Same meaning, different perceptions: the trick about synonyms in Romanian
A few years ago, a Canadian young man joined the IH Bucharest and Study Romanian teams as an English teacher. Bright, motivated and keen to integrate in this new culture, he had taught himself some Romanian before landing here, so he had the basics when, one day, the team were discussing going out together for lunch. It was an informal conversation between mostly Romanian colleagues, and our brave Canadian contributed this comment: “Să mergem! Sunt flămând!” The team instantly burst out laughing. He was perplexed: was his effort to speak the language of the natives not praiseworthy? Why the guffaw?
What the Canadian meant to say was quite the right thing in that context: “Yes, let’s have lunch, I’m starving.” However, his choice of word was, to the Romanians, hilarious: “flămând” isn’t the best way to convey “I’m starving”; it is old-fashioned, it evokes rather a wolf’s (or another animal’s) appetite and, above all, it has particular cultural connotations. Exploited peasants were “flămânzi” in communist-era propaganda fiction about, for instance, the 1907 Rebellion of the Romanian peasantry. So it was side-splitting to see a cool young Canadian take on that kind of identity… (The appropriate phrasing would have been “Să mergem! Mor de foame!”)
Few learners of Romanian are aware, especially in the early stages of their familiarisation with this language, that our vocabulary is a cultural mosaic of borrowings from languages as diverse as Greek, Russian, Turkish, Hungarian, German, French, Italian or English. As a consequence, even words that have the same meaning, strictly semantically speaking, carry very different nuances and connotations, elicit very different emotions and responses. It is, therefore, important to bear in mind that synonyms in Romanian are not perfectly interchangeable (“înfometat” and “flămând” do mean the same thing, but they mean it differently – one gets you food, the other calls for a smile), so they’d better be learnt along with their cultural implications.
First, we should be aware of a possibly basic cultural split in Romanian, namely between Latin- and Slavic-origin words. As a rule, when we have a pair of synonyms where one comes from Latin, the other – from Russian, younger-generation Romanians prefer to use the Latin word. Slavic-origin items, on the other hand, tend to be used by people over 50 who, moreover, have a marked Orthodox Christian leaning. Such is the case of (Latin) speranță and (Slavic) nădejde, both meaning “hope”, dezgust and silă, both meaning “disgust”, or glorie and slavă, both meaning “glory”. The (Orthodox) Church discourse will always opt for the Slavic-origin words, and so will religious literature. So if you, as a native or non-native speaker of Romanian, choose to use nădejde, rather than speranță, you implicitly signal the fact that you are a religious person.
Secondly, some items in synonymic series carry historical connotations, many of which have to do with the so-called “wooden language” enforced by the ideologies and political agendas of the dictatorships that the Romanians experienced between the late 1930s and the late 1980s. Take, for example, nație/națiune and popor – the former preferred by right-wing discourses, the latter – by left-wing propaganda. Or the series obiectiv / scop / țintă / țel (= “goal”), of which the last two items made a brilliant career in the communist discourse about agricultural production targets in Ceaușescu’s time, whereas the first one is preferred nowadays in the corporate lingo.
Finally, there are items in a synonymic series which tend to be used in certain fields/areas, rather than in others, or with certain emotional connotations. Of the words that mean “enemy”, for instance, vrăjmaș tends to be used with reference to the devil (the enemy of a good Christian), adversar is used in sports, inamic is mainly a military term, and dușman, highly propagandised during the communist regime of the 1950s, is today rather neutral. Adjectives, too, are expressive examples, in this category. Of those that mean “stingy”, zgârcit is the most widespread and neutral, while calculat and econom are positive euphemisms, and scârțar is slightly humorous. Similarly, of the adjectives meaning “tricksy”, șmecher is neutral, abil – a diplomatic understatement, șiret – the not all-negative equivalent of “cunning”, viclean, instead, refers to a dangerous kind of „sly” and shows disapproval, while hoțoman and pișicher indicate a certain amount of likeability and tend to be used humorously, many times with reference to clever kids.
So while you’re making progress towards higher level of proficiency in Romanian, learning how to avoid repetition by using synonyms and expanding your vocabulary, it is important that you ask your teacher to let you in on the cultural and emotional associations many synonymous words bear. It really is culture-rich terrain worth exploring – and worth showing off!
International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact email@example.com. You can also watch our video series “Your Romanian Class” and subscribe to our YouTube channel, or listen to our series of podcasts “Ascultă româneşte”.