Learning Romance: word swapping and false friends

Well I didn’t think this was going to be easy, but who’d think language learning could be competitive? I find I’m being motivated by promotion to the next ‘league’ in DuoLingo almost as much as the motivation to get better at the language. Having two languages to play helps in this regard but there’s also the potential for confusion to consider, so I’m trying to alternate days – Romanian one day, Italian the next, and following roughly the same sections for each so it makes comparison easier.

Something that’s becoming very clear is the amount of borrowing from other languages that’s going on in Romanian. Maybe it’s not as pure as driven snow as it seemed at first. In fact this seems to be the case in general in the Balkans, that Gaston Dorren refers to as the ‘linguistic orphanage’ in his book ‘Lingo’. This is because the region’s languages originate from different families that they’re now separate from. For example, Romanian, as a Romance language, is all alone here, Albanian and Greek are described as having no living relatives, and Bulgarian is isolated from its Slavic cousins like Russian.

Duolingo introduces you to some useful vocabulary early on, like the verbs eating, reading, writing. Obviously coming from the same roots, I eat is mangio in Italian, in Romanian it’s mănânc; you read, is leggi in Italian, and… in Romanian citeţi. Hardly twins separated at birth then. Turns out Romanian borrowed the verb ‘read’ from its slavic neighbours, where in Russian ‘toread’ is чита́тьand sounds like chitat, so not far off.

Nouns you might expect to be similar are quite different too, as a result of where the word has come from. Woman in Italian is donna, while in Romanian it’s femei, rather like female. The Romanian man is barbat while in Italy he’s uomo.

So, in these cases, the guy from Romania seems to originate in his beardedness, while the woman is, rather unsurprisingly a female. The Italian man is more clearly Latin homo, while the Romanian woman is closer to the Latin femina. Barba is the Latin for beard, and donna translates from Latin as ‘grant’… I guess things have moved on since the days of the Romans.

In Romanian, ‘welcome’ is bun venit (Italian benvenuto), ‘good evening’ bună seara (It. buonasera) and goodbye is la revedere (It. arrivederci) – so the Romance is still alive here. ‘Good morning’ however is bună dimineaţa ‘good afternoon’ is bună ziua , ‘good night’ noapta bună and the informal ‘bye’ is pa – reasonably far from buongiorno, the lack of a specific ‘good afternoon’, buonanotte, and ciao as the Italian equivalents.

‘Sorry’ is scuze in Romanian, scuzi in Italian; A full ‘thank you’ is mulţumesc and a simple ‘thanks’ is just mersi, like the French merci but not the Italian grazie. ‘Please’ is te rog, vă rog or vă rugem depending on who you’re speaking to in Romanian, whereas in Italian a simple per favore fits all occasions. So being polite (minding your ‘Ps and Qs’) differs between the two … sometimes.

A final word on false friends though. It may be worth a bit of guesswork, especially once you have got to know a native Italian or Romanian speaker, but be aware that at best this could lead to some confusion. I’m certainly nowhere near being able to predict what a word might be in Romanian although in Italian there’s a fair amount of scope. The problem is that even if words start fro the same origins, they evolve over time , and their meanings do too.  This can be true even between regions in any given country and between generations – think of how in English the word ‘gay’ has changed in use and acceptability over the past few generations, and far from its original meaning of ‘merry’ or ‘brightly coloured’.  In Italian, ‘merry’ can still be translated as gaio or gaia, depending on the (linguistic) gender and phrases like Merry Christmas are better interpreted than translated – the equivalent is Buon Natale. In Romanian, ‘merry’ or ‘cheerful’ is vesel, while ‘Merry Christmas’ is Crăciun fericit, with fericit meaning ‘happy’. What these examples hopefully show is that it is the meaning that’s important, and that direct translation at times has its perils.

All in all it seems there’s a whole lot of swapping going on, and I’ve hardly touched on the slavic neighbours to Romania. Well… the more the merrier.

Published by John Humphreys

Education and leisure industry professional with over 30 years' experience and a focus on delivering international experiences and employability development.

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