The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

Romanian vs. English

Posted by thearrow on July 12, 2008

“What is it with romanian that makes it so easy to give up (partially of course), or what is it with english that makes it so easy to take up?” asks K. about three of us, Romanian natives, chatting in English.

I think I have a wild speculation about it: Romanian may be easy to give up when you want to tune into a different mental frequency. I honestly believe that using one language vs. another, in time, triggers a set of behaviors or at least of attitudes. Language is so much more than just the language; it’s a surface beyond which lie deep structures of cultural practices and mentalities.

I drafted this last night only to discover a poignant comment K. left in the chat room later on: “Don’t you think that you are two different people based solely on your choice of language?” Yes indeed! Great minds … πŸ™‚

Those of you who are Romanians must have noticed how easy it is to be offensive, aggressive, patronizing, searingly ironic, or have double entendre in Romanian. One has to pay extra attention not to manifest that kind of behavior (particularly in the jungle called Bucharest). I think this proclivity to offensiveness is actually a reflection of the culture in the first place and that the language has been molded to become an enabler of the behavior. So that’s one reason why I prefer to communicate in English: I just want to cut the umbilical cord to that culture and with English I don’t need to worry about it :). I do believe that it is perfectly possible to express yourself elegantly in Romanian but somehow to me it feels like I have to make an effort.

As a non-native speaker, I feel English has a disciplining quality, if you will. It forces you to be more restrained and it uses far fewer words than Romanian. This could very well be a comparison that holds with other romance languages, too; I don’t know. Sadly, this restrictive trait makes me feel like I can’t be completely myself when using it because I miss the Romanian humor, which uses a ton of cultural references and nuances that cannot be translated.

English and Romanian, in my case, have another unexpected effect: It’s a lot easier for me to be sincere in English. I’m not particularly concerned with concealing what I think anyway, or I wouldn’t be writing this, but in Romanian I say far less than I would in English, and yet I manage to project a more accurate image of who I am. Not surprising, since it’s my native language/culture and I inhabited it, so to speak, for 29 years. But somehow using English opens the tap of my sincerity and I find myself saying things I would never say in Romanian :). Nothing offensive, just going into more detail than I know I should. I suspect it’s a reaction to living in this culture, where you don’t quite express what you feel other than in two understated words, which for the most part I like but every once in a while drives me nuts.

So here I am, with a split personality, thoroughly enjoying both sides. And I think that this was my ultimate — even if unconscious at the time — goal in coming to America: acquiring a new outlook and new behaviors. I knew there was something beyond going to grad school and changing careers; I couldn’t put it in words, I just felt it was there.

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6 Responses to “Romanian vs. English”

  1. Departe said

    “how easy it is to be offensive, aggressive, patronizing, searingly ironic, or have double entendre in Romanian”…Personal cred ca nuantele de care vorbesti sunt datorate faptului ca stapanesti (stapanim) mult mai bine romana decat engleza, si asta va ramane valabil oricat de bine ai (am) stapani engleza…

    Pe de alta parte, perfect de acord cu dubla personalitate, insa la mine e complet invers, sunt mult mai retinuta si formala in engleza, pe cand in romana imi dau din ce in ce mai mult seama ca nu m-as descurca dpdv profesional. F bizar.

    Apropo, daca trebuie sa numeri ceva repede, in ce limba o faci? πŸ™‚

  2. Raluca said

    Good observation, Departe. I count in Romanian (the sit-ups at the gym, the sugar spoons for the pie, the students’ points at an exam). I’m irritated when I have to count with someone in English (with a student or research partner, for instance). It feels like something is amiss.

    Arrow, I find it easier to be sincere and open in English as well. It might come from an initial need to say more, for fear people won’t understand me if I’m laconic. But with many Romanian friends I don’t even need words — they understand me from just a glance. This is something I miss sometimes.

    Also, I growingly realize that I’d be a lousy teacher in Romanian — because I use many words solely in English (research jargon, words related to American realities, and so on).

  3. thearrow said

    I count in Romanian. For the life of me I couldn’t count fast in English :). I remember a former coworker who was British and counted in German because that was her first language. As impossible as German is, if that’s your native language, it comes easier than anything else.

    I sometimes wish I were more formal in English but I’m too chatty because, even after so much time, I still can’t get over how polite and nice everyone is :)). I know it’s silly, but it’s true; haven’t figured out a way to change this yet. So, to get back to your point, Departe, that it’s probably easy to be offensive in Romanian because that’s my first language, I agree but I still think the culture is the problem. I have friends who never give in to this kind of behavior, but some do and I do, too, every now and then.

    Raluca, indeed, many times you don’t need words; you know exactly how the other person feels and the other way round. I miss it, too. I did meet Americans with whom I had an amazing connection, though, but they’re all over 50 :). The younger the people are, the harder it is for me to have anything in common with them. I feel that we are worlds apart. It’s probably because my life experience is closer to their parents’ than to theirs; I wouldn’t even know where to begin a conversation.

  4. Juss Mag said

    You inspire me! While reading your article, I realized I’m also more sincere when talking in English – or maybe that’s just because I’m talking to strangers who don’t know anything about me. Or do they? :)) I don’t know. This ambiguity of internal languages is very interesting; I feel it too. Even if I have a tendency to go towards French, I need that cozy discipline of English. Nice article!

  5. thearrow said

    Thank you for your kind words, Juss Mag. I am absolutely convinced that, at least when comparing Romanian with English, the latter forces you to think clearly. Funny how you think the English discipline is cozy. I love the English language deeply, but I could never call its demands for clarity and strictness “cozy” :). I feel its shackles every day because I have to restrain my native bubbly verbosity.

  6. Juss Mag said

    Well, English imposes a certain discipline, but not in an intrusive, tough way – compare it with German, which is, of course, very one-way-at-a-time-going πŸ˜› but we could never think about German that it’s cozy. Right? πŸ™‚ English has a very peculiar rhythm – not like French nor like Italian, but it has a deep sense of some kind of music.

    Romanian also has its innate music, oh, but… well, only when people speak it as it is, without foreign insertions.

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