Rumanian Language

General Overview

Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Rumanian (Limbă Română) is a Balkano-Romance language, used by some 23,500,000 speakers, of whom about 20,000,000 live in Rumania, 2,700,000 in Moldova, some 350,000 in Ukraine, and about 60,000 in Yugoslavia and 10,000 in Hungary. There are about 70,000 Romanian speakers in the United States.

Origin and History

Rumanian is picturesquely described either as a barbarized Latin or as a Latinized barbarian tongue. Undoubtedly, such extremely diverging definitions reflect the complicated problem to find out a consistent explanation of its emergence and evolution. The official thesis supported in contemporary Rumania states that Rumanian developed from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman colonists who settled Dacia (modern Transylvania) after its conquest by emperor Trajan in 106 AD. Though the Roman legions abandoned the area in 271 under the pressure of the barbarians, a portion of the Romanized population could survive, as shepherds and primitive farmers, in the Carpathian mountains. In the 9th century, when conditions settled, these Romance-speaking people gradually reoccupied Transylvania. In the late 13th century they moved eastward and established the principalities of Wallachia (1290) and Moldova (1349).

It is known that after 106 Dacia was colonized by a few settlers from the Roman provinces in the Near East (mainly Syria) who could use a corrupted version of Latin as a kind of lingua franca to communicate with the administration and the population in the adjacent areas. Evidently in 271 these settlers were moved southward of the Danube, as the Romans established two provinces of the name of Dacia in the territories of the present North-Eastern Serbia and Western Bulgaria. It is noteworthy that Rumanian does not contain words of Dacian origin, while it shares some old-Balkan and non-Latin terms with Albanian. Thus these two languages reflect special historical contacts of early date.

It is not impossible that the ancestors of modern Rumanians were in the late Antiquity slaves and servants engaged in agriculture and cattle breeding for their masters, the rich Roman colonists of the fortified Balkan cities. Supposedly, the two groups communicated in a kind of creolized Latin. In the course of the successive barbarian invasions in the 5th--8th c. the established political and socio-economic order on the Balkans was reversed. The city-dwellers could survive under the protection of the city-walls, but as the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) empire was predominantly a Greek speaking state, they became subsequently Hellenized, while their former slaves and servants fled to the mountains, which were suitable for livestock raising, and preserved the Romance tongue (technically known as Eastern Romance), as evidenced by the fact that the Slavs called them Vlachs. The self-designation as Rumanians, under the etymological form of Romîni, is attested in the 16th century (the texts of Coresi),

The Vlachs concentrated in the south-western parts of the Balkans, mainly in the regions around modern Albania. There they could escape not only the invadors, but also the effective control of the Byzantine authorities. In the course of the centuries the Vlachs absorbed a lot of outlaws, mainly of Slavic origin. After the invasions ceased, the Vlachs began migrating northward. In the 9th-10th centuries they were present in the mountains of the First Bulgarian empire (681-1018), which dominated the inner continental area of the Balkan peninsula. Evidently in this period they adopted  for their liturgy the Old Church Slavonic, the official language of medieval Bulgaria. The close and continuous contacts with the Slavic milieu left a profound impact on the vocabulary and phonology of their language.

It is possible that the Vlachs were forced by the Bulgarian emperors to move northward of the Danube and thus to reach Transylvania, which, since the end of the 9th century, was in Hungarian hands. Settling there, the Vlachs gradually outnumbered the other nationalities, making the area a homeland of their own. From Transylvania they penetrated eastward of the Carpathians and established the principalities of Wallachia and Moldova. In these countries Old Church Slavonic was used as official language till the 18th century.

The migrations had as a result that the unity of the Eastern Romance language was broken and between 500 and 1000 AD there developped several distinct tongues:

  1. Arumanian (technically known also as Macedo-Rumanian), spoken in scattered communities in Albania, Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia;
  2. Megleno-Rumanian around the city of Meglena in Southern Macedonia (now in Greece);
  3. Dalmatian along the northeastern shore of the Adriatic sea, mainly in Ragusa (Dubrovnik);
  4. Istro-Rumanian on the Istrian peninsula in the far north-western corner of the Balkan region;
  5. Daco-Rumanian (or Rumanian proper) in the area to the north of the Danube (Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldova).
The first known Daco-Rumanian text is a letter written in 1521 to a judge of Brașov, though some manuscript translations of religious texts show Transylvanian dialect features and may be earlier. The language was written in Cyrillic alphabet and the Vlachs of this period, being Eastern Orthodox, identified themselves to a great extent with Slavdom. Italian travellers in eastern Europe noticed that the language of the Vlachs contained many Latin words also existing in Italian. Knowing that the Roman Empire once dominated Dacia Traiana, it was supposed that the Vlachs were the descendants of the Romans, who once subdued the Dacians. Only in the early 19th century, however, the idea of Romance identity became popular amongst the Vlachs. In 1859 the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia formed a unified state, that assumed the name of Rumania. The Roman (Latin) alphabet was introduced and there were applied remarkable efforts to Latinize the language, while purging it of Slavisms. The emerging nation turned toward other Romance countries, especially France, for cultural inspiration.

Dialects and Standard Language

The standard language of Rumania is based on the dialect of Wallachia. It was developed in the 17th century mainly by religious writers of the Orthodox church and includes features from a number of dialects, though Bucharest usage now provides the model. Modern Rumanian is fairly homogeneous but shows greater dialectal diversity in the Transylvania.

During the period when Eastern Moldova was incorporated in the former Soviet Union as a federative republic (1939-1991), its language was officially called Moldavian, written in the Russian variant of the Cyrillic alphabet, and held by Soviet scholars to be an independent Romance language. In 1989, however, the script of the Moldavian language was changed again to Latin and thereupon began a heated debate over whether it should be called Rumanian or Moldovan.


Rumanian phonology and grammar have developed in rather different directions from those of most other Romance languages because of the language's relative isolation from other Romance languages and its close contact with the Slavic languages and Hungarian.

Modern Rumanian has seven vowels (he vocal system is considered triangular, as that of Classical Latin and modern Italian and Spanish), and three diphthongs. Stress can occur on any syllable. Varying the stressed syllable can change meaning. The unstressed vowels are slightly reduced in the spoken language and under Slavic influence the initial e is often iotated ([e]=>[je]), though officially this is now considered incorrect except for a few cases.

Historically, Rumanian continues a Latin distinction between long o and short u, fused in most other Romance languages, but, like almost all others, it has lost the Latin distinction between long e and short i.

The sound [] appeared under Slavic influence.

The vocal alternation in the roots is a common phenomenon, cf.:
ea => e
o => oa
e => ea
 seară evening : seri evenings;
 pot (I) can : poate (he) can;
 plec (I) go : pleacă (he) goes etc.

Consonant clusters occur at the beginning of syllables, which is unusual among Romance languages.

In consonant clusters there has been a tendency to replace the Latin velar consonants [k] and [g] with labial consonants, such as [p], [b], or [m], cf.:

The [l] was often changed to [r], cf.: The palatalized Latin [k] and [g] are pronounced [t] and [d] in Rumanian; the dentals [t] and [d] were palatalized before [e] and [i] to [ts] (written ț) and [dz] => [z], cf.:
See also


Rumanian was initially written in Cyrillic script, untill in 1859 Latin alphabet was instituted. In the early period of using the new alphabet there was a strong etymological bias in the writing system, as the grammarians strived to reflect both the Latin and the Slavic sources. For this reason a lot of diacritical signs were used.

Subsequently, however, orthography was radically simplified and based on mainly phonological principles (1881). Contemporary Rumanian employs diacritics over the vowels a and i (â, ă, î) to modify their pronunciation. In addition, a cedilla is used under the letters s and t (ș, ț) to represent [] and [ts], respectively.


Rumanian has retained a case system. It uses two nominal cases: direct (nominative-accusative) and oblique (genitive-dative). A third and  rarely used case, the vocative, is a Slavic influence and is in the process of disappearing. Three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter are distinguished. Four types of articles are used: definite, indefinite, possessive and demonstrative. As in Albanian and Bulgarian, the definite article is suffixed to the nouns or the adjectives (see the table below).
Case & Number
With Indefinite Article
With Definite Article
  Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. / Acc.
  un fiu fii fiul fiii
Gen. / Dat. 
  unui fiu unor fii fiului  fiilor
Nom. / Acc.
  o mamă mame mama  mamele
Gen. / Dat. 
  unei mame unor mame mamei  mamelor
Nom. / Acc.
  un scaun scaune scaunul scaunele
Gen. / Dat. 
  unui scaun unor scaune scaunului scaunulor

Verbs have two forms of infinitive:

The future tense is formed in two ways: Word order is Subject-Verb-Object, although Object-Verb-Subject also occurs.

See also The Balkan Linguistic Union.


The function words and inflectional patterns are of Latin origin. The Rumanian language preserved less than 22% of the Pan-Romance word stock (some 107 of a total of 488 words); it is remarkable that the Latin words concerning urban life were entirely absent in Rumanian. Slavic languages (mainly Old Church Slavonic and the dialects of Northern Bulgaria) provided for about 46% of the vocabulary, but since the 19th century there was launched a systematic campaign of introducing Latin and French words, while the Slavic words were purged or become obsolete. Nevertheless, 17% of modern Rumanian vocabulary consists of Slavic words and they give the spoken languge a specific emotional flavor. According to the linguist Alexandru Niculescu "Rumanian is the only Romance language that has failed to preserve amor, carus, amare, sponsa, etc., replacing them by [the Slavic words] dragoste love, drag dear, a iubi to love, nevastă wife, logodnă betrothal, a logodi to betrothe".

Turkish, Greek, Hungarian and Albanian had also provided a lot of words to Rumanian.

Rumanian Language Main Page

Modern Romance Languages Main Page
Orbis Latinus Main Page

This page is part of Orbis Latinus
(c) Zdravko Batzarov