Language in Moldova - observations in streets and houses in the Republic of Moldova

by Diana Nissler

Having studied several books on the development and importance of languages in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, I expected that people would be eager to eliminate Russian elements from their language and culture and promote their native Moldovan/Romanian language and culture very strongly. During the time we spent in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, this assumption proved to be incorrect.
We were still able to distinguish clearly between the three different degrees of Russianization that were mentioned in my earlier essay on language: Russophone population in the cities, rural population with only basic knowledge of Russian language, and the smallest group, the humanistic intelligentsia with a strong Moldovan national consciousness. Already on the first day in Chisinau, we discovered that speaking Russian was very helpful there - although we were not in Russia, you could address everybody in Russian and be quite sure that your question would be understood. Even native people who don't know each other often address each other in Russian. In the minibuses, for example, we heard hardly any Romanian. A student in a German class at Chisinau University explained this phenomenon to us in the following way:
"If you want to ask something and address a stranger in Romanian, you might have to repeat your question more slowly, because he doesn't speak Romanian that well. Finally you might have to ask your question a third time, because you may find that he doesn't speak Romanian at all. It's easier and saves time if you speak Russian." I think the teacher (remember: she teaches German) was not too happy about that statement; she accused her students of not knowing their native language properly and of not using it as naturally as one should.
In my host family, people spoke with each other in Romanian. As I am not able to speak Romanian, it went without saying that they communicated with me in Russian. One day, they had guests: a friend and her little son (about four years old). I tried to start a conversation with him. It was no problem for him to tell me his name; age was a bit more difficult (because of counting); but when I asked him some more questions, he said (still in Russian): "I'm sorry, I don't speak much Russian yet."
The situation was just the opposite when we went to the countryside. There the older and the very young people in particular spoke hardly any Russian.
Another interesting episode: we were invited to visit the mayor of the village, who welcomed us into her office. I caught a glimpse of her notes, and discovered that they were written in Cyrillic characters. I asked a young woman from AEGEE-Chisinau and found out that people who are 30 years and older learned to write the Moldavian language in Cyrillic characters and since then have been writing that way. For them, it is complicated to switch to the Latin alphabet. They use it, of course, in official documents etc., but for taking notes it is too troublesome.
Since we wanted to interview students with different ethnic and political backgrounds, we also went to Tiraspol', the capital of Transdniestria, and to Comrat, the administrative center of the Autonomous Region of Gagauzia. In both areas our group focused on some language problems.
In Transdniestria the majority of the people we met were native speakers of Russian. Some spoke Moldavian or Ukrainian as their native language but were, of course, also familiar with Russian. At first there were some difficulties in finding English- speaking people, but finally we succeeded. In Com- rat the language problem was more serious. In order to carry out our survey, we arranged a meeting with a group of about 30 students. When we asked all the students about the languages they spoke, the result was the following: less than five people spoke either Gagauz or Romanian, about five spoke English, and everybody spoke Russian. That was amazing for us - especially the fact that so few people know Gagauz. One CST participant who interviewed a Gagauz-speaking student in Turkish (Gagauz is an ancient Turkish dialect) told us later that it was difficult for him to do the interview, because his interviewee did not know some special terms. One interpretation could be that there is no literary or standard Gagauz language any more: neglected for years, it became a vernacular language. (As my interviewees told me, the ratio of the use of Russian and Gagauz would be about 60 to 40 percent.) In the end, however, it is easier to describe these linguistic experiences than to interpret them accurately. Since we spent only about a week in the Republic of Moldova, it is hard to draw conclusions about the development of the different languages spoken there.


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