Accessibility links

Breaking News

Romania/Moldova: Divided By A Common Language

By Ahto Lobjakas and Valeria Vitu Moldovan President Voronin says the language question is a matter of history, not linguistics (AFP) As the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich once said, "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy."

Landlocked Moldova doesn't have a navy, and isn't known as a regional military heavyweight, but that isn't keeping it from battling with Romania over the existence of a "Moldovan" language.

The Moldovan government asserts that its official language is distinct from Romanian -- a claim vigorously contested by Romania, which believes the language Moldovans speak is merely Romanian by another name.

The outside world was recently offered some insight into the controversy when Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu squared off for some verbal sparring during an international security conference in Munich.

Despite the fact that their native languages, whatever their label, differ mainly in accent and in some vocabulary words, the Romanian foreign minister chose to address the Moldovan president not in his mother tongue, but in French.

"In my opinion, the Moldovan Republic has a very important place in the line proposed by Europe's neighbor policy," Cioroianu said. "I hope the detail that the Moldovan Republic and Romania share the same language will be an advantage, at least in a technical sense."

The Moldovan president responded in kind -- speaking in Russian. "I have answered a million times, and I will answer again a billion times: It's up to the population to name its country's language," Voronin said. "We held a referendum on October 1, 2004, in which 87 percent defined their language as Moldovan. But we're still having never-ending debates with Romania about which came first, the chicken or the egg."

Linguistic Proliferation

It is Voronin who has carried the torch in Moldova's quest for linguistic independence since he took power in 2001.

While the language issue has since then been irritant in Moldova's relations with Romania, which was forced to cede most of what is today Moldova to the Soviet Union after World War II, the European Union is increasingly finding itself in the middle of the debate.

This is because Brussels must placate one of its newest members, Romania, while also facilitating ties with one of its newest neighbors, Moldova.

Good-neighborly relations with Moldova are of great importance to the EU because developments in the country's separatist republic of Transdniester could have Europe-wide ramifications.

Romania, meanwhile, has insisted that the EU make no reference to a "Moldovan language" it in its official documentation regarding Moldova, which belongs to the bloc's European Neighborhood Policy.

That argument sits well with those officials who believe the EU, which already has 23 official languages, is struggling with "linguistic proliferation."

To further complicate matters, such language issues are overseen in the EU by a specially appointed commissioner for linguistic diversity. And currently that post is held by Leonard Orban, whose Romanian citizenship makes him subject to questions of neutrality.

Orban says that "on the one hand, the EU recognizes the right of every [outside] country to [name] their language according to their wish." But on the other hand, "there is the sensitivity of a member state regarding this subject," he added. "And from this point of view, the European institutions should and are accommodating this issue of the sensitivity of the member state [concerned]."

During a recent speech on January 14 before the European Commission, Moldovan President Voronin was thwarted in his efforts to speak "Moldovan," as the commission could only provide a Romanian interpreter.

At Voronin's insistence, the little makeshift booth housing the interpreter initially sported a sign saying "English -- moldovenesc." Before the long wait for the press conference was over, however, the sign had disappeared. European Commission officials had apparently been advised that it offended the sensitivities of EU member Romania.

The interpreter herself provided the icing on the cake -- when, upon emerging from her booth, she told RFE/RL she was Romanian.

Does Moldovan Exist?

The controversy isn't only confusing within the walls of bureaucratic institutions, however. Ask nearly any Romanian if the Moldovan language exists, and you will likely receive a negative answer.

And you will commonly get a similar answer within Moldova's borders, as RFE/RL found out on the streets of Chisinau. "Well, someone thinks it exists," answered one Moldovan man.

"Romanian is a holy language and it will remain our language for good. Romanian will always be Romanian. The only language I speak," another Moldovan said. "I don't think the Moldovan language exists; it was simply invented."

When RFE/RL asked another man what language he speaks, he answered, "Bessarabian!" Bessarabia was the official name of the former Romanian province that makes up much of modern Moldova.

When asked if there is a difference between the Romanian language and the Moldovan language, another Moldovan answered, "There is no doubt about it; normally it's Romanian." He continued: "People who have completed [higher] studies realize what language they speak. Common people may be fooled, because from 1812 [to 1918] this land was a Russian province, and Russian has clearly made its way into our lexicon, in this way modifying the Romanian language. It is easy to realize that we do not need translators between two brothers, who can understand each other alone. Mr. Voronin mixes up two things: his political ideology with the roots of this people and the history of this people."

Despite his critics, Voronin is carrying on in his crusade -- even if he has to resort to Russian to make his point.

"The Moldovan state will celebrate its 650th anniversary next year, while the Romanian state is only 170 years old," Voronin said. "So what came first: the chicken or the egg? The Moldovan Republic's Constitution says that the country's national language is Moldovan, not Romanian. Yes, they are identical. But historically it's called Moldovan, and it's going to stay that way."

An (Un)Common Language

An (Un)Common Language
RFE/RL correspondent Valeria Vitu attempts to unravel the differences between Romanian and Moldovan at a Chisinau market.

What do you sell, "castravetsy" [cucumber in Romanian] or "pepeni" [melon in Romanian, cucumber in Moldovan]?
Fruit-seller: It depends how they ask. People from the countryside ask for "pepeni," but usually they ask for "castravetsy."

When you say "castravetsy," how do people react?
Fruit-seller: Those who don't know the word are surprised.

What do people usually call melons?
Fruit-seller: Castravetsy. In fact, "castravetsy" is correct.

But what do the Romanians call "pepeni?"
Fruit-seller: Watermelons.

And what do you have here?
Female fruit-seller: "Curecky" [cabbage], in Moldovan.

What language is "varza" [cabbage in Romanian]?
Female fruit-seller: I don't know, Romanian?

Is there a difference?
Female fruit-seller 2: Country folk call them "curecky," those who are more intelligent ask for "varza."

How about cucumbers?
Female fruit-seller 2: Some say "castravetsy," some say "pepeni."

What language is "pepeni?"
Woman: I can't say....

Is it Moldovan or Romanian?
Woman: In Romanian it is different, I have forgotten what they call "pepeni," I did! "Castravetsy" is used more than "pepeni."

If someone asks for "pepene verde" [watermelon in Romanian], what do they want?
Woman: I think it's probably a "harbuz" [watermelon in Moldovan].

"Bostanei," "bostani" [pumpkin], or what!?
Woman 2: Bostan, bostan... we have called it "tabac" in Moldovan since old times.

If I call it bostan, is it wrong?
Woman 2: No

In Romania, they call this a "dovlyac."
Female fruit-seller: "Dovlyac" [in Moldovan] is longer, it is fried in the stove. In Romanian we call them "dovlyac," while Moldovan is similar to Romanian. However, we are farmers and call them "bostanei."

Fruit-seller: Curecky is curecky, varza is varza. Some call it curecky, in Moldova. People in Romania speak differently.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.