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In the phonology of the Romanian language, the phoneme inventory consists of seven vowels, two or four semivowels (different views exist), and twenty consonants. In addition, as with all languages, other phonemes can occur occasionally in interjections or recent borrowings.
Notable features of Romanian include two unusual diphthongs /e̯a/ and /o̯a/ and the central vowel /ɨ/.
The table below gives a series of word examples for each vowel.
|/a/||Open central unrounded||apă /ˈapə/ ('water') |
balaur /baˈla.ur/ ('dragon')
cânta /kɨnˈta/ ('to sing')
|/e/||Mid front unrounded||erou /eˈrow/ ('hero') |
necaz /neˈkaz/ ('trouble')
umple /ˈumple/ ('to fill')
|/i/||Close front unrounded||insulă /ˈinsulə/ ('island') |
salcie /ˈsalt͡ʃi.e/ ('willow')
topi /toˈpi/ ('to melt')
|/o/||Mid back rounded||oraș /oˈraʃ/ ('city') |
copil /koˈpil/ ('child')
acolo /aˈkolo/ ('there')
|/u/||Close back rounded||uda /uˈda/ ('to wet') |
aduc /aˈduk/ ('I bring')
simplu /ˈsimplu/ ('simple')
|/ə/||Mid central unrounded||ăsta /ˈəsta/ ('this') |
păros /pəˈros/ ('hairy')
albă /ˈalbə/ ('white [fem. sg.]')
|/ɨ/||Close central unrounded||înspre /ˈɨnspre/ ('toward') |
cârnat /kɨrˈnat/ ('sausage')
coborî /koboˈrɨ/ ('to descend')
Although most of these vowels are relatively straightforward and similar or identical to those in many other languages, the close central unrounded vowel /ɨ/ is uncommon as a phoneme and especially uncommon amongst Indo-European languages.
Word-final /o/ is rare except for acolo /aˈkolo/, "vino!" (familiar imperative of the verb "to come") and loanwords such as audio and video.
In addition to the seven core vowels, in a number of words of foreign origin (predominantly French, but also German) the mid front rounded vowel /ø/ (rounded Romanian /e/; example word: bleu /blø/ 'light blue') and the mid central rounded vowel /ɵ/ (rounded Romanian /ə/; example word: chemin de fer /ʃɵˌmen dɵ ˈfer/ 'Chemin de Fer') have been preserved, without replacing them with any of the existing phonemes. The borrowed words have become part of the Romanian vocabulary and follow the usual inflexion rules, so that the new vowels, though less common, could be considered as part of the Romanian phoneme set. Romanian dictionaries use ⟨ö⟩ in their phonetic descriptions to represent both vowels, which suggests that they may be actually pronounced identically by Romanian speakers.[original research?]
Because they are not native phonemes, their pronunciation may fluctuate or they may even be replaced by the diphthong /e̯o/. In older French borrowings it has often been replaced by /e/, /o/, or /e̯o/, as in șofer /ʃoˈfer/ ('driver', from French chauffeur), masor /maˈsor/ ('masseur', from masseur), and sufleor /suˈfle̯or/ ('theater prompter', from souffleur).
Similarly, borrowings from languages such as French and German sometimes contain the close front rounded vowel /y/: ecru /eˈkry/, tul /tyl/, führer /ˈfyrer/, /ˈfyrər/. The symbol used for it in phonetic notations in Romanian dictionaries is ⟨ü⟩. Educated speakers usually pronounce it /y/, but other realizations such as /ju/ also occur. Older words that originally had this sound have had it replaced with /ju/, /u/, or /i/. For instance, Turkish kül became ghiul /ɡjul/ ('large ring'), Turkish tütün became tutun /tuˈtun/ ('tobacco'), but tiutiun [tjuˈtjun] in the Moldavian subdialect, German Düse gave duză /ˈduzə/ ('nozzle') and French bureau became birou /biˈrow/ ('desk', 'office').
According to Ioana Chițoran, Romanian has two diphthongs: /e̯a/ and /o̯a/. As a result of their origin (diphthongization of mid vowels under stress), they appear normally in stressed syllables and make morphological alternations with the mid vowels /e/ and /o/.
In addition to these, the semivowels /j/ and /w/ can be combined (either before, after, or both) with most vowels. One view considers that only /e̯a/ and /o̯a/ can follow an obstruent-liquid cluster such as in broască ('frog') and dreagă ('to mend') and form real diphthongs, whereas the rest are merely vowel–glide sequences. The traditional view (taught in schools) considers all of the above as diphthongs.
|/aj/||rai /raj/ ('heaven'), aisberg /ˈajsberɡ/ ('iceberg')|
|/aw/||sau /saw/ ('or'), august /ˈawɡust/ ('August')|
|/ej/||lei /lej/ ('lions'), trei /trej/ ('three')|
|/ew/||greu /ɡrew/ ('heavy'), mereu /meˈrew/ ('always')|
|/ij/||mii /mij/ ('thousands'), vii /vij/ ('you come')|
|/iw/||fiu /fiw/ ('son'), scriu /skriw/ ('I write')|
|/oj/||oi /oj/ ('sheep [pl.]'), noi /noj/ ('we')|
|/ow/||ou /ow/ ('egg'), bou /bow/ ('ox')|
|/uj/||pui /puj/ ('you put'), gălbui /ɡəlˈbuj/ ('yellowish')|
|/uw/||eu continuu /konˈtinuw/ ('I continue' [partly replaced by eu continui)|
|/əj/||răi /rəj/ ('bad [masc. pl.]'), văi /vəj/ ('valleys')|
|/əw/||dulău /duˈləw/ ('mastiff'), rău /rəw/ ('bad [masc. sg.]')|
|/ɨj/||câine /ˈkɨjne/ ('dog'), mâinile /ˈmɨjnile/ ('the hands')|
|/ɨw/||râu /rɨw/ ('river'), brâu /brɨw/ ('girdle')|
|/e̯a/||beată /ˈbe̯atə/ ('drunk [f.]'), mea /me̯a/ ('my [fem. sg.]')|
|/e̯o/||Gheorghe /ˈɡe̯orɡe/ ('George'), ne-o ploua /ne̯oploˈwa/ ('it would rain on us')|
|/e̯u/||(only in word combinations) pe-un /pe̯un/ ('on a')|
|/ja/||biată /ˈbjatə/ ('poor [f.]'), mi-a zis /mjaˈzis/ ('[he] told me')|
|/je/||fier /fjer/ ('iron'), miere /ˈmjere/ ('honey')|
|/jo/||iod /jod/ ('iodine'), chior /ˈkjor/ ('one-eyed')|
|/ju/||iubit /juˈbit/ ('loved'), chiuvetă /kjuˈvetə/ ('sink')|
|/o̯a/||găoace /ɡəˈo̯at͡ʃe/ ('shell'), foarte /ˈfo̯arte/ ('very')|
|/we/||piuez /piˈwez/ ('I felt [a fabric]'), înșeuez /ɨnʃeˈwez/ ('I saddle')|
|/wa/||băcăuan /bəkəˈwan/ ('inhabitant of Bacău'), ziua /ˈziwa/ ('the day')|
|/wə/||două /ˈdowə/ ('two [fem.]'), plouă /ˈplowə/ ('it rains')|
|/wɨ/||plouând /ploˈwɨnd/ ('raining'), ouând /oˈwɨnd/ ('laying [eggs]')|
|/e̯aj/||socoteai /sokoˈte̯aj/ ('you were reckoning')|
|/e̯aw/||beau /be̯aw/ ('I drink'), spuneau /spuˈne̯aw/ ('they were saying')|
|/e̯o̯a/||pleoape /ˈple̯o̯ape/ ('eyelids'), leoarcă /ˈle̯o̯arkə/ ('soaking wet')|
|/jaj/||mi-ai dat /mjajˈdat/ ('you gave me'), ia-i /jaj/ ('take them')|
|/jaw/||iau /jaw/ ('I take'), suiau /suˈjaw/ ('they were climbing')|
|/jej/||iei /jej/ ('you take'), piei /pjej/ ('skins')|
|/jew/||maieu /maˈjew/ ('undershirt'), eu /jew/ ('I [myself]')|
|/joj/||i-oi da /jojˈda/ ('I might give him'), picioică /piˈt͡ʃjoj.kə/ ('potato [regionalism]')|
|/jow/||maiou /maˈjow/ ('undershirt')|
|/o̯aj/||leoaică /leˈo̯ajkə/ ('lioness'), rusoaică /ruˈso̯ajkə/ ('Russian woman')|
|/waj/||înșeuai /ɨnʃeˈwaj/ ('[you] were saddling')|
|/waw/||înșeuau /ɨnʃeˈwaw/ ('[they] were saddling')|
|/wəj/||rouăi /ˈrowəj/ ('of the dew')|
|/jo̯a/||creioane /kreˈjo̯ane/ ('pencils'), aripioară /ariˈpjo̯arə/ ('winglet')|
As can be seen from the examples above, the diphthongs /e̯a/ and /o̯a/ contrast with /ja/ and /wa/ respectively, though there are no minimal pairs to contrast /o̯a/ and /wa/. Impressionistically, the two pairs sound very similar to native speakers. Because /o̯a/ doesn't appear in the final syllable of a prosodic word, there are no monosyllabic words with /o̯a/; exceptions might include voal ('veil') and doar ('only, just'), though Ioana Chițoran argues that these are best treated as containing glide-vowel sequences rather than diphthongs. In some regional pronunciations, the diphthong /o̯a/ tends to be pronounced as a single vowel /ɒ/.
Other triphthongs such as /juj/ and /o̯aw/ occur sporadically in interjections and uncommon words.
Borrowings from English have enlarged the set of ascending diphthongs to also include /jə/, /we/, /wi/, and /wo/, or have extended their previously limited use. Generally, these borrowings have retained their original spellings, but their pronunciation has been adapted to Romanian phonology. The table below gives some examples.
|/jə/||yearling /ˈjərlinɡ/ 'one-year-old animal (colt)'|
|/we/||western /ˈwestern/ 'Western (movie set in the American West)'|
|/wi/||tweeter /ˈtwitər/ 'high-pitch loudspeaker'|
|/wo/||walkman /ˈwokmen/ 'pocket-sized tape/CD player'|
Borrowings such as whisky and week-end are listed in some dictionaries as starting with the ascending diphthong /wi/, which corresponds to the original English pronunciation, but in others they appear with the descending diphthong /uj/.
Romanian has vowel alternation or apophony triggered by stress. A stressed syllable has a low vowel, or a diphthong ending in a low vowel, and an unstressed syllable has a mid vowel. Thus /e̯a/ alternates with /e/, /o̯a/ with /o/, and /a/ with /ə/.
This alternation developed from Romanian vowel breaking (diphthongization) and reduction (weakening). The Eastern Romance mid vowels /e o/ were broken in stressed syllables, giving the Romanian diphthongs /e̯a o̯a/, and the low vowel /a/ was reduced in unstressed syllables, giving the Romanian central vowel /ə/.
These sound changes created the stress-triggered vowel alternations in the table below. Here stressed syllables are marked with underlining (a):
|a — ə||carte||'book'||cărticică||'book' (diminutive)||/ˈkarte, kərtiˈt͡ʃikə/|
|casă||'house'||căsuță||'house' (diminutive)||/ˈkasə, kəˈsut͡sə/|
|e̯a — e||beat||'drunk'||bețiv||'drunkard'||/be̯at, beˈt͡siv/|
|o̯a — o||poartă||'gate'||portar||'gatekeeper'||/ˈpo̯artə, porˈtar/|
|coastă||'rib'||costiță||'rib' (diminutive)||/ˈko̯astə, kosˈtit͡sə/|
Standard Romanian has twenty phonemic consonants, as listed in the table below. Where symbols for consonants occur in pairs, the left represents a voiceless consonant and the right represents a voiced consonant.
Besides the consonants in this table, a few consonants can have allophones:
The consonant inventory of Romanian is almost the same as Italian. Romanian, however, lacks the palatal consonants /ɲ ʎ/, which merged with /j/ by lenition, and the affricate /d͡z/ changed to /z/ by spirantization. Romanian has the fricative /ʒ/ and the glottal fricative /h/, which do not occur in Italian.
The interpretation commonly taken is that an underlying morpheme /i/ palatalizes the consonant and is subsequently deleted. However, /sʲ/, /tʲ/, and /dʲ/ become [ʃʲ], [t͡sʲ], and [zʲ], respectively, with very few phonetically justified exceptions, included in the table below, which shows that this palatalization can occur for all consonants.
|/pʲ/||rupi /rupʲ/ 'you tear'||/bʲ/||arabi /aˈrabʲ/ 'Arabs'|
|/tʲ/||proști /proʃtʲ/ 'stupid (masc. pl.)'||/dʲ/||nădejdi /nəˈdeʒdʲ/ 'hopes'|
|/kʲ/||urechi /uˈrekʲ/ 'ears'||/ɡʲ/||unghi /unɡʲ/ 'angle'|
|/t͡sʲ/||roți /rot͡sʲ/ 'wheels'||–|
|/t͡ʃʲ/||faci /fat͡ʃʲ/ 'you do'||/d͡ʒʲ/||mergi /merd͡ʒʲ/ 'you go'|
|–||/mʲ/||dormi /dormʲ/ 'you sleep'|
|–||/nʲ/||bani /banʲ/ 'money (pl.)'|
|/fʲ/||șefi /ʃefʲ/ 'bosses'||/vʲ/||pleșuvi /pleˈʃuvʲ/ 'bald (masc. pl.)'|
|/sʲ/||bessi /besʲ/ 'Bessi'||/zʲ/||brazi /brazʲ/ 'fir trees'|
|/ʃʲ/||moși /moʃʲ/ 'old men'||/ʒʲ/||breji /breʒʲ/ 'brave (masc. pl.)'|
|/hʲ/||vlahi /vlahʲ/ 'Wallachians'||–|
|–||/lʲ/||școli /ʃkolʲ/ 'schools'|
|–||/rʲ/||sari /sarʲ/ 'you jump'|
In certain morphological processes /ʲ/ is replaced by the full vowel /i/, for example
This may explain why /ʲ/ is perceived as a separate sound by native speakers and written with the same letter as the vowel /i/.
The non-syllabic /ʲ/ can be sometimes found inside compound words like câțiva /kɨt͡sʲˈva/ ('a few') and oriunde /orʲˈunde/ ('wherever'), where the first morpheme happened to end in this /ʲ/. A word that contains this twice is cincizeci /t͡ʃint͡ʃʲˈzet͡ʃʲ/ ('fifty').
In old Romanian and still in some local pronunciations there is another example of such a non-syllabic, non-semivocalic phoneme, derived from /u/, which manifests itself as labialization of the preceding sound. The usual IPA notation is /ʷ/. It is found at the end of some words after consonants and semivowels, as in un urs, pronounced /un ˈursʷ/ ('a bear'), or îmi spui /ɨmʲ spujʷ/ ('you tell me'). The disappearance of this phoneme might be attributed to the fact that, unlike /ʲ/, it didn't play any morphological role. It is possibly a trace of Latin endings containing /u/ (-us, -um), this phoneme is related to vowel /u/ used to connect the definite article "l" to the stem of a noun or adjective, as in domn — domnul /domn/ — /ˈdomnul/ ('lord — the lord', cf. Latin dominus).
As with other languages, Romanian interjections often use sounds beyond the normal phoneme inventory or disobey the normal phonotactical rules, by containing unusual phoneme sequences, by allowing words to be made up of only consonants, or by consisting of repetitions. Such exceptional mechanisms are needed to obtain an increased level of expressivity. Often, these interjections have multiple spellings or occasionally none at all, which accounts for the difficulty of finding the right approximation using existing letters. The following is a list of examples.
Romanian has a stress accent, like almost all other Romance languages (with the notable exception of French). Generally, stress falls on the rightmost syllable of a prosodic word (that is, the root and derivational material but excluding inflections and final inflectional vowels). Although a lexically marked stress pattern with penultimate stress exists, any morphologically derived forms will continue to follow the unmarked pattern.
Stress is not normally marked in writing, except occasionally to distinguish between homographs, or in dictionaries for the entry words. When it is marked, the main vowel of the stressed syllable receives an accent (usually acute, but sometimes grave), for example véselă — vesélă ('jovial', fem. sg. — 'tableware').
In verb conjugation, noun declension, and other word formation processes, stress shifts can occur. Verbs can have homographic forms only distinguished by stress, such as in el suflă which can mean 'he blows' (el súflă) or 'he blew' (el suflắ) depending on whether the stress is on the first or the second syllable, respectively. Changing the grammatical category of a word can lead to similar word pairs, such as the verb a albí /alˈbi/ ('to whiten') compared to the adjective álbi /ˈalbʲ/ ('white', masc. pl.). Stress in Romanian verbs can normally be predicted by comparing tenses with similar verbs in Spanish, which does indicate stress in writing.
Languages such as English, Russian, and Arabic are called stress-timed, meaning that syllables are pronounced at a lower or higher rate so as to achieve a roughly equal time interval between stressed syllables. Another category of languages are syllable-timed, which means that each syllable takes about the same amount of time, regardless of the position of the stresses in the sentence. Romanian is one of the syllable-timed languages, along with other Romance languages (French, Spanish, etc.), Telugu, Yoruba, and many others. (A third timing system is mora timing, exemplified by Classical Latin, Fijian, Finnish, Hawaiian, Japanese, and Old English.)
The distinction between these timing categories may sometimes seem unclear, and definitions vary. In addition, the time intervals between stresses/syllables/morae are in reality only approximately equal, with many exceptions and large deviations having been reported. However, whereas the actual time may be only approximately equal, the differences are perceptually identical.
In the case of Romanian, consonant clusters are often found both in the syllable onset and coda, which require physical time to be pronounced. The syllable timing rule is then overridden by slowing down the rhythm. Thus, it is seen that stress and syllable timing interact. The sample sentences below, each consisting of six syllables, are illustrative:
The total time length taken by each of these sentences is obviously different, and attempting to pronounce one of them with the same rhythm as the other results in unnatural utterances.
To a lesser extent, but still perceivably, the syllables are extended in time also on one hand by the presence of liquid and nasal consonants, and on the other by that of semivowels in diphthongs and triphthongs, such as shown in the examples below.
|pic — plic||bit — envelope|
|cec — cerc||cheque — circle|
|zic — zinc||I say — zinc|
|car — chiar||I carry — even|
|sare — soare||salt — sun|
|sta — stea||to stay — star|
|fi — fii||be (inf.) — be (imperative)|
A simple way to evaluate the length of a word, and compare it to another, consists in pronouncing it repeatedly at a natural speech rate.
A detailed description of the intonation patterns must consider a wide range of elements, such as the focus of the sentence, the theme and the rheme, emotional aspects, etc. In this section only a few general traits of the Romanian intonation are discussed. Most importantly, intonation is essential in questions, especially because, unlike English and other languages, Romanian does not distinguish grammatically declarative and interrogative sentences.
In non-emphatic yes/no questions the pitch rises at the end of the sentence until the last stressed syllable. If unstressed syllables follow, they often have a falling intonation, but this is not a rule.
In Transylvanian speech these yes/no questions have a very different intonation pattern, usually with a pitch peak at the beginning of the question: [ai ↗stins lumi↘na]
In selection questions the tone rises at the first element of the selection, and falls at the second.
Wh-questions start with a high pitch on the first word and then the pitch falls gradually toward the end of the sentence.
Repeat questions have a rising intonation.
Tag questions are uttered with a rising intonation.
Unfinished utterances have a rising intonation similar to that of yes/no questions, but the pitch rise is smaller.
Various other intonation patterns are used to express: requests, commands, surprise, suggestion, advice, and so on.
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