The Re-Latinization of Romania

Essays - February 21, 2024

If you were to ask Western and Eastern Europeans on the street about the linguistic essence of the Romanian language, many would place their bet on “Slavic”. After all, it is surrounded by Slavic neighboring states, it has been part of the communist Eastern Bloc, made up of mostly Slavic speakers and it has been inside the sphere of influence of Russia for significant periods in history. Even among those who would correctly assume the Latin roots of Romania, there is often a blur of understanding of how this came to be. I have set out to explore where the Latin roots of this country first appeared, where they disappeared, and, of course, how they came back into being.

Romania, nestled in Eastern Europe, boasts a rich historical tapestry woven with threads of Roman influence. Despite centuries of foreign rule and cultural/linguistic assimilation, Romania has undertaken a profound journey of re-Latinization, reclaiming its Latin heritage and reaffirming its identity as a Latin-speaking nation. This essay delves into the multifaceted re-Latinization process in Romania, tracing its historical antecedents, exploring its cultural manifestations, and analyzing its contemporary significance.

Latinization and De-Latinization

The roots of Romania’s initial Latinization process stretch back to antiquity, when the Roman Empire extended its dominion into the region known as Dacia. The Roman conquest of Dacia in 106 AD introduced Latin as the official language (in an attempt at total cultural assimilation) and left an indelible mark on the region’s mentality, language, and governance. Latin, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, became deeply ingrained in the fabric of Dacian society, influencing everything from commerce to administration and to religion.

However, the Roman withdrawal from Dacia in the 3rd century AD ushered in a period of upheaval marked by successive waves of migration and conquests by various peoples, including Goths, Huns, and Slavs. Despite these disruptions, Latin persisted as the foundation of the local vernacular (even if it was mixed with or altered by the vocabulary of the occupiers), gradually evolving into what would become the Romanian language.

Cultural Revival & Re-Latinization

The cultural revival of the 19th century, together with Romania’s struggle for independence, played a pivotal role in catalyzing Romania’s re-Latinization process. Inspired by the Romantic Movement sweeping across Europe, Romanian intellectuals sought to reclaim their Latin heritage as a means of asserting national identity and cultural autonomy. Central to this revival was the promotion of the Romanian language as a vehicle for literature, education, and administration.

The fuel for the cultural revival was a growing sense of national consciousness and a desire to break free from centuries of foreign domination. Following centuries of Ottoman rule and cultural influence, Romanian intellectuals sought to rekindle pride in their Latin heritage and revive interest in their language and culture. This revival was part of a broader nationalist sentiment that was sweeping across Europe that celebrated national identity and cultural distinctiveness.

Prominent figures emerged as leaders of the cultural revival in Romania, spearheading efforts to promote Romanian language and culture. Among these figures were Ion Heliade Rădulescu and Vasile Alecsandri, who played pivotal roles in shaping Romanian literature, language, and education.

Ion Heliade Rădulescu, a polymath and leading figure of the Romanian Enlightenment, advocated for linguistic purism and the promotion of the Romanian language. He founded the Romanian Literary Society in 1821, which aimed to promote Romanian literature and language through the publication of books and journals. Rădulescu’s efforts laid the groundwork for the standardization of the Romanian language and its use in literature and education.

Vasile Alecsandri, a poet, playwright, and diplomat, contributed to the cultural revival through his literary works and diplomatic efforts. Alecsandri’s poetry celebrated Romanian folklore and traditions, helping to popularize Romanian culture among the masses. As a diplomat, he represented Romanian interests abroad and promoted cultural exchanges with other European nations, contributing to the integration of Romanian culture into the broader European context.

Central to the cultural revival was the linguistic reform movement, which aimed to standardize the Romanian language and purify it of foreign influences. Romanian intellectuals sought to cleanse the language of Slavic and other non-Latin elements, drawing upon classical Latin sources to enrich the Romanian lexicon. Efforts were made to adopt Latin-based orthography and vocabulary, with the goal of creating a unified and standardized written language. One of the most significant achievements of the linguistic reform movement was the adoption of the Romanian Orthographic Agreement of 1904. This agreement standardized spelling and grammar rules, further aligning Romanian with its Latin roots. It also established guidelines for the use of Romanian in literature, education, and administration, ensuring its widespread acceptance and usage.

The cultural revival and linguistic reform of Romania in the 19th century had a profound impact on Romanian society and identity. It helped to foster a sense of national unity and pride, as Romanians rediscovered and celebrated their language, history, and culture. The standardization of the Romanian language facilitated communication and cultural exchange across different regions of Romania, contributing to the nation-building process. Furthermore, the cultural revival laid the foundation for the development of Romanian literature and arts, as writers and artists drew inspiration from Romanian folklore and traditions. Romanian literature flourished during this period, with poets, playwrights, and novelists producing works that captured the essence of the Romanian spirit.

Preservation of the Latin Heritage through the Communist Regime

In the tumultuous landscape of 20th-century Romania, marked by political upheavals and ideological shifts, the communist regime under Nicolae Ceaușescu displayed a complex and often contradictory attitude towards Romania’s Latin heritage. While the regime sought to harness aspects of Romania’s Latin past to bolster its nationalist narrative, it also manipulated historical narratives and cultural symbols to serve its own political agenda. Recognizing the enduring significance of Romania’s Latin roots in shaping national identity, the regime incorporated elements of Roman history and culture into its propaganda efforts. Emphasizing Romania’s continuity with its ancient past, the regime portrayed itself as the guardian of a proud and ancient civilization.

One area where the communist regime sought to assert control over Romania’s Latin heritage was in the realm of language and education. Under Ceaușescu’s rule, there was a concerted effort to promote the Romanian language as a symbol of national unity and pride. However, this promotion of Romanian language and culture was often accompanied by attempts to suppress other linguistic and cultural identities within Romania, particularly those associated with ethnic minorities.

The Contemporary Situation

Today, Romania’s process of maintaining its Latin identity continues to evolve in response to internal and external dynamics. The country’s accession to the European Union in 2007 has further reinforced its ties to the Latin West, providing opportunities for cultural exchange and collaboration. Moreover, the internet and digital media have facilitated the spread of standardized Romanian language and orthography, enabling greater linguistic unity and coherence across diverse regions.

However, globalization and mass migration have introduced new challenges to Romania’s linguistic and cultural identity. The influx of loanwords from English (mostly used in teenage slang) and other non-Latin languages presents a constant threat to the purity of Romanian and underscores the ongoing struggle to balance tradition with modernity. Nevertheless, Romania’s re-Latinization journey serves as a testament to the enduring power of language and culture in shaping national identity and collective memory.