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  • Ilinca Stroe

What Do We Ask When We Ask Nothing? 10 Answerless Questions in Romanian

In English, whether or not we give a detailed answer or a curt “yes”/”no” to a question tag (e.g. “Do you?”, “Have they?”, “Won’t she?”, “Isn’t it?”) depends on the intonation of that question tag. If the person we’re speaking with uses falling intonation, it means they don’t really expect an answer, but at the very best some minimal signal of agreement (even an “mmm” will do). If, however, the question tag was pronounced with rising intonation, it means it was a real question and the speaker wants a real answer in response.

In Romanian, we don’t have question tags proper. But we do have what we could call, generically, “rhetorical questions”: questions which don’t actually ask about anything and don’t necessarily require an answer. We don’t use them to ask for information, details or facts. Which is not to say that we don’t expect a reaction to them. We do. But it has to do more with adopting an attitude or changing your attitude - showing some sort of emotional response. And that’s because those rhetorical questions themselves express an attitude or emotion.

There seem to be around 15 such questions, many of which function as verbal mannerisms, really. And it’s useful to learn them as pieces of vocabulary which can make your conversation in Romanian more natural and emotionally richer. Here are the nine more frequent of them, in short clarifying examples, along with the function they serve or the kind of attitude they convey.

1. “Ştii?” – pausing from telling a story, checking whether the interlocutor is listening, or expressing a sense of mutual understanding, intimacy

“Eu cred că e bine ce faci. Fiindcă aşa le dai o lecţie. Ştii?”

“I think you’re doing the right thing. Because this way you give them a lesson. You know?”

2. “Cine ştie?” – suggesting you’re out of your depth, expressing resignation or even signalling you want to change the topic

“Cică Peleşul a fost cumpărat de un ceh. Sau poate e fake news. Cine ştie?”

“They say the Peleş Castle was bought by a Czech. Or maybe that’s fake news. Who knows?”

3. “Nu-i aşa?” – expressing doubt or irony

“Preşedintele Senatului zice că parlamentarii muncesc şi câte 14 ore pe zi.” / “The President of the Senate has claimed that MPs work up to 14 hours a day.”

“Nu-i aşa?” / “Do they, now?”

4. “Bine?” – asking for agreement or simply reinforcing the statement

“Tu faci ce vrei, eu mă duc să mă culc! Bine?”

“Do whatever you want, I know I’m going to bed! All right?”

5. “Şi?”/“Aşa, şi?”/“Şi ce dacă?” – expressing (arrogant) unconcern, defiance or even irritation

“Nu v-aţi oprit la stop, nu aţi semnalizat şi nu aţi acordat prioritate.” / “You didn’t stop at the traffic light, you didn’t signal and you didn’t give right-of-way.”

“Aşa, şi?” / “So what?”

6. “Pe bune?”/(Transylvania) “Chiar?” – show surprise or, with falling intonation, expressing indignation

“Marta zice să termini raportul astă-seară.” / “Marta says you should finish the report tonight.”

“Pe bune?” / “You don’ say!...”

7. “Zici?” – expressing doubt or irony

“Vlad are cea mai scumpă maşină din parcare.” / “Vlad’s car is the most expensive in the parking lot.”

“Zici?” /

8. “Numai?” – expressing (sarcastic) disapproval related to the number/quantity mentioned

“Iulia şi-a cumpărat 5 perechi de pantofi ieri.” / “Iulia bought five pairs of shoes yesterday.”

“Numai?” / “So few?”

9. “Ce (mai) contează?”/“Contează?” – expressing bitter detachment, resignation or even resentment

“Datorită vouă şi-au putut cumpăra maşina şi casa.” / “It was thanks to you that they were able to buy their car and house.”

“Ce contează?” / “No matter.”

10. “Oare?” – expressing doubt or, with falling intonation, mild concern or warning

“Dacă lucrez 13 ore pe zi şi weekendurile, or să-mi mărească salariul într-o lună!” / “If I work 13 hours a day and the weekends too, they’ll give me a pay rise within a month!”

“Oare?” / “Will they?”

As mentioned above, these rhetorical questions are conversationally enriching and they can be (along with other colloquial words or phrases, of course) your “language naturalisers” in Romanian. Before learning them, you might want to first listen to native speakers chatting and monitor their use of them. And then, gradually, you’re very likely to just pick them up and start using them yourself, nonchalantly. Ştii?

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