Speaking Romanian

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April 28, 2010
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May 4, 2012
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(Originally published in the Summer 2010 edition of Decat o Revista magazine.)

From the moment I first heard the word “inainte” I knew it was not a real word. It could not be. It was merely a few consonants embedded into at least six mangled, intertwined, unpronounceable vowel sounds. But I was wrong. I checked. It is a word.

I know that because, while perusing the stacks of antique books at a local shop, I discovered a rare etymological dictionary. Why it was in English, I don’t know. But there it was: the explanation, the first recorded use of the word “inainte.” Of course, as Romanians, you know the story. But to me, it helped explain much about the language.

It seems that on or about October 4 in the year 1183 or so, during yet another invasion by some pesky neighbor, one of the top “jefes”, trying to find Ploiesti, stopped a young boy to ask directions. The two-year-old, eating the traditional lunch of peanut butter on sliced mamaliga, pointed straight ahead and suggested the man, dressed in what looked like pajamas, go take a nap. And so, as any true Romanian knows, “nani te” – spoken with a peanut butter accent – became the word for straight ahead.

And thus is a language born.

This story explained a lot, for it seems to me that Romanian is one of the few surviving pure ancient languages, a clear pool of pristine words, into which several invaders over the centuries have poured their various buckets of murky water. And now it’s America’s turn.

How else do you explain conversations in which I understand nothing except the occasional “trend-setter,” “hotspot,” “sex bomb” sprinkled throughout. During a meeting, just as my attention drifts comfortably away, it’s like hearing your name suddenly called. “Let’s meet tomorrow night at that bar. It has a great ‘Happy Hour.’” What? What did you say?

And then the real confusion begins. “Catering” means the shop delivers, not that they will provide a shaorma banquet for your wedding. “Nonstop” means it’s open 24 hours, not that it flies to Paris without any layovers. And when people shout “Hai Romania,” they are not saying hello. Most importantly, at restaurants, “Fried Crap” on the menu does not mean, well, “Fried Crap.”

Now, keep in mind that I’m not the best judge of a foreign language. I’m American. I once had a Scottish employee who, when he spoke English (I think), I could not understand a word he said. And I’ve taken four years of German, each one conveniently called “Introduction to German.”

So I have to be careful. As a former editor, my first inclination is to correct and change things, even (like most editors) when they don’t need it. Verb tenses. Conjugations. Mispronouncing nouns. Like when I learn: “Ce fac?” I immediately want to add a definite article, as in: “What THE fac?”

I realize I’m still a guest in this country, so I don’t want to complain too much. I know this has been your language since, well, at least the revolution. But why do you make it so difficult? For example, all the useful adjectives begin with “m”? Do you realize how confusing that is? Mult, mai, mic, mare. Then there’s “mai mic”. Mai mic? That’s like being uncertain about another piece of cake and saying “yes no”. I say pick one, it’s either mai or mic. And as long as I’m on the topic, mult is a good word. But what’s a “mesc” and why do I wish someone much of it when I thank them? Then there are your word endings. Honestly, I believe you make them up as you go. For me, I just throw –ului at the end when I’m not sure. I don’t know what it means but it usually brings a smile. I recommend that instead of borrowing English words, just borrow the endings. The most we add at the end of a word is “-es” (unless the word’s from Latin, then we’re supposed to change the “-us” to an “-i” when it’s plural, but we never bother so nevermind.) And finally, seriously, do you really want me to believe “s-a” is a word? Where I come from it’s the first half of the equation: s – a = x.

I knew, in hindsight, I was in trouble. On one of my first trips here, I was changing planes in Italy and a woman, with four children, apparently asked if I could help carry a bag down the ramp and push her baby stroller while she struggled with the toddlers. I had no real idea what she was saying, and despite my obvious confusion, she continued to speak as if we were old friends. All I knew was that she was talking to me in some language that sounded like Italian fired from a machine gun.

It is certainly true that the biggest problem here is that so many people speak English. I learned more Spanish in one week immersed in a town where no one spoke English, than I’ve learned of Romanian in a whole year living here.

But soon, I hope, all this confusion will be a distant memory. I plan to be speaking like a native in no time. I’ve created and memorized helpful phrases like: “Unde este toaletta?” “Nu inteleg absolut nimic” and “Imi para rau, munceste cineva aici!?” And soon I’ll resume lessons. In the meantime, I’m listening to the complete recorded speeches of Marian Vanghelie. But to truly succeed, first I’ll buy some peanut butter.

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