Moldova: Not Finding a Common Tongue

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Sep 3 14:46:09 UTC 2004

Forwarded from Transitions Online

Moldova: Not Finding a Common Tongue

by Vitalie Dogaru
3 September 2004

Moldovansor some of them at leasthave just celebrated Our Language Day.
But Moldova cannot quite decide what that language is.

CHISINAU, Moldova--31 August is a national holiday in Moldova, a holiday
curiously titled Our Language Day.

Finding an equivalent national day would be tough. And the Moldovan
anomaly becomes odder still because, having decided 15 years ago that its
language needed an annual celebration, Moldovans seem incapable of
deciding what their language is. Over those years, the authorities have
variously referred to the language spoken in Moldova as the state
language, the national language, the mother tongue, the official language,
the maternal language, our language, our countrys language, and the
language that unifies.

The reason for this proliferation of ambiguities is highlighted in the
conflict that produced the title Our Language Day. After 1989, when
Moldova was still part of the Soviet Union, it was called Our Romanian
Language Day to celebrate the decision, on 31 August 1989, to proclaim
Romanian Moldovas official language. Then, in 1994, three years after
gaining independence, the countrys second freely elected parliament stated
that the state language was Moldovan. The word Romanian was subsequently
removed from the name of the holiday.


Linguists across the world are, though, in agreement: Moldovan is
Romanian. Since the linguistic battle over the nature of Moldovan Romanian
began in 1994, numerous international conferences, symposia, and workshops
have demonstrated that, linguistically, there is no distinctly Moldovan
language. There are no longer conferences on the issue. For academics, the
issue has been resolved.

But not so for the Moldovan government and many Moldovans. For them,
naming the language of the countrys ethnic majority is more than a matter
of linguistics. The persistent question Is our language Moldovan or
Romanian? has been mirrored in the paradoxical existence of publications
written in the same language but which, below their title, carry the
tagline periodical in Romanian or periodical in Moldovan.

And in the bookshops, a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary (the equivalent of an
English-American dictionary) has become a bestseller, though as a
curiosity rather than as an academic work. (The academic credibility of
the dictionary were, in passing, undermined when Vasile Stati, its author,
was unable to explain the meaning of a short story written by a talkshow
host using only the distinctively Moldovan words taken from the
dictionary.) In the classroom, the United Nations Development Program,
which was trying to promote Romanian-language courses among ethnic
minorities, two years ago tried to sidestep the problem by saying that its
courses were taught in the language that unifies us.

So how is it possible that such different identities have emerged from
what is, linguistically, the same language?

The origins of the problem are political. Under Soviet rule, Romanians
Latin script was replaced with the Cyrillic alphabet, and the official
language and the only language used in high schools and universities was
Russian (Romanian, the national language, was used only at home and rural
schools). The underlying reason of Soviet ideologists intensive
Russification of the language spoken in Moldova was to justify the
annexation, in 1940, of this formerly Romanian territory. The
Russification was conducted in two key ways: by obliging everyone to speak
Russian, and by incorporating Russian words into the national language.
Nonetheless, despite Russification, the Soviets found it difficult to
argue that there was a difference between the languages in Moldova and
neighboring Romania. And despite the Soviets relative success in imposing
the expression the Moldovan language, on 31 August 1989, Moldova adopted
the Latin alphabet and changed the name of the spoken language from
Moldovan to Romanian.

Still, Russification did create some differences between Romanian and
Moldovan. The relegation of Romanian meant that, in some ways, the
language of the ethnic majority remained undeveloped, frozen at the same
level as it was in 1940 when the region was annexed. The new terminology
to describe Moldovans new socialist and material existence in the Soviet
Union was utterly Russian. By the 1980s, mixing Romanian and Russian words
was largely the linguistic norm, especially among those whose professions
were not related to education or did not involve the literary use of the
languagein other words, among the majority of ethnic Moldovans.

Most importantly, Russification produced a phenomenon that linguists refer
to as a language skill loss. By the time the Moldovan parliament
recognized Romanian as an official language, some of the population could
speak neither their native language nor Russian correctly or fluently.
They were the stuttering masses.

Under the influence of the nationalist movement, which included much of
the intelligentsia and the most educated sections of the population, a
linguistic struggle emerged, producing a tendency towards
(hyper)correction of the language of the stuttering masses. This was
supported by extensive programs in the media to teach Moldovans how to use
their native language correctly. (Even now there are five-minute daily
programs and newspaper columns in the Romanian-oriented media instructing
listeners and readers on how to speak Romanian correctly).

The tension produced by (hyper)correction is a feature of post-Soviet
transition peculiar to Moldova. Although Russification was imposed on all
ethnic-national groups incorporated into the Soviet Union, other former
Soviet republics have been less neurotic about their linguistic abilities.
Perhaps that is because they do not have their own Romanians against whom
they can compare the degree of their language skill loss or to discover
their glottal inferiority, as a group of German socio-linguists from
Heidelberg University have described a feature of Moldovan speech.

For more nationalistically minded Moldovans, this emphasis on correct
usage of Romanian is not a goal in itself, but reflects practical and
psychological requirements. A poor knowledge of ones own language, they
argue, closes doors and affects self-esteem.

But some of them show little respect for or patience with those who speak
Romanian incorrectly. Language has, then, become a powerful tool of
stigmatization in Moldovan society. As a result, the reintroduction of
references to the Moldovan language in official papers was a relief for
the stuttering masses. By referring to a Moldovan language, the state
effectively declared that the phenomenon of language skill loss was a
legitimate form of linguistic behavior.


The Communist government took a further step back towards the Soviet era
by elevating Russian to an official language. What the difference was
between Moldovan Romanians status as the state language and Russians
status as an official language was unclear, but Russian was still
considered subordinate to Moldovan. Even so, the promotion of the Russian
language and its reintroduction as a mandatory subject in schools was
enough to lead to serious protests on the streets of Chisinau in the
spring of 2002. The situation remained tense until the Parliamentary
Assembly for the Council of Europe, of which Moldova is a member, forced
the Communist government to put a moratorium on its plans to promote
Russian and raise the status of the language.

Still, the governments pro-Russian attitude has accelerated another
tendency: Moldovas ethnic minorities are increasingly unwilling to learn
the state language.

In the separatist region of Transdniester and the autonomous region of
Gagauzia (which is inhabited by a Turkic group that adopted Orthodox
Christianity), the state of the Romanian language is catastrophic, say
experts from the House of the Romanian Language, an NGO whose aim is to
promote Romanian among non-Romanian speakers. In these areas, Romanian is
openly marginalized and neglected, they say. Gagauzia officially has three
state languages--Moldovan, Gagauz and Russian--but Russian is replacing
the other two. Transdniester officially has three state
languages--Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian--but only Russian is used in
public life. The current situation in Transdniester has been exacerbated
by the recent closure of Romanian-language schools.

In Gagauzia (and, of course, Transdniester), the demise of Romanian has
led to the annulment of 31 August as a public holiday.

The Moldovan government itself has not gone as far as that. Our Language
Day remains a national holiday. But, this year, as in every year since it
came to power in 2001, the Communist government did not send
representatives to ceremonies to mark the occasion. Moreover, it has
sought in two consecutive years to diminish the importance of the day by
forcing the capitals administration to authorize a beer festival to be
held on 31 August on Chisinaus central square, site of the most important
demonstrations in the national revival between 1989 and 1991.

Having encountered major protests to its efforts to elevate Russian, the
government now appears to be marginalizing Romanian by stealth. Prime
Minister Vasile Tarlev is diplomatic. After being pressed several times by
journalists about which language he speaks, Tarlev recently said that he
is not interested in the name of a tongue, but in what we say with our
tongue. But, having tried to prohibit the use of the expression Romanian
language and Romanian literature in schools and all official documents
after its election in February 2001, there is no doubt that, for the
Moldovan government, our language is Moldovan.

Vitalie Dogaru is a TOL correspondent.

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