Do your head in with the rudiments of Romanian


(Photo credit: Lel4nd)

Some time ago, on August 18th to be precise, I attempted to explain some of the, ahem, logic behind basic Romanian grammar in a post entitled “The quirks of Romania (and Romanian)”. Since then, I have been avoiding the topic. Understandably so. I mean, if I am lucky, I will have 40 more years left to live, and to explain Romanian grammar properly you need at least 400 years, I think. But, you know, there comes a time when a man has gotta do what a man has gotta do, so here goes. Let’s grapple with this great grammatical beast and tame it. Let’s show it who’s the boss. We are! Heads down now, concentrate now, OK?

First I recommend that you read the aforementioned “quirks” on this link here to get some idea of what you are letting yourself in for.

(I am giving you some time and space to do that.)

Now let’s go into specifics. Romanian has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.

Masculine nouns: These can be natural masculines (words donating male beings or professions, etc) or simply grammatical ones. Masculine nouns can end in: a variety of consonants (e.g. bărbat – man, portocal – orange tree); in a –u preceded by a either  consonant or vowel (codru – forest, fiu – son, erou – hero, etc), in an –e (rege – king); or an -i (pui – chicken). Very rarely will a masculine noun end in –ă but notable exceptions are tată, popă and papă – father, priest and pope, respectively.

Neuter nouns: these behave like masculine nouns in the singular but feminine in the plural. Thus in the singular they have the same endings as the masculines above – consonant, -u, – ău, -eu, -iu, -ou, -e and -i, but also so words ending in -o as in radio. Neuter nouns are usually inanimate (but inanimate things are not necessarily neuter!). Some examples of neuter words are: timbru – stamp, muzeu – museum, tricou – T-shirt, nume – name, ceai – tea, scaun – chair, and caiet – notebook.

Feminine nouns: These, of course, denote female beings and professions as well as a variety of others. Feminine nouns often end in –ă (fată – girl, casă – house), or in –a without the accent (sarma – stuffed cabbage leaf), in -e (scrisoare – letter), –ie (femeie – woman, familie – family), in –ea or –ia (cafea– coffee, nuia – stick) or in –i (zi = day).

Tetrapanax papyrifer 101010-0604

Some plants can be masculine in Romanian, some feminine. So now you know! (Photo credit: Tony Rodd)

Generally speaking, the months of the year, numbers, letters of the alphabet, many trees, some plants and flowers, the names of most mountains and of some cities (including Bucureşti) are masculine. Most sports, some abstract nouns, materials and matters and general objects are neuter. The names of days, times of the day and seasons are feminine, as are most countries and continents, most fruits, and most names of the arts and sciences. But some flowers, plants, general objects and cities and regions can be feminine.

The indefinite articles in Romanian are un for masculine and neuter words and o for feminine ones (un prieten – a male friend, o prietenă – female friend). As you can see from this, turning a masculine being or profession into the feminine form usually involves adding an ă or replacing a masculine ending such as u with an ă (un membru, o membră – a male and female member, respectively). But sometimes there are other, more complicated female endings, usually including an in them. For example, regionalities and nationalities and suchlike ending in –ian or –ean  will add -că (un belgian, o belgiancă, un ardelean, o ardeleancă – someone from Belgium and from Transylvania, respectively, and note Romanian does not use capital letters here). For other nationalities, often the female addition will be –oaică – hence un englez, an Englisman, becomes o englezoiacă. Romanian will sometimes throw in some sly changes in the middle of the word too, hence un francez, a  Frenchman, becomes the wonderful-sounding o franţuzoaică. You try saying that when you are drunk 🙂 Another common female ending is –iţă after male professions ending in -or/-ar/-er/-ăr (un doctor, o doctoriţă) but –tor male endings change to –toare (un muncitor – male worker, o muncitoare – female worker). Finally, you will also come across the –easă ending (un bucătar – a male cook, o bucătăreasă – a female cook).

All clear? Good!

OK, now let’s go on to the plural forms, still sticking with indefinites (e.g. boys, some boys) rather than the definite (the boys) because in Romanian the definite article is a suffix, at the word ending, and not a prefix in front, so it will have to be dealt with separately.

The masculine plural form is the easiest because it usually ends in –i. That is, consonants add an i (vecin – neighbour, vecini – neighbours), while masculine words ending in -e, -u, -l or replace those endings with an i (leu – lion, lei – lions, and these are also the singular and plural for the Romanian currency; copil – child, copii – children, etc). But masculine singular words that end in –i are usually unchanged in the plural, hence pui -chicken, pui – chickens.

The feminine plural form is more complicated and unfortunately there are no precise rules governing the changes, so they have to be learned by heart. Feminine words ending in –ă can change that ending to –e (casă, case – house, houses), or to -i, often with vowel or consonant changes in the preceding bits (sală, săli – room, rooms; stradă, străzi – street, streets), or to –uri (marfă, mărfuri – product, goods). Some feminine words ending in -e, though, change it to an i in the plural (păine, păini – bread, loaves of bread). When a feminine word ends in –ie, the change depends on whether it is immediately preceded by a vowel or consonant. If it’s a vowel, the –ie is reduced to -i (femeie, femei – woman, women), but if it’s preceded by a consonant than the –ie becomes –ii (familie, familii -family, families). Nouns ending in –a or –ea usually change these to –ale or –ele in the plural (sarma, sarmale – stuffed cabbage roll/rolls; cafea, cafele – coffee, coffees).

The neuter plural, alas, as with the feminine plural, can have different endings and there are no precise rules as to why they do so. But basically it will usually be an –e or –uri ending on one form or another, either an addition or a replacement. When a neuter singular ends in a consonant or an -i, usually one of the two above-mentioned forms will be added (oraş, oraşe – town, towns; joc, jocuri – game, games; tramvai, tramvaie – tram, trams; taxi, taxiuri – taxi, taxis). Singular neuters ending in –u change the ending to either –or –uri (teatru, teatre – theatre, theatres; râurâuri – river, rivers). But some nouns ending in –iu change this to –ii (studiu, studii – study, studies) and some –e words don’t change (nume, nume – name, names).

It all sounds very complicated and I guess in this form it is. But I did find, though, in my three weeks in the country earlier this year, and through listening to Romanian media music before and since, that you soon somehow develop an instinct for what sound or word ending is suitable. So persevere. And if you are not sure of a word, but are familiar with another Romance language, then just say the equivalent word in that Romance language. I found that often my Portuguese disguised as Romanian made me sound quite knowledgeable. You can fool some of the people some of the time. 

I’ll give you a break now and will continue with the topic some time in the next 40 or 400 years, OK?


15 thoughts on “Do your head in with the rudiments of Romanian

  1. Well, congratulations for even having the patience to write all these rules (I don’t think I would 🙂 )… I guess that there are so many of them, that it would be easier to just try and remember every noun with its 2 forms (singular and plural).

    • Hi, yes, what a way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, writing all those rules. I was hoping it would somehow help me remember them. Not sure that it has…. The best way to learn is to live there, really, for at least a year.

  2. LOL, I’ve also got about 40 years left, and my main concern is how many languages I might still be able to learn WELL during time (quality beats quantity in my opinion), I’m talking native speaker level. My goal is five (including my native language, which is slowly starting to atrophy, arhgh!). So far, I’m at two and a half and (plus 0.1% or Portuguese). I hadn’t factored in the decline in cognitive abilities that come with age, and I’m a bit panicked that I might be running a bit short on time.

    • Hi, well, talk about ambition! What are the big five? I do agree that quality beats quantity though. (It’s the same with travel, I would rather do one place or country thoroughly than whizz through many places in a rush without getting to know them). I doubt I will ever master even one of these languages unless I get away from this English-speaking country (Australia) and live where they are spoken for a while. “Decline with cognitive abilities that come with age?” What do you mean, haha? So that’s why I am not making progress! Good luck with your goals, and I think it is a bit too early to panic yet. You are doing very well.

      • Yeah, I think living in a country where the language is spoken is essential … not so much for just being able to communicate, you can learn that anywhere as long as you’ve got access to good quality teaching and manage to stay motivated.

        Not tempted to take a year out??? 😉

        Well, I’m now fluent in Spanish (but it still needs lots of work), have started on Portuguese, and I would like to tackle Japanese at some point. I have studied it for a bit before, so I know what I’m in for… and the writing system(s) will be the death of me, that much I know. Pero no me rindo…

      • Well, Japanese is quite a departure. Next I would suggest Galician, which as I understand it is some sort of cross between Spanish and Portuguese. Yes, I am very tempted to take a year out somewhere. That’s why I did the CELTA course so I would hopefully be able to support myself in the reasonably comfortable manner to which I am accustomed. (I’m a three-star hotel kind of guy).

      • Hi, I love Portugal, Spain and France, so those would be among my top picks. I have an Irish passport so it would be easier to go there than Brazil, which is also one of my favourite countries, although there are lots of places in South America that I would be keen to see at some stage in my life. Romania and Italy would also be high on the list. But I know people who have CELTA or DELTA qualifications often get short teaching posts in various locations, a sort of working holiday. A friend did it in Malta one summer, Oxford in England the next.

      • There’s certainly no lack of demand. I”m in Spain, as you know, and they are crying out for English teachers. I don’t know if you read my posts a few weeks ago, where I walked into an Academy needing some help with something, and them offering me a job, without me even having spoken a word of English, nor them knowing my nationality.

        The Irish passport will make things so much easier! Am also planning to spend time in Portugual next year. In fact, I might be in Lisboa over Christmas… just waiting for that to be confirmed.

        When are you planning on making the leap?

      • Hi, I missed that post but will look for it. It must have gone up when I was doing the CELTA course (which gives you no time for anything else in the world). I would like to get some teaching experience here in Sydney first, just to beef up my CV, there are lots of colleges here, it is quite a lucrative business for them, teaching English. So no short-term plans to move but if anything tempting came up I would consider it. Are you seriously thinking of doing a CELTA?

      • That’s encouraging. Thanks too for the link, although I found that post by scrolling down your blog. I’ve had a lot of entertainment catching up with your posts and chuckling at your photos and witty captions (eg the leopardskin fashions). Thak you

    • Hah, don’t let me put you off! Hope all is well with you. I have a piece of Romanian music that I will post about in the next month or so that I am sure you will like, it has a great piano melody. Will keep you posted, in the meantime take care, cheers

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