creating the new republic. Attempts were made to cut it off from Romania permanently and Moldova was also deprived of its access to the sea. The Great Linguist discovered a new European language, “Moldavian”. Previous experts had regarded it as no more than a dialect of Romanian, but by writing it in a Cyrillic script and adding archaic Slavic words, Stalin argued it was a separate language derived from ancient Slavic tribespeople. Anyone who disagreed disappeared, along with other suspected nationalists. Very soon, other unmistakeable Stalinist features had appeared in the new republic. Food requistioning combined with drought led to famine in the late forties. The Soviets encouraged immigration of Ukrainians and Russians to the republic, particularly the region known as Transdniestria (the land beyond the River Dniestr). Stalin ensured that most of Moldova’s industry was based in this region too, so that the republic was economically dependent on its Slav-populated sector. Stalin’s future successor Brezhnev ruled the area with an iron fist as local Party boss. During 1950-52 he brutally put down a rebellion, killing thousands, sending thousands more to the gulag and enforcing collectivization. Understandably, Moldovan nationalism went deep underground for several decades. It re-emerged with glasnost in the late eighties with demonstrations by ethnic Romanians to make Romanian, not “Moldavian”, the national language and the formation of the Popular Front, a nationalist party which soon gained the most seats in the local parliament.
    Unfortunately, this was hardly the beginning of the end of history for Moldova. Quite the contrary. The ethnic time bomb the Soviets had set up went off when the Trandniestria region, frightened at the prospect of closer ties with Romania, in its turn declared independence from Moldova in 1990. Another region, Gagauzia, populated by ethnic Turkish Christians who had arrived in Bessarabia under the tsars, also pressed for autonomy. A war broke out between the official Moldovan government in Chisinau and breakaway Transdniestria in 1992. Fighting was halted by the intervention of Russian troops led by General Alexander Lebed, who resolved the situation by backing the separatists. Since then there has been an uneasy stalemate. Transdniestria needs Moldovan support to gain international recognition; Moldova needs Transdniestria’s industry. The Russian peacekeepers, despite various agreements, show no signs of leaving. As in other regions of the ex-Soviet Union, local conflict has enabled Moscow to maintain a military presence in its “near abroad”.

  16. Thanks, that’s a great summary.
    Toby: You can pronounce Chisinau, the Romanian/”Moldovan” name, “key-she-NOW” (the diphthong in the final syllable is actually the -u- of cut followed by w, but that’s hard for an English-speaker to say, and it would be over the top when speaking English).

  17. David Frazer says

    Ah, nationalism. A friend of mine who was once a technocrat in Belgrade told a similar story about a Serbian law requiring subtitles for Croatian movies. Most of the audience reacted with laughter rather than patriotic fervor.
    IIRC, President Tudjman oversaw the purging of “Serbian” vocabulary from Croatian, and employed an interpreter when speaking to Serbian officials. Croatian neologisms were created to replace words supposedly of Serbian origin (including scientific terms derived from Greek and Latin), and a Serbian-Croatian dictionary was compiled to help people translate between these two entirely different languages (or rather, so that people would know what the new politically correct words were). On one occasion, Tudjman himself inadvertently used a “Serbian” word in a public speech. (I think I read that last fun fact right here on Languagehat…)

  18. Toby:
    I wasn’t talking about the citizenship laws; I was talking about the language laws. As they exist in Latvia and Estonia, requiring fluency in the national languages in public life and the education system aren’t inconsistent with civil rights. There are problems with implementation (the plight of older adults, the current shortage of teachers) but they don’t challenge the basic principle, that is, of ensuring that as many people as possible are fluent in the national languages.
    How many Moldovan Russophones know the local language, or are even interested in learning it?

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