Language without a name or name without a language?

[Instead of writing daily updates, for the past week I have been returning to expand on this same single piece! :( Well, I’ve learnt my lesson now… So here’s the thing in its lengthy entirety. I don’t expect anybody to be reading this ^_^ ]

A recent story about a journalist who was attacked by a university executive director for refusing to accept Russian as a lingua franca reminded me of one of the more fascinating aspects of Moldovan society and politics. It is the issue of language use and language recognition in this relatively small country of 4.3 million people.

Since gaining its independence in 1991, Moldova has faced linguistic issues that have incited major debates, inter-ethnic hostilities, and occasionally riots nationalism. While my knowledge of the issues is still limited, it is probably fair to say (or maybe this is only my West European bias shining through) that the majority of Moldovans would prefer to see a peaceful coexistence of multilingual diversity in their country and to have a political elite that is more focused on things like job creation. Anyway, here are some of the key facts.

According to the country’s 1994 constitution, the official language of the Republic of Moldova is “Moldovan”. Yet many would dispute if such a language exists. While 2.6 million people claim to speak the language (primarily in Moldova and Western Ukraine), it is so similar to Romanian that people don’t consider it to be a separate language. The country’s recognised regional languages are Gagauz, Russian, Ukrainian.

Brief history: Romania + Moldova
The affinity with Romania is no coincidence. Romania’s Northeastern province is called Moldavia, and the historical lands of Bessarabia – that’s today’s Moldova – was more or less part of Moldavia. In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia and established the ‘Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’.

During Moldova/MSSR’s years under soviet control, efforts were made to redefine the Moldavian identity and language, distinguishing it from Romanian in two ways. A process of Russification was undertaken in order to integrate the newly acquired territories of Bessarabia into the USSR. This entailed granting the status of second official language to Russian, as well as effectively restricting higher positions in society to only those who adopted Russian language and culture. While Russian language and culture were promoted in this way, to the detriment of Romanian and thus Latin influences, the new Moldavian identity was also promoted, but in a way that made it more compatible with Slavic culture – for example, the new language of MSSR, while identical to the Romanian spoken in northeastern Romania, was written in cyrillic alphabet after 1941.

The Situation Today
There is no doubt that fifty years of Russification have left a lasting influence on Moldova. But it is equally important to recognise the significance of strong Western/Romanian influences that have remained in the country throughout that half-century. Whether written in the latin alphabet or in cyrillic script, Romanian is part of the ‘Romance languages’ group, alongside Italian, French and Spanish, to name just a few. Therefore, the first official language of Moldova SSR (whatever you wish to call it) was the only Romance language that was officially spoken in the USSR. Furthermore, Moldova has been the only country in the world where languages in both latin and cyrillic scripts claim official language status. In my opinion, it is this unique mix of cultures that makes Moldova an important example of how to achieve a harmonious social and political blend of two historically antagonistic societies, not to mention the incorporation of other important ethnic minorities.

Since 1989, a reversion to using the latin alphabet for the official language has only underscored its resemblance to Romanian and, according to many sources, “Moldovan” language is little more than a dialect of Romanian. As I understand it, the main distinguishing characteristics of Moldovan language are: archaic Romanian words - brought back during the Soviet era due to their Slavic origins; minor spelling differences (’ â ’ is more commonly found in Romanian orthography whereas, ’ î ’ is the variant more commonly read in Moldovan texts); and Russian loanwords and phrases.

Beyond the irresolvable debate on the language’s existence, there are some real life factors that must also be considered. Moldova is not a complete unitary state due to the break-away efforts of two regions: the strip of land on the Eastern bank of the river Dniester (Romanian: Nistru), known as Transnistria, and the southern province of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Găgăuzia a.k.a. Gagauzia.

Soon after Moldova claimed independence, Transnistria also made a claim for self-determination. Through the 1990s, a new administration was established there, issuing a Transnistrian currency, passports, and everything necessary for Statehood short of international recognition. Up to the present, the central government of Moldova has not been able to assert its control over the region and therefore the linguistic problem is confounded. As in the rest of Moldova SSR prior to 1989, the Moldovan language is still used in the Cyrillic form in Transnistria. Furthermore, this form of Moldovan shares co-official language status with Russian and Ukrainian.

In Transnistria, pubic schools are required to use Cyrillic script when teaching Romanian, despite opposition from many teachers, parents, and students who believe that it restricts pupils potential to pursue higher education opportunities in the rest of the country or Romania where latin script is used. In 1996, several private schools gained permission to teach the latin alphabet in the Transnistria region, but due to high running costs, private classes are often held in local homes or run in shifts in the few available buildings. An estimated 40% of the population in Transnistria speaks Moldovan/Romanian as a first language.

The southern autonomous region of Gagauzia is characterized by a diverse multiethnic population that in recent history was united as a nationalist movement that opposed what was seen as the pro-Romanian central government of Moldova. Although the southern region has not isolated itself to the same extent as Transnistria, significant autonomy from the central government has been gained. The most frequently used languages in both everyday life and in public institutions in Gagauzia are Russian or Gagauz.

In Moldova today, there is strong support for reinstating Russian as a co-official language. This is due to a large population of non-ethnic Moldovans within the country who are proficient in Russian, and also due to the widespread use of Russian among older Moldovans.

Yet the significant minorities (e.g. Hungarians, Ukrainians and Roma peoples) throughout the country wield further demands on language use in the country. In the early 2000s, when the parliament was led by a Communist majority, two proposals were made: to introduce Russian language as a compulsory subject in high schools; and to bring back Russian as a co-official language. Many national minorities protested that their rights would be violated, instead expressing their need to learn Moldovan language in order to be better integrated into Moldovan society. With only a 35% public approval of the former proposal and just 33% support for the latter, both were eventually rejected.

Returning to the question of a “Moldovan” language, widespread criticism of the constitution has led to another proposal to amend it: in late 2009, the Prime Minister of Moldova, Vlad Filat, announced his intention to change the official name of the language from “Moldovan” to “Romanian”. Surprisingly, this was rejected, although 2009 was perhaps the wrong year to seek a rational solution to this single issue.

In summary, the importance of linguistic issues in Moldova today cannot be underestimated and will not be resolved in the near future for several reasons. First, the persistent calls for promoting the status of Russian often clash with an undeniable sense of closeness to Romania and to the rest of Europe. Second, demands for a distinct national identity will probably exist as long as the Republic of Moldova exists, but it is not unthinkable that the concept of a “Moldovan” language might be abandoned; maybe a prerequisite for this change will be to derive national pride and identity more from other source – and Moldova has many potential sources. Third, the country’s geopolitical make-up, particularly the isolation of Transnistria, means that it is near impossible to effect any linguistic changes in law and in society across the entire country. Finally, although political leaders have a significant role to play in determining the future of the country’s official language use, they have limited space to manoeuvre on such an issue due to more pressing issues and the fact that past attempts at reform only triggered popular resistance.

“Dicţionar Moldovenesc-Românesc” (2003) by Vasile Stati
The controversial / laughable publication of a Moldovan-Romanian Dictionary in 2003


© 2011 Gareth Allen