The unprecedented interculturality of the modern world, facilitated by a multitude of communication media, has surprising effects on language, especially in what semantics mutations are concerned. The linguistic phenomenon whereby, under the influence of another language, new meanings are assigned to words that already exist in the language, is called semantic calque. Although this is a natural phenomenon in the evolution of each language, such calques are often unnecessary, because they do not define a new concept that speakers need, but simply occur because at some point speakers do not care so much as to look for the correct translation, choosing the first word that comes to mind, which is the closest in terms of phonetics and usually has the same origin. The new meanings, the inadequacy of which only matches their recurrence, then sneak into the day-to-day vocabulary because they sound perfectly natural and soon become so familiar that they can no longer be eliminated.
This month we analyze some of the most frequent (and irritating) semantic calques that Romanian speakers have ‘loaned’ from English, namely Romanian words that are used with a meaning that they do not actually have, but their English ‘false friends’ do. Although the Romanian word and its English counterpart have a common Latin/French ancestor, their semantics evolved differently in the two languages, resulting in situations where they either have nothing in common or one of them has an extra meaning. Presently, under the influence of English, particularly thriving in the media and in corporate environments, Romanian appears to be claiming those extra meanings, as speakers prefer to use Romanian words incorrectly, choosing meanings according to phonetic resemblance rather than finding the right translation. Sometimes, this preference has to do with an unconscious need to avoid the older expressive Romanian words, carrying emotional and ethical connotations, and embrace a new, fashionable, neutral culture. Such changes are either radically rejected as evidence of speakers’ contempt, discrediting the purity of Romanian, or approved of as natural and unavoidable in a modern, living language. For many, semantic calques are not a mistake if the majority of speakers use them. Whatever your opinion on the matter, it is always essential to know who your false friends are.
A frequent confusion in contracts is that between the English verb agree and Romanian a agrea: to say that the parties agreed to terminate, Romanians often use Părțile au agreat rezilierea contractului, which actually means they liked the idea of termination: a agrea only means ‘like’ or ‘appreciate’ in Romanian. A conveni or a stabili de comun acord should be used instead in such contexts, despite the strong tendency to follow English patterns.
Similarly, should one tell young Romanians who are applying for a job that the verb a aplica does not suit their purpose, they would most likely be bewildered. What they ought to use is probably a candida or a-și depune dosarul. A aplica is the counterpart of English apply, but only in the sense of ‘putting into operation or use’, and has nothing to do with formal requests or job hunting. However, the use of a aplica according to the English semantics is so widespread that the next edition of the Romanian dictionary would be incomplete without it.
În atașament veți putea găsi … Does this sound familiar? Similar phrases abound in emails nowadays, copying English formulae, but what they actually do is bring affection into business correspondence. Atașament matches English attachment only in the sense of ‘fondness’, but has not yet officially acquired the meaning of ‘computer file appended to an email’, however common among Romanian speakers. In fact, it does not need to: anexă can cover it perfectly, unless we use paraphrases such as fișierul atașat.
Another common mistake is to treat expertiză as the counterpart of expertise, which in English refers to expert skill or knowledge in a particular field. The two terms look alike and they both obviously derive from expert, but according to the dictionary Romanian expertiză is an expert’s technical research or report, and has no direct relation to know-how, even though the latter is required in drawing up such a report. It is therefore recommended to replace expertiză with competenţă or cunoştinţe de specialitate in describing an expert’s ability.
Until recently, Romanian speakers who wished to refer to the quality of being determined, or firmness of purpose, normally used hotărâre or fermitate. However, under the influence of determination, we began describing it as determinare, which, in fact, only has the ‘causation’ meaning of its English false friend. Unfortunately, although Romanian provides perfectly equivalent terms, this use of determinare and its word family is thriving, especially in the media. Thus, Sunt determinat să semnez contractul, employed as ‘I am intent on signing the contract’, only means, although speakers may ignore it, ‘Something/somebody is causing me to sign the contract’.
Sooner or later, these word meanings will find their way into dictionaries and become widely accepted, as in the case of three familiar terms: locaţie, oportunitate, and a asuma. Nowadays, most Romanians firmly believe that locaţie and English location refer to one and the same thing, namely a particular place or position, and even seem to prefer locaţie to the more traditional loc. The most recent edition of the Romanian Explanatory Dictionary, published in 2009, confirms their belief. However, in the 1998 Dictionary locaţie only meant ’lease’. It seems that linguistic authorities took into account the increasing use of this word as ‘place’, based on a phonetic resemblance with location, and introduced the confusion into the dictionary.
A very similar story highlights oportunitate and its false friend opportunity. In the 1998 Dictionary, and in the minds of purists today, oportunitate has one meaning: appropriateness, specifically the nature of being oportun. However, its similarity to English opportunity led speakers to use it as a modern, pragmatic word for ‘favourable situation’, ignoring older ocazie or şansă, to such an extent that the 2009 Dictionary acknowledges this second meaning of oportunitate. Furthermore, its original meaning seems to be fading into oblivion.
Finally, both Explanatory Dictionaries treat a asuma as undertaking, which is indeed one of the meanings of English assume. However, some Romanian speakers also adopt another meaning of assume and use this verb as supposing: Să asumăm că ai dreptate may be a common corporate formula. This meaning is only found in the Dictionary of Neologisms, first published in 1986, but not in the later mainstream Explanatory Dictionaries, and may sound rather awkward to linguists. However, such resistance is likely to disappear in the near future, due to dictionary acknowledgement of the new meanings and especially to their quick proliferation in spoken Romanian.
Author’s note: This post should have been written in Romanian.