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Romanians And Romanian Culture History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In the name of the Romanians is reflected the reminiscence of their ethnic origins which are connected with the period when their country was part of the Roman Empire. Although the Romanians speak a language whose basis is spoken Latin, Romanian culture is permeated with traits that stem from periods predating the presence of Romans. Romanian culture owes much to the legacy of the earliest European civilization, the Danube civilization of the sixth and fifth millennia B.C.E. Scientists have often wondered how the Romanians could have maintained their Romance language through long periods of foreign domination and external influence. Similarly, one can wonder how certain cultural patterns of much older periods persisted to form an organic whole with more recent innovations, of what is known as Romanian culture.

Most of the 26 million Romanians live in two states with a predominantly Romanian-speaking population. The great majority (Românii) inhabit Romania (20.5 million) where they account for 90 per cent of the population. Among the minorities in Romania are (—>) Roma (Gypsies), (—>) Hungarians, (—>) Germans, (—>) Tatars and other ethnic groups. Neighboring Moldova is the home country of some 2.8 million speakers of Romanian who call themselves Moldovenii (‘Moldavians’) and these make up 76 per cent of the population. Other ethnic groups living in Moldova are (—>) Ukrainians, (—>) Russians, (—>) Gagauz and others.

Romanian minorities are scattered outside the two states with concentrated Romanian population, in Ukraine (0.35 million), Serbia (0.25 million), Greece (0.25 million), Russia (0.18 million), Hungary (0.1 million), Bulgaria. There is a populous Romanian minority in Israel (0.25 million).

Since the tenth century the development of the various groups of ethnic Romanians follows different trajectories. Four regional groups with distinct cultural patterns and local varieties of Romanian language can be discerned: 1)Daco-Romanians (the Romanian population north of the Danube, in Romania, Moldova, Ukraine); 2) Aromunians or Macedo-Romanians (in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and in the historical region of Dobruja, south of the Danube); 3) Megleno-Romanians (Romanian minorities in the South of Bulgaria and in the Northeast of Greece; these groups originated, in a secondary ethnic process, from Aromunian populations); and 4) Istro-Romanians (Vlachs of Istria; Romanian minority on the Istria peninsula in Croatia).

Romania is among the areas in Europe where the Neolithic inhabitants adopted agriculture at an early date. The beginnings of plant cultivation and animal husbandry go back to the sixth millennium B.C.E. The western region of Romania, Transylvania, is the cradle of metal-working. There, copper artifacts were worked hundreds of years earlier than in western Asia or Mesopotamia. Early evidence for the tradition of metallurgy in Transylvania dates to around 5500 B.C.E. The art of the ancient Danubians was prolific and varified in style and ornamentation. What strikes the eye in the archaeological record is the multitude of figurines, most of them female, that were found in sanctuaries, together with altars, and in areas of the households reserved for domestic rituals. The aesthetic impression of those figurines has not lost any of its attraction throughout the ages and their timeless aesthetic appeal inspired artists in later periods. In the early twentieth century, the “Neolithic spirit” was revitalized in the works of modern art. The Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi is among the best-known representatives of this trend.

The civilization of Old Europe was overformed by the culture of the Indo-European nomads who migrated westward out of the Russian steppe and established themselves in the areas of the agriculturalists. Old European traditions, though, continued albeit in a fragmentary way. The legacy of the ancient Danubians was not limited to the technology of metal-working or to forms of the visual arts. Old European traditions also persist in certain architectural forms and in the narrative themes of Romanian folklore. “And just as certain features of prehistoric shrines eventually evolved into basic parts of Christian churches (…), much of what we know as mythology derived, more or less directly, from the ritual-cultural life of prehistoric peasants” (Poruciuc 2010: xiv). Those who transmitted the Old European traditions into later periods were the Dacians, themselves descendants of the Indo-European tribes that came to populate Southeast Europe in the fourth and third millennia B.C.E.

At the time when the Romans conquered the Balkans and were organizing administration in the provinces of Southeast Europe the Dacians were the strongest military power north of the Danube. At intervals the Dacians and Romans were in alliance but the interests of the indigenous population and the Roman colonizers differed fundamentally so that, eventually, military confrontation was unavoidable. In a long and hard war the Romans subdued the Dacians under their king Decebalus and established their power in Dacian lands, in 106 C.E. The Roman province was named after the people that inhabited the region, Dacia. New villages and towns were founded by the Romans, among them the administrative and economic center of Dacia. That was Sarmizegetuza in Transylvania, named after the former capital of the Dacian kingdom, located at some distance from the Roman town. Living-conditions in Dacia favored acculturation and assimilation, and within a few generations the majority of Dacians had experienced a shift to Roman lifeways, including a shift from Dacian to spoken Latin. During the period of Roman rule groups of Dacians had been forcefully relocated by Roman authorities to areas south of the Danube, following rebellions of local Dacian tribes against Roman rule. Those Dacians who continued to live south of the Danube assimilated completely to Roman lifeways. During the tenth and eleventh centuries their descendants moved back into the region from where their ancestors had come.

The kind of Latin spoken by the Dacians was different from the Latin in Italy or in the western provinces of the Roman Empire, and it absorbed words of the Dacian language before that was no longer spoken and vanished altogether. The development of the Latin speech as used by the new Romans deviated further when Dacia was abandoned by the Roman administration and the military in 271 C.E. and contacts with the Roman world were cut off. The Latin of Roman times gradually changed to become a local Romance language. Those who continued to speak it were ordinary people. This means that Romanian ethnicity finds its roots in the medieval communities of illiterate peasants and shepherds. Written Latin, the language of civilization and of the church in western Europe, played no role in early Romanian society. The medieval Romanian language lacked the medium that roofed local Romance dialects in the West and provided a source for literacy.

The Romanian language and the Christian religion have been the major markers of Romanian identity since the Middle Ages. The development of the Romanian speech community, though, was quite uneven in the regions with Romanian populations. Transylvania has been a contact zone since antiquity. After the Romans had abandoned Dacia this region was settled by Germanic peoples, by Gepids (allies of the Huns) and Visigoths, later by Slavic tribes and Hungarian populations. German settlers arrived in the area in the twelfth century, leaving their imprint on culture and political history. Slavic, Hungarian and German influence shaped the interaction with local Romanians whose communities grew in size to eventually become the most populous of the ethnic groups in Transylvania. Political sovereignty was achieved, in the course of the fourteenth century, in other regions with Romanian population, in Moldavia and in Wallachia. The ruler of Wallachia, Mircea the Great (d. 1418), was aware of the political trend of his period which saw the rise to power of the Ottoman Turks and he advised his successor to come to terms with the Turks. Stephan the Great (d. 1504) of Moldavia tried to negotiate political relations with the powerful newcomers but, in the end, all of Wallachia and Moldavia were forcefully integrated into the Ottoman colonial territories of Southeast Europe. The region with German settlements in Transylvania (called in German Siebenbürgen ‘the region with the seven fortified towns’) retained some kind of autonomy, albeit under Ottoman supremacy.

From 1709 until the 1820s, Romania was ruled by Greek governors (Phanariots) in Turkish services. This period is remembered by Romanians as one of oppression and exploitation. Gradually, Ottoman hegemony in Southeast Europe weakened in the wars with Russia that extended its territory at the cost of the Turks. In 1812, Russia occupied the eastern part of Moldavia, Bessarabia. The development of the Romanian communities in that part was different from the rest of Romania. Russia encouraged anti-Ottoman movements among the Romanians in Wallachia and western Moldavia and, in 1858, these two regions were united under a Russian-supported hospodar, Cuza. The year 1861 saw the proclamation of a Romanian state. The first king to rule the country was Carol I (reigned 1866 – 1914), a German-born prince of the House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Romania’s infrastructure (i.e. railway system, army, school system, exploration of oil fields) was mostly developed according to the model of contemporary Prussia and later the German Empire.

For several decades after World War I that ended in 1918, the country’s territory included Transylvania and eastern Moldavia and was reminiscent of a ‘Greater Romania’. As a result of World War II that ended for the Romanians in 1944 eastern Moldavia had to be ceded to the Soviet Union but Transylvania remained within the borders of Romania. Under the communist regime of Ceausescu (d. 1989), the Hungarian and German minorities of Transylvania became victims of a forceful Romanization campaign and many left Romania as emigrants. The demise of communism in Romania and the shift to a parliamentary democracy in 1989 did not change the high-handed attitude of Romanian governments toward minorities. Neither Hungarian nor German are acknowledged as official languages and Romanian, as state language, is the only official medium in administration and education throughout the country.

Romanian is a Romance language and forms, with Italian, the eastern group. Its character as a Romance language is apparent in the grammar although less than half of the vocabulary has been preserved from spoken Latin. Nevertheless, these words of Latin origin are among the lexical elements of high frequency and they dominate everyday Romanian. Some 60 per cent of the Romanian lexicon are of Slavic, Germanic, Hungarian and other origin, reflecting the manifold contacts of Romanian with other languages in Southeast Europe throughout one and a half thousand years.

Romanian remained unwritten until the sixteenth century. The earliest documents of written Romanian are a letter dating to 1521 (containing some 200 words) and a Lutheran catechism that was printed in Sibiu (the town in Transylvania that was founded by Germans under the name of Hermannstadt), in 1544. During its history, Romania has been written in two scripts. For about three hundred years the Cyrillic script predominated when writing Romanian. Although the Latin alphabet was already used in Transylvania in the late sixteenth century, it competed with Cyrillic well into the nineteenth century. With the rise of Romanian national awakening, the Roman heritage and the Latin script became celebrated. An orthographic system with Latin letters was adopted in Wallachia, in 1860, and in Moldavia, in 1863.

The competition between the Latin and the Cyrillic tradition of writing Romanian was renewed in the twentieth century and, this time, it was politically motivated. Some groups of the Romanian-speaking population that lived east of the river Dniestr had remained on Soviet-Russian territory while eastern Moldavia had been united with Romania in 1918. Soviet language planners created a written standard, with Cyrillic orthography, for the Soviet Moldavians, as an ideological counterweight to language use in neighboring “bourgeois” Romania. When Moldavia was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940 (and factually in 1944), the “Moldavian standard language” was used in all of Soviet Moldavia. The revised Cyrillic orthography for Romanian in Moldavia was in use until 1989 when the parliament in Chisinau, the capital of Moldavia, decided to shift to the Latin script and write according to the norms of Romanian in Romania. This regulation means that Romanians and Moldavians use the same standard language and write with Latin letters.

The 1990s saw the division of the Romanian-speaking population in two independent states (i.e. Romania and Moldova) where they form the majority. Recent development in the two countries has followed very different trajectories. Romania joined the democratic integration movement of Europe and has been a member state of the European Union since 2007. Moldova has remained outside this process because of its weak economy, and it is in this country that ideas about communism still play a vital role in election campaigns.

Harald Haarmann

Further Reading

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe (ed.). The Times Guide to the Peoples of Europe. London: Times Books, 1994 (Romanians: pp. 261-267).

Goebl, Hans et al. (eds.). Contact Linguistics, vol. 2. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997 (Romania: pp. 1458-1486, Moldavia: pp. 1933-1941).

Haarmann, Harald. Balkanic Linguistics, vol. 1: Areal Linguistics and Lexicostatistics of the Balkanic Latin Vocabulary (in German). Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1978.

Pernicka, Ernst and David W. Anthony. “The Invention of Copper Metallurgy and the Copper Age of Old Europe.” In The Lost World of Old Europe. The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC, ed. David W. Anthony, 162-177. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Poruciuc, Adrian. Prehistoric Roots of Romanian and Southeast European Traditions. Sebastopol, CA: Institute of Archaeomythology, 2010.

Treptow, K.W. A History of Romania. Iasi, 1999.


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