The History of the Romanian Language

Melodie Hanners
Linguistics 450

I have been asked many times, "What language do they speak in Romania— Russian?" To the surprise of many however, the answer is no. Romania, the small country in the center of Eastern Europe, has its own, very beautiful language. Romania is unique in that it is the only Eastern Block country that speaks a Romance language. Alexandru Niculescu, in his book Outline History of the Romanian Language says, "Romanian is the only Romance language which has developed in the Eastern part of Latin Europe" (16). The history of Romanian can be traced through different periods of outside influence on the language. The first period I will look at is the Dacian period. The Dacians were the first known civilization to live in the area where Romania is now situated. The second period is the Romanization— following the Roman conquest of the Dacians. After the Romanization was a period of Slavic influence on the Proto Romanian of that time, followed by a Re-Latinization movement during the 19th Century. Romanian reflects the turbulent history of its native speakers. It illustrates the story of a nation of survivors.


It would be impossible to report on the history of Romanian without reporting also on the history of the people. Historians, when studying this language, usually go back in their studies as far as two thousand years. During that period, the area that is now known as Romania was occupied by a civilization known as the Dacians (pronounced dachyanz). Dennis Deletant, in the introduction to his text book, Colloquial Romanian, says, "The Dacians, who occupied much of this area [the lower Danube region], are believed to have spoken a Thracian tongue" (1). Constantin C. Giurescu wrote a book entitled, The Making of the Romanian People and Language. In this book he describes what the Dacians may have looked like, and what their main activities were. Not much is known of the Dacians, but speculations and theories have been made based on archeological finds, words remaining in modern Romanian from that time period, and two monuments that were erected following the Roman invasion— Tropeaum Traiani, and Trajan’s Column. Of the Dacians, Giurescu says, "They are the autochthonous ethnic element which lies at the foundation of the Romanian people" (49).

The Dacians’ main activity was agriculture. They also engaged in viticulture, or the cultivation of vinyards. They were skilled craftsmen in working metals to create tools and weapons. The Dacians were also known for their cattle and their bee-keeping (50-51).

Linguists have studied the Romanian language to find which words come from Dacian origin. They have discovered one hundred and sixty words with this origin.

These terms cover a very wide area beginning with the human body (buz| = lip; ceaf| = nape; grumaz = neck; guÕ| = goitre), the family (copil = child; prunc = baby; zestre = dowry) . . . agricultural, pastoral, viticultural, piscicultural activities (maz| re = peas; Ûarin| =tilled land; baci = shepherd making cheese; mînz = colt; strung| = small gate through which sheep are passed to be milked; Ûarc = enclosure . . .gard = fence), the physical environment (m

| gur| = lone hill or mountain; mal = bank) the flora (brad = fir-tree; copac = tree) . . . Certainly the number of these terms will increase following subsequent research; they will also show us other aspects of the linguistic inheritance; scholars already consider as belonging to this inheritance the suffixes -esc, -e Õ te, which are so frequent in Romanian and characteristic of it (Giurescu 60-61).

It is interesting to note the types of words that remain in the language from the Dacian era. It is natural for words to remain from a proto language that have to do with the body and familial relations because these are common topics of conversation in every civilization. This Dacian vocabulary tells us the story of an industrious people who worked the land.


Dacians though, are not the only ancestors of the Romanian people and its language. As their country’s name suggests, Romans played a major role in their history and development. In Rome, at the beginning of the second century A.D., the soldier Trajan was appointed emperor. "He was a great general, mastering all the secrets of military art and bearing all hardships and sufferings of the war together with his soldiers who worshipped him for it. Besides military virtues he also had those of a civilian ruler" (Giurescu 43). In the summer of 106 A.D. the Roman army, under Trajan, succeeded in conquering the Dacians after many years of battles. Trajan then "colonized it with settlers from all parts of the Empire who intermarried with the local population and romanized it" (Deletant 1).

Giurgescu says, "How can this extraordinary power of Dacian Romanization be explained? How was it possible that it should grow so deep roots in such a short time? The answer, in our opinion, could only be one: Romanization won in Dacia because it won over the native population. If the Romans had not won the Dacians over for their civilization and culture, the same thing would have happened in the Carpatho-Danubian area that happened in Pannonia and Britania: the Romanizing element would have gradually disappeared" (98). The Dacians seem to have been very accepting of their conquerors. Their Romanization happened rather rapidly, because the Romans only ruled over Dacia for 165 years.

One of the ways that the Romans "won the Dacians over" was through the veterans of their army. Many of the soldiers in the Roman army were of Dacian origin. By the end of their 25 year service they had learned Latin and the ways of the Romans. Many of those soldiers who were of Roman descent were married to Dacian women. At the end of a soldier’s military service he was granted Roman citizenship if he did not already have it. This citizenship was extended to every member of his family (Giurescu 98-101).

Another way that Latin was spread throughout this area was through missionaries who brought with them the Christian Religion and a whole Latin liturgy to go with it. When people attended church at that time, the services were done in Latin. "Most of the Romanian words designating the essential notions connected with the Christian faith are of Latin origin" (Giurescu 141).

Niculescu says, "Another major role in Romanizing Dacia was played by urbanization" (24). The urban centers had rural areas around them. The Roman administrators, merchants, travelers and colonists "turned into agents of Romanization" (24-25).

Slavic Influence

During the 7th century and throughout the 9th century the Slavs came to the Dacia area. Their language greatly influenced Romanian. "The Sclavini engaged upon ever closer relations of cohabitation with the Romanized native population both North and South of the Danube" (Niculescu 46). This is an important point, because not only did the Dacians adopt Slavonisms, but the Slavs learned Latin. It is apparent that the Slavs acquired the Latin language because of the absence of many emotional terms of Latin origin in the Romanian language. As the Slavs adopted the Romance language, they substituted "Slavonic words for a number of Latin emotional terms. . . On learning the Romanian Latinate, the Slavs preferred to use in this language words of their native language whose meaning and expressive connotations they knew" (Niculescu 49). Anyone who has learned to speak a second language can understand the Slavs’ preference for their own emotional terms. Often we hear coinages such as Spanglish to describe such a concept. Niculescu goes on to explain that "Romanian is the only Romance language that has failed to preserve amor, carus, amare, sponsa, etc., replacing them by dragoste, drag, a iubi, nevasta, logodna (= betrothal), a logodi (= to betrothe)" (49).

Another way in which the Slavs influenced the language of the Dacians of that time was pronunciation. Remembering that the Slavs had adopted the Latin spoken in that region, it is apparent that they would speak this second language with a quite heavy accent. The Romanian of today is pronounced somewhat differently than all of the other languages in its family. An example of pronunciation change that Niculescu gives is the yodization or palatalization of initial /e/ in the personal pronouns. Initial /e/ in most words is pronounced the same as in all Romance languages, but in the personal pronouns the sound has been palatalized, causing it to have an initial /y/ sound. So the word el (he) is pronounced /yel/ (49). Almost all of the linguists and historians who have studied this topic "uphold the idea that the Balkan and Slavic elements contributed to rounding off the individuality of Romanian as a Romance language" (Niculescu 48).


During the 1800's Romanian linguists made an effort to re-Latinize their language. We don’t need to look any farther than the literature of their day to see the dissatisfaction of that era with the Slavonisms in the language. Negruzzi, a famous author from that period compares Romanian to a cloth that has been corrupted with coarse and ugly threads. He said:

Oh! p|catul este net|g>|duit Õi rana nevindecabil| ! Cînd neamurile barbare au înundat România ca un r| pide Õiroi, g|sind pînza limbei urzit|, luau suveiea Õi, prin dreptul celui main tare, aruncau unde Õi unde cîte un fir de b|t|tur| de a lor, groas|Õi nodoroas|. Astfel se Ûesu limba noastr|. Pentru a scoate acum acele l| tunoiase fire, trebui a destr|ma toat| pînza, Õi prin urmare a crea o limb| mai frumoas| poate, mai nobil| si mai înv|Ûat|, c|riia nimic nu i-ar lipsi alta decît de a fi-- româneasc| (209).

[Oh! The sin is undeniable and the wound unhealable! When the barbarous nations flooded Romania like a ravishing stream, finding the cloth of the fated language, they took the needle and, through the right of the strongest, threw here and there a string of their thick, gnarled thread. Thus our language was woven. Now in order to remove those knotty fibers, the entire cloth must be destroyed, and follow up by creating a more beautiful language, maybe more noble and learned, from which nothing would be missing other than being— Romanian]

This shows us the great desire to make a "pure" Latin-based language. It also shows the resolution that they had to face, that if those proposed changes were made it would change the language into something other than their own Romanian.

Another writer from that period made a statement about his opinions on Slavonisms. He says, "Românul crede în Dumnezeu, în îngeri, în zîne Õi a fost botezat de preot la biseric| . . ." [The Romanian believes in God, in angels, in fairies, and was baptized by a priest at church . . .] The italicized words are all of Latin origin. The author is showing how many spiritual and religious words come from their Latin roots. He goes on to show how many words showing weakness and infirmities come from Slavic. Of course, as we have already seen, some of the words referring to love and relationships have their roots in Slavic, so not all Slavonisms were harsh words.

In the first half of the 19th century there began an "Enlightenment" in Romania. Books from the west by authors such as Racine, Moliere, and Lamartine were translated into Romanian. At this time a Romanian writer and theorist, Ion Heliade R|dulescu wrote his opinion on the purification of the Romanian literary language. He wanted to "s| ne unim în scris Õi s| ne facem o limb| literar|" [unite ourselves in writing and to make for ourselves a literary language]. He began to cultivate the Romanian literary language. "A cultiva o limb| va s| zic| a o cur|Ûi de tot ceeace nu o face s| înainteze" (Niculescu 131). [To cultivate a language is to clean it of all that which doesn’t make it progress]. Heliade’s movement began by selecting Italian words and eliminating contributions to the language from German, Russian and Greek. In 1828 he wrote, "scrieÛi cum s| v| înÛeleag| contemporanii . . . scrim pentru cei care tr|iesc iar nu pentru cei morÛi" (132). [You write to be understood by your contemporaries . . . we write for those who live and not for the dead].

Modern Romanian

Romanian continues to change even now. As all languages do, it borrows many words from other languages, especially French. Since the Revolution in 1989, Romania has been opened up to a whole world that they only could have imagined before. They are now (as most European countries are) influenced greatly by American English. On any given Friday a Romanian could wish you a "week-end bun" meaning, "good weekend."

Romanian is, indeed, as Negruzzi said, a cloth woven with many different threads. But the Romanians of today have come to accept the more "coarse" threads and recognize their "cloth" as a unique, beautiful tapestry that illustrates their history. Romanians are survivors. Their history is filled with stories of being conquered by stronger civilizations, but the Romanians are still with us today. Their language shows this. From the core of Dacian words to the Latinization and the Slavic influence, the Romanian language tells the story of a nation of survivors.

Works Cited

Deletant, Dennis. Colloquial Romanian. New York: Routledge. 1995

Niculescu, Alexandru. Outline History of the Romanian Language. Bucharest: Editura ÔtiinÛific|Õi Enciclopedic|. 1981

Du Nay, André. The Early History of the Rumanian Language. Lake Bluff: Jupiter Press. 1977

Negruzzi. "Scrisoarea XVIII"

Giurescu, Constantin C. The Making of the Romanian People and Language. Bucharest: Meridiane Publishing House. 1972

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1998-1999 © Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999