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The Influence of French on Romanian (A Historical Overview)

As early as the 18th century, the Romanian Principalities started being strongly influenced by French due to the reigns of Phanariote Greeks appointed princes in those territories by the Ottoman Empire. The Phanariots regarded French as the “carrier of a rich culture” [1], they learnt it and so they facilitated the Romanians’ first tentative contact with French language and literature. In 1775, Prince Alexander Ypsilantis [2] reorganised the education system in Wallachia based on the French model, and decided to introduce the compulsory study of French as a foreign language in schools, alongside Greek, Latin, Slavic and Romanian. Shortly afterwards, French was also introduced to schools in Moldavia [3].

The peaceful Phanariote age was followed by war in the Romanian Principalities, but the French influence lasted and even increased with the invasion of the Russian army. But even though the Russo-French impact was significant, it did not reach deep beyond certain social classes [4]. At the end of the 18th century and particularly the beginning of the 19th, the Romanian Principalities received many French émigrés in search of shelter, survival and a hub for political projects and action. They were well liked by Romanians, and so many became private tutors for the Principalities’ gentry [5].

Linguistically, the French influence is mainly visible in the lexis. Most of the new words borrowed in the 18th and early 19th centuries pertain, unsurprisingly, to the military and administrative domains. Thus, the language of the Romanian intelligentsia included words still very much in use today: administrație, aliat, artilerie, asociație, autorizație, cabinet, cavalerie, comerț, comisie, consul, departament, economie, gardă, general, glorie, industrie, invalid, a înrola, parlament, proprietate, a raporta, tratat, voluntar, etc. The new loanwords often had two or more versions, such as administrațiune or comisiune, with the -ie ending coming from Russian, while the -iune one from French. The concurrent usage of such same-meaning pairs led, in time, to clear different-meaning words in Romanian, for example raţie (ration) and raţiune (reason).

Research has shown that the French influence started growing stronger only in the mid-19th century, generating the expansion of Romanian lexis, as most of the French-derived terms used in the fields of economics, politics, administration as well as in high-life social circles gradually replaced the older Slavic ones [6]. For example, ordonanţă ousted vistavoi, raport/referat and mesager replaced doclad and olac, respectively. After 1850, following the German model, the Russians set up poşta, the post service, hence the necessary related terms were taken from French: timbru, francare, recomandare.

Another factor that speeded up the borrowing of French lexis into Romanian was, at the beginning of the 19th century, the introduction of education in the national language, i.e. Romanian, which required the publication of textbooks on various subjects. At first, translations were used of already existing foreign-language schoolbooks, occasioning previously unassimilated words to enter Romanian: fizisieni (→ fizicieni), rezon (→ motiv), sansibilitate (→ sensibilitate), ipotez (→ ipoteză), tez (→ teză), clas (→ clasă) etc. Gradually, the borrowings which had made their debut in the language thanks to the new coursebooks ended up adapting to the Romanian phonetic and morphological system, so that comicesc gave way to comic, gheneralnic to general, abonarisi to abona, definarisi to defini, etc. The adjustment of French loanwords, especially neologisms, continued throughout the 19th century.

An overview of the influence of French on Romanian in the second half of the 20th century, based on a corpus selected from the Dictionary of Recent Words, looks into French borrowings in Romanian after 1960. In the survey, linguist Florica Dimitrescu categorises French-origin terms as per domain, ranking the latter, according to how frequent the terms are, as follows: medical science, biology, technology, physics, vehicle traffic, arts, chemistry, cinematography, aeronautics, nutrition, fiction, clothing, electricity, sailing, information science, music, sports, pharmacy, geology, astronautics, psychology, television, economics, photography, astronomy, hydraulics, construction, electronics, teaching, radio, law, telephony, measurements, animal husbandry, agronomy, trade, meteorology, botanical science, diplomacy, mechanics, optics, sociology, topography and tourism [7].

Only few of the loanwords in these fields referred to things existing just in France at that time (for example, dactilofon), while most of them named actual realities in several countries (copilot, microbuz, autostop, etc.) and were borrowed as such in Romanian. Focusing on the top five domains listed above, author Dimitrescu notices that medical science acquired 96 terms (alergologie, autism, autist, cancerigen, celulită, chimioterapie, geriatrie, hipodermic, a implanta, stresant, toxicoman, toxiinfecție etc.), including some “luxury” items such as fatigabilitate [8]. In biology 34 terms were identified (antigenă, biomasă, biotop, ecologie, viral), whereas in technology 30 (audiovisual, decodor, reșapat, termorezistent, as well as rare words like solunar, sterimobil), in physics 24 (antielectron, antiproton, stereo, stereofonic, supraconductibilitate, supraconductor), and in car traffic 22 (alcoolemie, alcooltest, microbuz, treflă stradală, and the less common a ambuteia and ambuteiaj). In some of the domains listed, only one borrowing was introduced: in mechanics - hidropneumatic, in optics - catadioptru, in soociology - sociogonic, and in tourism - sejur.

At the time of Dimitrescu’s study, arts terms such as café-concert or coupé, and loanwords related to nutrition, like café-frappé, plat or rotisor, were deemed infrequent, but time has proven these apparently unnecessary items to be stable borrowings in Romanian. In fields like nutrition and clothing, some of them marked a social transition to the modern lifestyle (see bistro, caserolă,profiterol, propolis, and alain delon, bikini, cagulă, compleu, minijupă, mini, respectively). Yet other French-origin items in the 20th-century Romanian lexis may not have had a logical justification, but they signalled "a certain leaning towards using out-of-the-ordinary words,” since Romanian already had words meaning the exact same thing: a antama = a deschide, a începe o conversație, briant = strălucitor; iramplasabil = de neînlocuit, a surclasa = a depăși, aveniu = bulevard, a colá = a asorta [9].

After 1989, the French influence on Romanian has come primarily through television and the press, the reopening of French high schools in big cities around Romania, and increased freedom of movement. Even though except at the level of syntax the linguistic impact has subsided, compared to the last century, to speakers and researchers French borrowings have remained prominent, with common everyday examples like tonetă, rulotă, hotă, pubelă.

Over the centuries, therefore, the strong influence of French on Romanian has contributed to the development of the latter, shaping it gradually into a language of culture. Linguistic exaggerations and bravadoes have been duly censured by speakers and time, while the really useful items have been preserved and perfectly assimilated as active vocabulary into the Romanian system up to this day.

image: Distribution of Romance languages in Europe. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

[1] Cf Al. Rosetti, B. Cazacu and Liviu Onu, Istoria limbii române literare. De la origini pînă la începutul secolului al XIX-lea, 2nd edition, vol I, page 577. Bucharest: Minerva, 1971.

[2] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Ypsilantis_(1725%E2%80%931805)>

[3] Maria Butan, Interférences lexicales: réactions du roumain à l’influence de la langue et culture françaises, pages 30-31. Timișoara: Amphora, 1997.

[4] Cf Rosetti et al, op cit, pages 579 and 581.

[5] Butan, op cit, pages 35-37.

[6] B. Cazacu, “Probleme ale studierii lexicului”, in Studii de istoria limbii române literare. Secolul al XIX-lea, by Al. Rosetti and B. Cazacu, vol 1, page 78. Bucharest: Editura pentru literatură, 1969.

[7] See Florica Dimitrescu, Dicționar de cuvinte recente, page 241. Bucharest: Editura Albatros, 1982.

[8] Such rare and very uncommon words, at one point trendy, are called xenisme and “do no, as a rule, justify their existence in our language,” according to Dimitrescu. (See op cit, page 240.)

[9] Dimitrescu, op cit, pages 246 and 251.

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