The Languages of Czernowitz.

Christopher Culver posts this great quote from Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (translated as The Snows of Yesteryear) about “his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians” (Rezzori grew up in Czernowitz, now Chernivtsi):

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

We need more of this kind of mixing (mongrelization, if you will), not less. Culver ends his post with this sad reflection: “From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.”


  1. My grandfather was from near Zhytomyr – he told the family that he had lived within sight of the Carpathians (although I’m not sure if that’s *strictly* true), and that there had been Poles nearby. His primary language was Yiddish, but apparently when he was working at a bakery here in Massachusetts, he spoke a kind of Yiddish-Slavic pidgin with his Polish co-workers. (He died before I was born, so all the tidbits I know about him are mediated through my dad.)

  2. J. W. Brewer says

    We Anglophones by contrast are often quite proud of the diverse sources of our lexicon, but it is probably worth noting that we have had quite a number of centuries to get over the historical trauma of living under Francophone occupation (or Norsophone occupation before that) and that more recent borrowing was generally done in a historical context where Anglophones were engaging in multi-cultural interaction from a position of strength.

    Without endorsing Romanian nationalism or associated linguistic purism, I imagine that much of the non-native lexicon in Romanian came into the language when the . . . the . . . can we call them Vlachophones? . . . were not the side to the interaction operating from a position of strength and one can understand as a matter of psychology why that would lead to the attitude Mr. Culver describes (even if one simultaneously believes that holding on to these very understandable human emotions is counterproductive to the long-term interests of the Romanians themselves, and ditto for every other population group in the Balkans with its own long memory for historical grievances).

  3. Sure, it’s very understandable — menschlich-allzumenschlich. But it’s going to kill us all if we don’t do something about it (the general problem of tribalism run wild, not the specific issue of Romanian etymology).

  4. Zelený drak says

    Actually that diversity was quite recent and short lived. Before 1775 when Austria occupied Bucovina, the region was quite sparsely populated, the northern part being mostly a huge beach forest (hence the name). Besides Romanians there were probably some Slavic speakers (hard to say the number or what Slavic language they were speaking as it’s a controversial subject) and some Armenians in the few existing towns. There were definitely no Germans and most likely no Jewish people. During the Austrian Rule the region became a “wild frontier” region and the population grew in one century more than 10 times, mostly due to Jewish and Ukrainian immigration from Galicia. World World 2 and the border changes took care of most of the diversity.
    The talk about the mixed language is mostly an exaggeration (it sounds very similar with other similar descriptions in books about “exotic” places). Of course being an illiterate peasant she did not speak in the Standard Romanian (especially as this is based on the Southern Romanian dialect) and Romanian has anyway a large number of loan words, especially of Slavic words in active use (with many other becoming during the 19-20th century archaic sounding as they were replaced with French/Italian words for example “uliță” from sl. ulica. meaning now unpaved road in a village with the word for street being stradă).
    Most Romanians will probably not get offended if you point out that a word is from French or Italian or German (even Greek or Turkish). Slavic origin words are different, due to bad history with Russians (see Rep.Moldova, Bucovina or ) and the fact that outsiders usually think that Romanian is a Slavic language. Any mention of Romanian and Slavic in the same sentence will be met by hostility.

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