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  • Ilinca Stroe

Time in Romania: the Widespread Present Tense

Learners of Romanian who are familiar with the phrase “sfertul academic” may have also realised that punctuality, by which one generally means “arriving, starting (or whatever else there is to be done) on the hour,” not a minute earlier and none later, isn’t precisely our forte, here in Romania.

That, of course, is regrettable. So is, apparently, our historic interpretive twist on the notion of “academic quarter”: it used to have to do with late mediaeval university lectures starting at quarter past, instead of sharp, so when the church clock tower struck the hour, students knew they had exactly 15 minutes left to get to class. But here, alas, it ended up meaning “it’s OK to be 15 minutes late”.

In our defence, it is nowadays well understood that punctuality (or the lack of it) is definitely related to a given culture’s concept of time. Indeed, contemporary business English course books explain that being late for meetings is quite acceptable in, say, South America, while rather unacceptable in the UK, and for professionals doing business internationally familiarity with a country’s concept of time is really important.

So in order to come to terms with how we in Romania think of and deal with time, in order to gain an insight into how we approach time management, deadlines and the like, keep in mind “sfertul academic”, by all means, keep in mind that we are, after all, a Latin-derived culture (see South America above), but also... look at our verb tenses.

Tenses, in any given language, are probably the handiest mirror of a culture’s concept of time. When, for example, Romanian learners of English have to take on board Present Continuous or Present Perfect in that language, they struggle a little bit with the rationale and the concept of time behind them.

That’s because in Romanian we simply don’t have a special tense for “an activity in progress at the moment of speaking”, and another one for “an activity which started at some point in the past and is still going on at the moment of speaking”.

Instead of those two English tenses, we just use one: Present. Our notion of Present is a lot more “generous”-slash-lax. It spans past and present, with no grammatical implicit hint at what has been completed (Present Perfect). And it doesn’t separate what’s going on right now from what goes on in general (Present Continuous).

The good news? Learners of Romanian can go a long, long way (and express a lot) mastering this one Romanian tense: Present. The “bad” news? We do have our own non-grammatical ways of checking on how much progress has been made so far, and what exactly one is doing at the moment. The key is the vocabulary. For example: “Ce tot faci?”, “Termini odată?”


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