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  • Ilinca Stroe

Showing Active Listening: One-Word Responses in Conversation

Recent language textbooks go beyond grammar and vocabulary, the regulars of standardised language learning, to encompass areas of language which pertain to pragmatics. Pragmatics is a branch of linguistics which has to do with language in context, in other words it looks at words from the point of view of their situational or contextual functions. For example, “I do” in the context of a wedding ceremony means something specific, different from “I do” in a short dialogue about hobbies where the interlocutor may have (wrongly) inferred something like, “So you don’t really like football.”

Approaching words as units of pragmatics implies viewing language in interaction, and it reveals the lively, context-generated meaning of words, rather than their static, dictionary-bound meaning. To illustrate, in a grammatical or lexical approach a word like Romanian serios is described as an adjective which, according to the dictionary, means “serious” or “severe”, depending on the noun it combines with. Well, in pragmatics that same word is seen as a marker of active listening in conversational exchanges: rather than meaning a synonymous adjective, it means that the interlocutor who utters it is interested in finding out more about what has been said, or that they are surprised at it. Thus, in pragmatics the function of serios is to keep the conversation going or to signal the speaker that you are listening and responding actively to what they are saying.

So within the framework of pragmatics, i.e. keeping in sight the context-related function of words, let’s look into some one-word responses which are commonly used in conversational interaction in Romanian either to show active listening, to encourage the other speaker to continue, or to signal surprise, comprehension, empathy, etc. in response to what is being said. Mind you, as the tone and intonation are part of the meaning here, they’re signalled by punctuation marks or repeated (long) vowels in the examples given; moreover, one and the same word can fulfil two different functions depending on the punctuation mark that accompanies it.

A case in point is serios itself, which can signal that the listener is surprised to the point of being interested in finding out more (question mark), or else dubious to the point of feeling sarcastic about what has been said (exclamation point). Let’s look at some examples:

“Lucian a câştigat 3000 de euro la loto.” / “Lucian has won €3,000 in the lottery.”

“Serios?” / “Really?”


“Pot să mănânc 30 de ardei iuţi în 15 secunde.” / “I can eat 30 chillies in 15 seconds.”

“Serios!...” / “Can you?...”

Some of the one-word responses are close to slang, but very common indeed, so worth using in the right informal context to signal that you sympathise with or feel positive about the speaker’s expressed situation. A few examples:

“Mi-am pierdut portofelul.” / “I’ve lost my wallet.”

“Nasol.” / “Oh dear.”


“A murit căţelul lui Paul.” / “Paul’s dog has died.”

“Naşpa.” / “Pity.”


“Mi-au mărit salariul cu 10%.” / “I got a 10% pay rise.”

“Mişto!” / “Cool!”

A funny case is that of “mamă”, the dictionary meaning of which is “mother”. Used as an exclamation, it can have quite a wide range of functions, signalling responses like surprise/disbelief, disappointment or even resentment, indignation and anger. For instance:

“Am stat 2 ore blocat în trafic.” / “I spent two hours in a traffic jam.”

“Mamă!” / “Wow!”


“Barça a pierdut cu 3-0.” / “Barça was beaten 3-0.”

“Maaamă!...” / “Oh, no...”


“Dan a făcut-o proastă pe Laura.” / “Dan called Laura ‘stupid’.”

“Maaamă!” / “The cheek!...”

Overall, one-word responses in verbal interaction are minimalist, highly efficient tools for having rewarding conversations. Last but not least, they give your Romanian that twist of familiarity with the language which makes the interlocutor feel they’re chatting colloquially with someone who belongs.

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