Notes on Romanian language history

This is a different post from the ones I wrote until now. If you are interested in the history of languages, please continue reading.
I will try to explain how the Romanian language and culture could survive for centuries. Although it wasn’t the official language in any country that is now part of Romania, no schools or documents were written in this language before the XVI century.

My country, Romania, has a historical particularity that makes it different from other countries in the region. Two thousand years ago, that land was inhabited by the Dacians. We don’t know their language because no written texts are left from them except the short “Decebalus per Scorilo” (Decebalus the son of Scorilo). We know that Ovid, the famous roman poet exiled by the emperor Augustus at Tomis (Constanta in present days), wrote poems in the local language. Unfortunately, those poems are lost. Later the Dacians were conquered by Romans in 106 AD, who stayed in the country until 271 AD. Then, many nomadic populations went through that space, and the Romanian language appeared in time. It is a Latin language with minor Slavonic and other external influences. More precisely, 70% of the language has Latin origins, and about 15% is of Slavic roots. Even if this language was formed around the X century, as most historians accept nowadays, the first written document in Romanian that we know about dates from mid-1521 (Neacsu’s letter). Now let’s compare the first documents in neighbors’ languages (from the same geographical area). The first manuscripts in Bulgarian are from the X century, in Serbian from the XI century, in Hungarian from 1192, in Russian XIth century, in Polish from 1270, and in Czech since the early XIII century. In my opinion, this is evidence that writing was not much valued within the Romanian population for a long time.

For some context, the official language used by the rulers and the Orthodox Church was old Slavonian Bulgarian in both Walachia and Moldova from the X century. But that was not the language spoken by the people. It was similar to the situation in the central and West of Europe. The church used Latin as an official language there, but the people did not understand it.

The corpus of official and religious documents in the old Slavonian language left from Moldova and Valachia is much less than those in Serbia or Bulgaria. The main reason is that in those regions, people spoke a Slavic language, while in Moldova and Valachia, that was not the case. Besides, as mentioned before, writing was not a priority among Romanians.

What has changed and made people start writing in Romanian? There are different theories on this topic among historians. The one that seems more accurate is that the Lutheran influence in Transylvania from the XVI century made people start writing in their native language. In support of that, we have the first documents printed in the Romanian language in Brasov from 1550s. The deacon Coresi moved from Targoviste to Brasov (at the time in a different country, Transylvania) and started publishing religious books translated into Romanian. In “Psaltirea romaneasca” printed in 1570 Coresi explains his reasons to publish in Romanian language: “Eu, diaconul Coresi, daca vazui ca mai toate limbile au cuvintul lu dumnezeu in limba lor, numai noi, rumanii, n-avam…” (I, Coresi the deacon, if I saw that all the languages have the word of god in their language, only us, romanians, don’t…)

The first school in Romanian was also founded in Brasov in the same century. Lutherans were strong supporters of using people’s language in the church. For example, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in 1534.

We know how writing in Romanian began. Now let’s see how this language was still alive after centuries in which it was not used in official documents, church, or school.

Things written next are my personal opinion. My grandfather was a child in the 1930s in the countryside of the Dobrogea region. He told me that during that time (and probably many years before), people from the village gathered on Saturday nights at some inhabitants’ houses, where older people told stories, legends, myths, and poems from the past. There were things from ancient times and more recent times that those people experienced: for example, working on the bridge built over the Danube river in 1895 by Anghel Saligny or memories from the First World War. This form of transmitting information to the next generations made this population’s traditions, language, and culture survive over centuries despite no written documents. Children would listen to those stories, and some would transmit them later to the next generations. That is why there were many poems and songs because those are easy to remember. Also, those people developed their memory to keep those stories, poetry, and themes in their minds for a long time and transmit them to the next generations.

This is how people transmitted their culture from past generations over thousands of years. Of course, it was a living culture: some poems, stories, and songs were changed in time or space. There were different variants of the lyrics or the stories, and some stories changed or disappeared in time. There were actual historical facts and fictional stories transmitted to young generations.

Interestingly, those people in the 1930s lived the same way humans lived for thousands of years. They did not use any modern technologies available at the time, like electricity, cars, radio, etc. It is incredible how the world has changed in the last hundred years. We lost that connection with the past, and there is no way back. 

In the 1920s, Dimitrie Gusti, a sociology professor, and his team went to many places in Romanian villages and wrote down or recorded the folklore and traditions of those places. He conducted ethnographic research on the country’s regions. I don’t know the state of those books and recordings, but someone should digitalize them before being lost forever.

Although the things mentioned here are not as exciting as battles and politics in Romanian history, this is an integral part of the country’s development.

Note: For information in this article I used a book written in Romanian by Petre P. Panaitescu “Inceputurile si biruinta scrisului in limba romana“. Panaitescu was a great Romanian historian. Yet this book was published in 1965 during communist times in Romania and had some theories aligned with the political views of the communist regime on history (nationalism, fight between poor and rich, no external influences in our country, etc.), so it needs to be read carefully. Nevertheless, the facts described here are accurate, but he could not publish the book without achieving compromises with the rulers in those times.