If you have already learned that Romanian is part of the Romance language family, which shares the same common ancestor (Latin), then you can probably imagine that Romanian is very close to the other languages with which it is related – French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. And indeed you are very much right. Romanian IS very close to them, with a special mention in relation to Italian. You have probably heard that if a Romanian listens to a conversation between two Italians he will understand very much, almost everything, of the other’s discussion. And this is because, of all the languages mentioned, Romanian is in the closest relationship to Italian, especially in terms of vocabulary. Some linguistic researchers have gone so far as to estimate that the two languages share up to 77% of their vocabulary, with slight differences in terminology between the two lexical variants. That being the case, you might get the impression that the two languages sound almost identical, and yet things are not quite like that. If Romanians will understand a conversation between Italians or Spaniards, often the other way around too, a conversation between Romanians will not sound to a foreigner the way a conversation between others sounds. And then…
How does Romanian sound for foreigners?
Here opinions are quite divided and of course, there are subjective elements that will always affect the perception of a particular language for foreigners. Not to mention the fact that foreigners may also perceive another language quite differently, depending on how they relate the sound of the language to their own background and the sound of their own native language.
In the case of Romanian, the situation is special. Although it is derived from Vulgar Latin, like the other Romance languages, in territorial terms Romanian developed in a geographical area somewhat separate from the Mediterranean basin, where the other languages of the same family lived together relatively close to each other. Over time, it was inevitable that the Romanian language would be influenced, both in terms of vocabulary but also in terms of sound, in the way it is spoken, by the languages of the peoples that surrounded it. From this point of view, Romanian has been influenced mainly by Slavic languages, but also by Hungarian, Turkish and German, for example.
This is why, although the Romanian language is very beautiful and melodious, its sonority does not lead to that of Italian or French. The Slavic influence and the harsher way in which certain consonants are pronounced (such as the consonant L for example) reveal an undeniable Russian influence. This is why some foreigners claim that for them Romanian sounds like an Italian (or why not Latin) spoken by a Russian, or a Serb. Others confessed that to them the Romanian they heard spoken by natives had an overwhelming similarity to Portuguese. And this is explainable, given some of the harsher sounds of Romanian (Ș, Ț, Ă,Î) and the fact that of all the languages mentioned, Portuguese is perhaps the harshest sounding.
What foreigners perceive when they hear Romanian seems to reflect a sonority that is neither as soft as French nor as sharp as Spanish. It is somewhere in between, perhaps closer to Portuguese or, as I have already said, like Italian spoken with a Russian accent.
What does Romanian sound like to Americans?
An interesting thing happens to native English speakers. Of course, there are exceptions and nuances, but most of them tend to perceive Romanian – at least when they hear it for the first time and without any other context related to the situation – as a Slavic language. But if they have the chance to hear languages like Russian, Polish or Czech, they soon realize that Romanian is a different language from them. This is also the case for Russians who, if they arrive in Romania, expect to understand quite a lot but are surprised to discover, apart from a few vocabulary items borrowed from Russian, a language that is completely different from their own, both in terms of lexicon and sound.
Returning to English speakers, after the first impression – that they are listening to a Slavic language – they realize that it is in fact something else, which they also seem to tend to associate more with Portuguese.
To try to be objective, we must say that just as the sonority of the Romanian language is different depending on the native language of the listener, so is the area of Romania in which the Romanian language is heard. It is generally considered that the language spoken in the southeast, in Bucharest and adjacent areas, is much closer to Italian than the Romanian language spoken further north, where Hungarian or Germanic influences are more likely to be felt.
Regardless of all these details and questions, Romanian is indeed a language that is as beautiful as it is interesting. If you hear a poem recited in Romanian, you will be captivated by its melodiousness, even if you don’t understand the words. At the same time, it is a language that gives you the words to express absolutely every feeling, mood, and sensation on the face of the earth. In fact, why not say it with a little pride, it will help you to express emotional states that you cannot express in any other language but Romanian. Yes! That’s right. There are untranslatable words in the Romanian language, a fact certified even by Unesco. But about that, in a future post 🙂
Until then, if you want to discover the mysteries and treasures of this wonderful language, write to us here for a free 30-minute Romanian lesson.