Sunday, 20 December 2009

Haimacumsă & Narecumsă, Romania's favourite '-ism'

A word or two about haimacumsă, narecumsă and their close relatives naredeundesă, deundenaibisă and so on.

If you are Romanian and don't know these words, it's probably because they were invented by me. But you should immediately understand their etymology. Should you deny that these words have a right to exist in the Romanian lexicon, then you probably don't listen to yourself (or others) speak as often as you should. Furthermore, if you can truthfully claim never to utter these words then you are among the most pessimistic of your compatriots!

If you don't speak Romanian or 'Englanian', then some explanation is in order at this point. Firstly, the words themselves are compounds of existing words. As languages evolve, words commonly used together tend to become fused together. For example, any one and some body have with time become anyone and somebody (the intermediate stage usually involves hyphenation, as in half-price). In English, this is an organic process. In Romanian – as in French – it is monitored and approved (no doubt with many rubber stamps and lengthy meetings). The ominously-named DOOM or Dictionarul Ortografic, Ortoepic şi Morfologic al Limbii Române (the Romanian equivalent of the OED, Academie francaise etc.) is responsible for such decisions. Some years back, they announced the fusion of nici o to nicio, nici un to niciun and so on (naturally, nobody took any notice), but I say they dropped the ball: how could they have missed Haimăcumsă?!

Haimăcumsă is composed of four words*: Hai, mă! Cum să... roughly 'C'mon, how could it...?' as in Hai ma, cum să [nu meargă]'C'mon, how could it possibly [go wrong/not work?]'

As an Englisher in the wild East, I have found that understanding the cultural significance of haimăcumsă-ism is vital both to understanding Romanian life and staying sane. At first sight, culturally, the British and the Romanians are surprisingly similar in a number of ways, and the visiting Brit feels at once at home. The differences between us are more subtle, however. First, here are some examples of how we are alike:

        1. We both whinge a lot:

        We whine when it's too hot, we grumble when it's too cold. We complain about our jobs, our neighbours, our politicians, rising prices, falling morals, young people's attitudes, old people's attitudes and above all about how people never stop complaining; the list is endless, but the preferred topics are the same; so ingrained is this stereotype of the English (if not the British), that the Australians refer to us as 'whinging Poms' and the phrase 'mustn't grumble' is a common alternative to 'fine thanks'. Meanwhile, the typical falling intonation of Romanian only serves to emphasise the fact that this is a language made by whingers for whingers (and approved for purpose, no doubt, with a ştampila from the Societatea Româna a Whingerilor Români).

        2. We are both obsessed with the weather:

        We talk about it non-stop, on meeting, passing, or when conversation dries up; when we don't know what to say, when we are embarrassed, or by way of evasion. We like to point out the sun in July and the rain in April, and we especially like getting snow in the winter because then we have something concrete to complain about.

    3. We both love animals more than people:

    Every Romanian block has its pack of snarling, drooling, semi-wild, unvaccinated, and potentially rabid dogs which are universally adored by residents and answer to 'fetiţa mamei' or 'ce face băiatul meu drag?' but which leave visitors, postmen, rollerbladers, cyclists and motorcyclists fearing for their lives and occasionally hospitalise small children. Stray dogs may have been eliminated from British streets, but every second English household has pets ('Mummy's little angel!') with unpredictable temperaments, special dietary, psychological and medical needs and who get more attention, more affection and better food than their owners' own children. Buckinghamshire has an entire hospital dedicated to the rehabilitation of underprivileged hedgehogs and other wildlife (St Tiggywinkles, for the record). Neither Romanians nor the British have any time for human homeless; “Scroungers, get a job!.

    4. We both gossip and talk behind each other's backs (and most often to complain that they are the kind of people who gossip and talk behind each other's backs):

      A - Oooh, I don't like that E., she's a right two-faced old cow. She said some really horrible things about me to D.”

    B - I don't like people who gossip, they should say things to your face if they have a problem”

    A – Ssh! Here she comes!”

    A & B - Hi E., alright love?”

    Edna - Fine thanks, dears, you? Lovely day, isn't it?”

    A & B Lovely day, yes!”

    [...they wait until she's gone...]

    A See? What a cow!”

    B Cow, yes!”

    5. We both answer 'fine thanks' when we are at death's door:

      Perhaps this is a reaction to 1., above; we both value stoicism. If we really have something to whinge about, we never do. A Frenchman, for example, will answer the casual question “how are you?” with a veritable litany of medical complaints that will make you sorry you asked, but a Brit ALWAYS says “fine, you?”,not so bad”, or “musn't grumble, eh?” etc. The Romanian equivalent is 'bine', 'destul de bine' or eh... bine' or just 'eh..!' accompanied by a smile and a deep shrug. In both cultures, the last couple of options may be interpreted thus: 'I've lost my house and my job, my wife has run away with the neighbour, my child is addicted to crack and the doctor says I have less than a week to live'. A Romanian who loses a leg will say Paai, ce să fac? Aşa e! Nu mai alerg după gagici. Palinca, îţi mai pun?” A Brit who loses a leg will say yeah, it's a bit of an inconvenience, but my general health is really quite ok. Cigar?”

    6. We eat to live, don't live to eat and have a reputation for lousy food:

    Everybody knows that in Britain everyone eats rubbish; fried food, burgers, deep-fried Mars bars and fish and chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner, while Romania shares the fascination of the rest of Eastern Europe for boiled potatoes and bits of gristly pig in breadcrumbs, deep-fried in engine oil, served cold and congealed onto a paper napkin hours later; if you are lucky, you may get dumplings, but only if the queues weren't too long at the market. (I feel your pain, om român, but feel mine too, I beg you, and let's join in killing these unjust stereotypes!)

    7. We drown our sorrows:

      The British look upon alcohol as a full-time hobby, for Romanians it is a part-time job. Interestingly, while Britain has the most relaxed drink driving laws in Europe (the government likes its citizens to have worthwhile hobbies), Romania has one of the strictest (the government doesn't like its citizens moonlighting unless it can see some financial benefits). Oddly enough, Britain's accident rate due to drink driving is one of the lowest in Europe but it might possibly rocket if people are ever forced to attempt driving sober after all these years. Especially in Scotland and the North. I digress...

    8. We state the obvious, incessantly: Winter's here then...” [in January]; Nearly Christmas, eh?” [on December 23rd]; De la piaţa?” [to someone loaded with bags of vegetables]; hmm, plouă afară[as torrents of water lash against the window]......

But these apparent similarities belie a huge difference; the biggest of all and it has taken me years to notice it: Murphy's Law does not apply in Romania. At all. Culturally it has been replaced by Principiul Haimăcumsă (the Haimăcumsă Principle), which is precisely the opposite: Murphy's law states that whatever can go will go wrong, however carefully you plan, because humans are fallible and nature is cruel; the Haimăcumsă Principle states that nothing could possibly go wrong, however badly planned, because the world is essentially a good and beautiful place and, hey, what are the odds?

The peculiar thing is that Romanians' cheerful improvidence seems to pay off more often than not, while Murphy's Law still applies to visitors! Many laws of physics are routinely broken in Romania, mainly in the name of improvisation, and yet the population doesn't seem to suffer much for all that: In my last flat, the plumbing system, fridge and electrical system collectively violated three out of four laws of thermodynamics while the upstairs neighbour had broken Newton's law of universal gravitation by removing all of his internal supporting walls (with two more storeys above him). Meanwhile, my breakfast toast still fell jam-side down, the bathroom routinely gave me electric shocks and the washing machine caught fire on at least three occasions. Most unfair. Being foreign (or even British, heh heh) in Romania can be like being Bob Hoskins in the film Roger Rabbit, where all the other characters are indestructible cartoons.

What I want to know is whether the Haimăcumsă Principle still holds true for Romanians abroad. Answers on a postcard please...! In the meantime, let us campaign for the following compounds to be accepted by the Romanian Academy at the earliest opportunity (loose English translations to the right):




Deundenaibisă – Howthehellcouldit....!

Naredundenaibisă - Theresnowherefromwhichitcouldbloody....!

.....and so on (the list is a long one!).

A happy Christmas to you all!


*The first word, hai, is an exhortative particle; informal in usage, it might be translated as '(hey) c'mon!'. The second, , is also an emphatic, but cannot really be translated into English; it just adds weight and indignation to the statement.** Cum means 'how' and is the particle like 'to' which introduces a verb in the subjunctive mood.

**Ma, in Italian, or mais in French can be used to similar effect in those languages, but it is interesting to note that in contrast to French or Italian, Romanian has additional variations inflected for gender and anger/excitement: , , făă, băă, făăi etc.

Friday, 11 December 2009

De ce Esperanto (si Europanto) niciodata n-au devenit succese mari (Why Esperanto [and Europanto!] never made it to the Big Time)

Ultimul meu post a provocat niste reactii interesante intre voi romanii (si pro si contra). Foarte bine, zic eu... dar in viitor, sa raspundeti toti aici si nu la orele mele, va rog frumos, ca sa vada toata lumea ce parere aveti!

Smecherului care a analizat postul respectiv, cu F.F. multa atentie, si care a calculat (parca ii lipseste o viata implinita...!) ca numai 38% din vocabularul meu consta din cuvinte de origine latina, ii dau urmatorul raspuns:

Engleza este o limba imensa, privind lexiconul ei. In acest an, echipa de la Oxford English Dictionary a anuntat ca limba engleza a depasit 1,000,000 de cuvinte. Vorbitorul nativ al limbii engleze foloseste in viata lui cotidiana numai o transa microscopica din selectia aceasta; in plus, selectia respectiva varieaza in functie de situatie: intre prieteni, probabil ca foloseste un limbaj mai mult germanic din motive de concisie; cu cat vorbeste in mod mai formal, cu atat foloseste mai multe cuvinte derivate din limba latina.

Trebuie luat in consideratie si educatia vorbitorului (sau lipsa acesteia); la politicieni le place sa flirteze cu fraze si structuri mai inflorite si cuvinte mai lungi, provenind din franceza sau latina, sa-si demonstreze intelepciunea (un alt avantaj consta in faptul ca publicul nespalat ii percepe ca oameni destepti fara sa inteleaga nimic din ce spun!); Faimosul valet intelectual Jeeves, creatie a celebrului scriitor P.G. Wodehouse, da impresie clara ca Anglia a fost chiar centrul imperiului roman, cu Londinium la epicentru, scotind non-stop fraze pompoase si pretentioase de genul:

"A most unfelicitous concatenation of circumstances has transpired, sir, concerning the more impecunious residents of this locality. An expeditious departure appears to be indicated!"

Stapanul lui, Wooster (jucat de Hugh Laurie [MD House] in versiunea serializata la televizor) ii suspecteaza de a fi inghitit un dictionar; David Beckham, in schimb, este pur anglo-saxon, este clar si evident, saracul de el:

“Alex Ferguson is the best manager I've ever had at this level. Well, he's the only manager I've actually had at this level. But he's the best manager I've ever had”

In ceea ce ma priveste, sunt apreciat aici in tara mai mult pentru calitatiile mele lingvistice anglo-saxone si nu latine, asa ca fac bine la nivel profesional daca reusesc sa raman sub 40% vocabular latin in timp ce vorbesc cu romanii: este foarte important ca studentii romani sa invete sa recunoasca mai multe variante ale limbii engleze si sa iasa din zona de confort reprezentata de vocabularul ei latin. Mai ales cei care intentioneaza sa vorbeasca cu lumea lui Beckham et al.

Dar ramane valabila ipoteza ca engleza a devenit lingua franca din cauza influentelor diverse asupra ei ale altor tari si altor limbi; fapt care o face relativ usor de inteles din punctul de vedere al incepatorului europeen. Acelasi principiu a fost exploatat de L. L. Zamenhof cu creatia lui Esperanto ca si de Diego Marani cu asa numitul Europanto. Prima varianta a fost o tentative serioasa de a creea o limba universala europeana, care (din 1887 a atras sub 2 milioane de vorbitori); a doua nu este nimic mai mult decat o gluma foarte buna: un ‘jazz lingvistic’ fara reguli care isi bate joc de engleza plecand de la premiza ca se poate umple orice lacuna verbala intre interlocuitori de origini diferite cu orice cuvant cunoscut de toti cei prezenti (creata in 1996, numarul de vorbitori nu se stie).

Foarte interesant este faptul ca Europanto (creata la un pahar) se intelege relativ usor fara pregatire; Esperanto in schimb (careia Zamenhof i-a dedicate o viata intreaga) arata in ultimul hal (textele n-au nicio legatura unul cu celalalt):

“Eine terrible menace incumbe over el Kingdom des Angleterra. Poor Regina Elizabeth habe spent todo seine dinero in charmingantes hats und pumpkinose carrosses und maintenow habe keine penny left por acquire de champagne dat necessitate zum celebrate Prince Charles anniversario op el 14 Novembro”

«En multaj lokoj de Ĉinio estis temploj de drako-reĝo. Dum trosekeco oni preĝis en la temploj, ke la drako-reĝo donu pluvon al la homa mondo. Tiam drako estis simbolo de la supernatura estaĵo. Kaj pli poste, ĝi fariĝis prapatro de la plej altaj regantoj kaj simbolis la absolutan aŭtoritaton de feŭda imperiestro. La imperiestro pretendis, ke li estas filo de la drako.»

In final, poftiti o lista de cuvinte populare englezesti provenind din diverse limbii ale planetei:
Cuddle, eerie and greed come from Scots; albino, palaver, verandah and coconut from Portuguese; adobe, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, apricot, assassin, calibre, cotton, hazard, jacket, jar, julep, mosque, Muslim, orange, safari, sofa and zero from Arabic; honcho, sushi, tycoon and tsunami from Japanese; dim sum, gung ho, kowtow, kumquat, ketchup, and typhoon from Cantonese Chinese; behemoth, hallelujah, Satan, jubilee, and rabbi from Hebrew; taiga, sable, samovar, perestroika, balalaika, and sputnik from Russian; galore, whiskey/whisky, phoney, trousers and Tory from Irish; brahman, guru, karma, pundit from Sanskrit; kampong and amok from Malay; Smorgasbord and ombudsman from Swedish; Kayak, igloo and anorak from Inuit and boondocks from the Tagalog word bundok.

Clickuiti-va aici pentru liste groaznic de cuprinzatoare de cuvinte englezesti provenind din latina, franceza, spaniola si italiana

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

On the origins, composition and complexity of English…

When you work teaching English to Romanians, it is quite extraordinary how often you hear two defeatist mantras, usually (but certainly not exclusively) from the older generation:

“Niciodată n-am reuşit să invaţ engleză. O înţeleg, da, cât de cât, dar este o limbă germanică!” (“I’ve never had any luck with English, I can understand it a bit, sure but it’s a Germanic language” i.e.* not Latinate, and therefore alien to me!)


“Gramatica voastră e groaznică; foarte complicată, nu înteleg nimic.”

(Your[English] grammar is awful; terribly complicated, I just don’t get it”)

Let’s tackle these points in order:

Firstly, “English is Germanic”. Absolutely true. And, then again, not quite. It’s, er, way more complicated than that.

It is true that, of the three main branches of the Indo-European tree (Italic, Germanic and Slavonic) English is usually attached to the Germanic branch. But most academics agree that this is a massive oversimplification. One cannot reasonably argue that Rock ‘n’ Roll is African tribal music simply because it has a family connection!

Granted, modern English has a significant Germanic/ Anglo-Saxon wordbase, but grammatically it has relatively little in common with either Latin or German (a point to which I shall return later). Furthermore, the German language itself not only has a huge Latin content but also shares most of its grammatical structure with Latin (more so in fact than most so-called Latin languages including Romanian!).

So what’s the breakdown? In fact, the percentage of the English lexicon deriving directly from Latin is generally estimated to stand at between 45% and 60%, which makes it compare quite favourably with Romanian (for which the figure is generally given as 75%. If we include the influence of French, Spanish, Italian and other romance languages upon English, then the figure rises to around 70%. Clearly this only leaves 30% for directly Germanic vocabulary, but we also need to take into account other languages e.g .** Greek, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, Swedish and so on, all of which have left their mark on the English language. Even if these amount to no more than 5% of English vocabulary (which seems to me to be a conservative estimate) then that leaves a maximum of 25% for Anglo-Saxon and Germanic vocabulary. By way of comparison, Romanian is typically estimated to owe around 15% - 20% of its lexicon to Slavic languages (but nobody who’s anybody would suggest that it is a Slavic language).

Of course, says the cynic, you can prove anything with statistics…..

Now to the second point: “English grammar is terribly complicated”.

This argument is so simple to beat that it is like shooting fish in a barrel. English is one of the least complex languages in the northern hemisphere. One oft-cited proof of this is its ongoing popularity and rapid uptake across the world. This is a bit of a false argument, of course: the fact that a language lacks complexity does not make it easy to learn (chess is a simple game to learn but it takes years of practice to master). But English has gone viral, nevertheless, for numerous socio-political reasons and it is indeed true – as with chess – that its lack of complexity does make it easy to get started and to communicate effectively, even if it may take years to perfect.

There are many features of English which make it tricky to master, but its grammar is certainly not complicated: it has only two true tenses, past and present and no conjugations to learn apart from an ‘s’ on the 3rd person present tense and the difference between ‘was’ and ‘were’ (for the verb ‘to be’ in past tense). It has no declensions, genders or adjective agreements, the subjunctive is an endangered species altogether(!) and its syntax is primitive and rigid. I could continue, but I am already getting boring.

It is pretty simple to illustrate the comparative complexity of Romanian, on the other hand, by looking at one of the ‘mantras’ I alluded to at the beginning of this post (I have highlighted the grammatical inflections in red):

“Gramatica voastră e groaznică; foarte complicată, nu înteleg nimic.”

(= [English] grammar is awful; terribly complicated, I just don’t get it”)

In just these nine words of Romanian (and a relatively simple sentence, too) we have to take into account one nominal inflection for the definite article on the noun Gramatica, a gender accord on the possessive pronoun voastră (because gramatica is feminine), another gender agreement for groaznică (because it also refers to gramatica) and conjugation of the verb to indicate first person (i.e. înteleg from the infinitive ‘a întelege’). Since none of these complications is applicable to English, it must be a simple language, Q.E.D***.

Concluzie - daca eşti studentul meu, fă temele şi nu te mai plânge ca-i grea engleza!

*Abbreviation of 'id est', or 'that is' (a popular English expression borrowed by the Romans)

**Abbreviation of 'exempli gratia', or 'for example' (another popular English expression borrowed by the Romans)

***Abbreviation of 'Quod erat demonstrandum' (where do these damn Romans get off with stealing our verbiage??)

Friday, 24 July 2009

A plaque on both their houses...

One of the most wonderful misspellings I have seen in recent years has come to my attention.

On a brass plaque issued by a Romanian engineering company to one of its personnel, in recognition of his dedication to the company's operation, the following commendation is inscribed:


This plague is presented to Mr X.X. XXX /Machinery Outfitting Design Team 2....

This is, I suppose, what comes of scribbling instructions to busy professionals on the back of cigarette packets.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

New examples of real Romanglish

Some rather nice contributions just in...

In an American film (the contributor was unable to remember the title), the subtitler had rendered “Give me a whisky, on the rocks” as “Da-mi un whisky, pe stânci” (be assured that the bar in question was not on an offshore lighthouse!)
And “...we'll meet two blocks away, on the corner” as “ intâlnim după două blocuri, la colţ” (thus referring to two [tower block] buildings instead of two streets). Thanks to Alex Bologa for those.

Ioana has submitted the following via email: “the other day [I] was watching TV, on FocusTV channel, and they translated the expression 'catch 22' as 'prinde 22' ...haha!” Ha ha is correct – colloquialisms rarely translate word-for-word!
She adds: “The best source [of Romanglish] can be the movies on JETIX, for kids. Eg. the movie H2O just add water; they voice-over translated what must've been 'I cannot get a hold on Zane' [sic] as 'Nu pot sa pun stâpanire pe Zane' (said by Zane's father, while desperately trying to call him).
Thanks again Ioana! [NB for the English reader 'a pune stâpanire' in Romanian means to control or capture].

Meanwhile, I found 'Rondele de calamar' (squid rings) translated as 'squid washers' in the menu of a classy seafood restaurant south of Constanţa! Nice touch! ('washers' I presume in the sense of metal rings used in light engineering; no doubt that old tradition of traducerea cu dicţionar in mâna [lit. translation with dictionary in hand] is to blame...).

A complaint came from a client, last week, that I had used the word 'spirits' at the top of a drinks list on his restaurant menu. Apparently he has looked in his dictionary and the word means 'soul' or sometimes 'ghost'; the holy spirit etc. I wanted to tell him that alcohol is a religion in the UK, but I restrained myself and recommended that he should buy a more comprehensive dictionary...

...last month, a similar situation arose when I (correctly) translated 'somn' as 'catfish' and 'rapane' as 'whelks'; the client insisted that 'catfish' was 'pisica de mare' [lit. cat of the sea] (only in name, my dear sir; 'pisica de mare', unfortunately, is a stingray! - see Romanglish in the restaurant). His objection to 'whelk' was that this word – according to his dictionary – means 'a fresh wound or reddening of the skin, e.g. following a whiplash'. (Whelk, then? Or welt?! A lesson to us all never to rely on bilingual dictionaries!).

Hopefully more examples or real Romanglish will follow, now that the new menus are out for the summer season; keep your eyes peeled...! I look forward to receiving more contributions from you all...