Romanian in Oxford: Celebrating 10 Years of the Romanian Lectorate

Romanian in Oxford. An exhibition to mark ten years of the Romanian Lectorate. 15 May - 9 June 2023. Voltaire Room, Taylor Institution Library. Romanian in Oxford is an exhibition currently on display at the Taylor Institution Library from 15th May to 9th June 2023. It showcases the library collections and related research on Romanian language from the 19th century to the present day.

What is Romanian?

The clue is in the name. Romanian originates in the language of the Romans, namely Latin. It therefore is a Romance language, one that descends from the Latin of the Roman Empire, and this makes it a ‘sister’ of languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan, French, Italian, Sardinian, and many other languages besides. Romanian is today the official language of Romania (and the mother tongue of 90% of its approximately 22 million inhabitants), and of Moldova, where it is the mother tongue of about three quarters of a population of 3.4 millions. Emigration has meant that it is also extensively spoken outside Romania.

Map of the Romance languages showing the geographical isolation of Romania.

Map of the Romance languages

This map of the Romance languages shows how geographically isolated Romanian is from its ‘sisters’. In fact, it has been isolated for well over a millennium. Unlike other Romance languages, Romanian has been subject to major influences from Slavonic, Hungarian, and Turkish, mainly in vocabulary. What has emerged is a language which is still demonstrably related to other Romance varieties, but whose sound system, grammar, and lexicon also display striking, sometimes mysterious, differences. We have relatively little evidence of the history of the language: the earliest documents in Romanian to have survived date only from around the turn of the sixteenth century. Moreover, Romanian was written in the Cyrillic, rather than Roman, alphabet until well into the nineteenth century.

Romanian is actually just the principal member of the ‘Daco-Romance’ branch of the Romance languages. This branch comprises four major sub- branches: the ‘Daco-Romanian’ dialects (to which standard Romanian belongs), and Aromanian, Megleno-Romanian, and Istro-Romanian.

Map of Romania and neighbouring countries.

Map of Romania and neighbouring countries, with linguistic areas marked in red.

Aromanian probably split of from the rest of Daco-Romance before the 11th century, whilst Istro-Romanian and Megleno-Romanian seem to have become detached no earlier than the 13th. Istro-Romanian—the object of one of our major research interests in Oxford—is spoken in the north-eastern Istrian peninsula (in Croatia). The Aromanians are widespread in the Balkan area, particularly Albania, central and northern Greece and south-western North Macedonia. Megleno-Romanian has a few thousand speakers, settled in villages in northern Greece, and in Northern Macedonia.

Why is Romanian important?

There are multiple answers. One is academic. An understanding of the modern structure and historical development of the Romance languages — and, beyond that, understanding of what the Romance languages can tell us about the nature of language change generally—is not really possible unless we take Romanian into account alongside other Romance languages such as Italian, French, etc. In a memorable metaphor, the Swedish Romanianist Alf Lombard wrote (Le Verbe roumain 1954:1) [our translation]:

Any comparative enquiry that does not take Eastern Latinity into account is more or less pointless, or at any rate incomplete. Actually, it rather brings to mind a table for which the carpenter has been content to make just three legs rather than four—think of the three principal sister languages: French, Spanish, and Italian—leaving the fourth corner unsupported and worryingly unstable.

The study of Romanian is simply essential to doing Romance linguistics: otherwise, our ‘table’ is forever destined to be rickety and unreliable. Actually, Romanian already possesses a most impressive body of detailed descriptive linguistic studies assembled over the past 70 years, largely under the aegis of the Romanian Academy, by Romanian scholars. These are mainly written in Romanian and therefore not easily accessible internationally. The quality of the scholarship is extraordinarily high, yet too few linguistic scholars have appreciated it or made use of it.

Another reason why Romanian is important is ‘social’. The recent Census for England and Wales revealed that Romanian is now the third most widely spoken language after English and Polish. We can ill afford not to be curious about the language spoken by one of our most significant communities. Romanian is being spoken all around us, as a stroll through central Oxford with one’s ears open will confirm!

The top ten main languages spoken in England and Wales, excluding English (English or Welsh in Wales)

The top ten main languages spoken in England and Wales, excluding English (English or Welsh in Wales). Total usual resident population, aged three years and over, who speak each language as their main language, 2011 and 2021, England and Wales.

Total usual resident population, aged three years and over, who speak each language as their main language, 2011 and 2021, England and Wales.

Of course there are many other reasons why Romanian is important. Not least the fact that it is the language of a major European culture, with a literary tradition dating back to the sixteenth century but which is still little known outside Romania. Ignorance of Romania and Romanian is no longer excusable as a result of the historical isolation of the country and its culture.

How long has Romanian been studied in Oxford?

It’s hard to say how long Romanian has been of interest to Oxford scholars. Romanian is a Romance language, and the history of the Romance languages has been studied in Oxford since at least the late nineteenth century. By 1877, the University had realized the international importance of the historical and comparative study of the Romance languages (a subject already flourishing in the German-speaking world), and the proposal was made to establish a Professorship of the Romance Languages, although the Chair was not established until 1909.  It is fair to say that the main focus of interest of the first eight Professors of the Romance Languages throughout the 20th century was French, with other Romance languages receiving less attention and Romanian being neglected.

However, this does not mean that no attention was paid to Romanian. Several Oxford scholars took a lively academic interest in the language. One of these was Frank Barnett, Fellow in French at Trinity College from 1952 to 1986, who visited Romania, knew the language well, and encouraged his students to learn  the language and visit Romania. Among these students was John Charles Smith, later to become Fellow and Tutor in French Linguistics at St Catherine’s College and now Emeritus Fellow of the College, whose work displays a constant awareness of the importance of Romanian. For example, a forthcoming paper by Smith addresses the vexed question of why ‘Moldovan’ has historically been considered a different language from Romanian (they are not different languages, in fact!).

Another Oxford scholar who contributed to Romanian studies was Graham Mallinson, Lecturer in Linguistics in Oxford in the 1970s, who was the author of one of the first descriptions of the Romanian language in English (e.g., 1979 The History and Structure of Romanian and 1986 Rumanian. Mallinson was also the author of the article on Romanian in The World’s Major Languages (ed. B. Comrie), recently revised and updated (2018) by our lector in Romanian, Dr Oana Uță Bărbulescu.

The other  Oxford scholar to explore Romanian was Dr Tony Hurren, who in the late 1970s taught Linguistics at Wadham College. Hurren’s Oxford doctoral thesis focused not on standard Romanian (although he knew the language very well) but on one of the four major branches of Romanian, ‘Istro-Romanian’ spoken in modern Croatia. Hurren’s fieldwork, thesis, and publications have formed the basis of a major research project in Oxford in the past few years, the ISTROX project. Others, too, have published on Romanian, for example Margaret Renwick, a postdoctoral research associate and later postdoctoral researcher in Oxford, author of a work on Romanian phonology.

The current, and ninth, Professor of the Romance Languages, Martin Maiden, arrived in Oxford in 1996. He is the first holder of the Chair to develop a major research interest in the Romanian language and its history. Before he came to Oxford Romanian was not, however, a particular theme of his research. His interest in the language developed slowly, over many years, but began with an attempt to learn Romanian from a grammar book in his teens, at the height of the Cold War, when Romania was a distant, inaccessible, country. It seemed to Maiden that he was so unlikely ever to meet a native speaker of the language or even hear it spoken, and that Romanian was anyway so dauntingly difficult (he was quite wrong), that he decided that he might as well give up trying to learn it!  Many years later, however, in 1987, he took an opportunity to attend the month-long Curs de Vară (Summer Course) in Romanian language and culture organized annually by the Romanian authorities in Bucharest. (By the way, Oxford now sends students from Oxford almost every year on the continuant of this course).

In 2003 Maiden spent part of a sabbatical year in Romania exploring dialectological materials held by the Romanian Academy. This renewed acquaintance with the language encouraged him to take more account of it in his work on the comparative history of the Romance languages, and after his arrival in Oxford he published a number of articles focusing on aspects of the history of Romanian morphology (word structure), notably the highly complex systems of plural formation and nouns and of diminutive derivation.

The creation of the Lectorate in Romanian in Oxford: a revolution

A crucial moment in the study of Romanian in Oxford occurred in late 2010, when Maiden was contacted by the then Romanian Ambassador to London, H.E. Ion Jinga, who wanted to discuss ‘a proposal’. This turned out to be nothing less than an extraordinarily generous offer by the Romanian government to fund a lectorate in Romanian at Oxford, administered via Institutul Limbii Române (the Institute of the Romanian Language). The Lectorate, situated within Oxford’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics, commenced in October 2012, and the Lector sent to us from the University of Bucharest, Dr Oana Uță Bărbulescu, has had her mandate renewed ever since. Dr Uță is a specialist in Romanian language and linguistics and a member of Institutul de Studii Sud-Est Europene of the Romanian Academy.

The creation of the Lectorate was also marked in 2013 by a one-day conference Romanian in Oxford: language, culture, and history, supported by the Ertegün Foundation, and attended by scholars from Britain, the US, and Romania, including the late Prof. Marius Sala, one of the world’s foremost experts on Romanian and its dialects.

It is no exaggeration that the creation of the Lectorate revolutionized the study of Romanian in Oxford. First, it made it possible to provide weekly courses, open to any member of the University (students, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers, professors), in Romanian language, at beginners’, intermediate, and advanced levels. These courses have been enthusiastically attended, and they have also provided the basis for a specialist examination subject in Romanian language and linguistics, taught by the Lector in Romanian and Professor Maiden. This subject covers the Romanian language in its historical and cultural context, and major aspects of the structure and evolution of the Romanian language and dialects. We are pleased to report that half of the students who have taken the special option to date have achieved a First Class result.

Not only has the creation of the Lectorate enabled our students (and others) to learn Romanian and about Romania, but it has given a major impetus to research into the Romanian language and its structure and history. This work, mainly led by Professor Maiden, has yielded numerous results in the past ten years: we have produced over 40 publications on Romanian linguistics in refereed journals and volumes over the past 10 years. We have also published various studies designed to introduce general readers to Romanian, such as Maiden’s general introduction to Romanian grammar, an article which came out of a course on the Romanian language and its history held by Maiden in France in 2014.

In all this, we are immensely grateful for the presence of the Lector in Romanian, who has repeatedly been a major stimulus and source of advice, and has herself been very academically productive. These publications have also been the basis for over thirty lectures and presentations at international conferences. Romanian also occupies a prominent place in our research and publications on general Romance linguistics (e.g., the chapter on Romanian and related dialects in the Cambridge History of the Romance Languages (2016), or the OUP volume The Romance Verb (2018). This is one case where you can judge a book by its cover: the cover is an image from one of the earliest Romanian linguistic atlases, and it reflects the importance accorded to Romanian in the book, which is a comparative-historical study of Romance verb morphology.

Maiden, Martin. The Romance Verb : Morphomic Structure and Diachrony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Taylor Institution Library Shelfmark PC145.M35 MAI 2018

Maiden, Martin. The Romance Verb : Morphomic Structure and Diachrony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Taylor Institution Library Shelfmark PC145.M35 MAI 2018

The Bodleian Libraries support research into Romanian through their very good collection of works on the Romanian language, and their willingness to acquire new works in the subject. A major element in the research into Romanian linguistics conducted in Oxford has been the study of Romanian dialects, and a major source of information is the remarkably detailed collection of Romanian linguistic atlases. They have all been vital research tools and without them many of our recent publications would have been impossible.

Some of these atlases are displayed in the exhibition, ranging from Gustav Weigand’s Linguistischer Atlas de dacoromunischen Sprachgebietes (1909), the earliest Romanian linguistic atlas, through Atlasul lingvistic român: this was produced in the 1960s under the aegis of the Romanian Academy – which has also overseen the production of a major series of regional linguistic atlases. Atlasul lingvistic român pe regiuni: sinteza is a synoptic synthesis of many of the valuable data contained in those regional atlases. We also show Atlasul lingvistik moldovenesk, the linguistic atlas of (what was then) the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The atlas is published in Romanian but, as was normal at that period in Moldova, it is written in a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet, based on that used for Russian. All of the maps on display from these atlases show aspects of Romanian dialect verb morphology, a topic on which we have published a great deal of research in Oxford.

Equally important is our collection of dictionaries and grammars of the language, some going back to the mid nineteenth century, and an extensive range of works describing Romanian dialects. A magnificent example from the Bodleian’s collections of old manuscripts and books from Romanian is presented by Dr Cristina Neagu (Christ Church) on Digital.Bodleian.[1]

Fol. 006v from the Bodleian Library's MS. Canon. Gr. 122, 'Gospels of Gavril'. Image from Digital.Bodleian.

Fol. 006v from the Bodleian Library’s MS. Canon. Gr. 122, ‘Gospels of Gavril’. Image from Digital.Bodleian.

A recently completed doctoral dissertation (2022) by Constanța Burlacu (Medieval and Modern Languages, supervised by Martin Maiden and Ralph Cleminson) breaks new ground: Translation and Circulation of Romanian and Slavonic of Romanian and Slavonic biblical books in the Romanian lands: a textual analysis of the sixteenth century Apostolos and Psalter texts.[2]

Romanian linguistics and Oxford University Press

Our strong links with Romanian linguistic scholars are reflected in a number of recent publications with Oxford University Press. These works, subject to OUP’s extremely rigorous processes of peer-review and quality control, are giving a much greater international prominence to knowledge of the Romanian language and its history than has ever been possible before. They include:

The Grammar of Romanian. 2013 (G. Pană Dindelegan, ed.; consultant ed. M. Maiden)
Verb Movement and Clause Structure in Old Romanian. 2016 (V. Hill, G. Alboiu)
The Syntax of Old Romanian. 2016 (G. Pană Dindelegan, ed.; consultant editor M. Maiden)
Word Order and Parameter Change in Romanian. 2019 (A. Nicolae)
The Diachrony of Differential Object Marking in Romanian. 2021 (V. Hill, A. Mardale)
The Oxford History of Romanian Morphology. 2021 (jointly by M. Maiden, A. Dragomirescu, G. Pană Dindelegan, O, Uță Bărbulescu, R. Zafiu)

Several of these items are displayed in the exhibition.

A number of these are collaborative works between Oxford linguists and Romanian linguists. Among them is what is undoubtedly the most thorough description of Romanian grammar (The Grammar of Romanian) ever published in any language other than Romanian. The most recent publication is The Oxford History of Romanian Morphology a collaborative work led by Maiden and involving our Lector, Dr Uță Bărbulescu, and three other colleagues from the linguistics institute of the Romanian Academy.

The intellectual legacy of Tony Hurren and the ISTROX project

In the late 1960s the Oxford linguist Tony Hurren (1933-2006) studied the already highly endangered language which linguists call ‘Istro-Romanian’. It was spoken by only a few hundred people in the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia and today it is recognized by UNESCO as being severely endangered. The result was Hurren’s Oxford DPhil thesis on the language: A linguistic description of Istro-Rumanian,[3]and his Istro-Rumanian: a functionalist phonology and grammar.[4] Hurren also published an article on a remarkable facet of the Istro-Romanian verb system, its grammatical ‘aspect’ system.

In 2010, Tony Hurren’s widow, Mrs Vera Hurren, generously donated to the University over thirty hours of sound recordings made by her husband in the 1960s together with his field notebooks. She later gave us other material, including photographs from the fieldwork of the 1960s where Tony Hurren interviewed Istro-Romanian speakers, making recordings and taking notes of the language.

Since 2018 the Hurren donation has inspired new research into Istro-Romanian in Oxford, funded hitherto by Oxford’s John Fell Fund, PER Seed fund project, and TORCH Knowledge Exchange Innovation Fund. In particular, we have conducted our own fieldwork on Istro-Romanian (some photos of our fieldwork are displayed). We have been exploring how this language has changed since the 1960s, and also traced how the population of speakers has dwindled over the past half-century, innovatively using online methods and social media to establish contacts with members of the speech community in émigré communities in the US and Australia.

Žejane, 2019. Visit to the ć family. Mrs ć, her older sister Mrs ć, and their families, met with us in their family home in Ž. Just over 50 years earlier, recorded both sisters, as well as their mother, Mrs ć who was 37 at the time.

Žejane, 2019. Visit to the Sanković family. Mrs Vesna Sanković, her older sister Mrs Laura Sanković, and their families, met with us in their family home in Žejane. Just over 50 years earlier, Tony Hurren recorded both sisters, as well as their mother, Mrs Maria Sanković who was 37 at the time.

Click here to listen to Vesna Sanković (‘Kljomina‘), 8 years old, as recorded by Tony Hurren in the 1960s.

You can hear further recordings of Istro-Romanian and read more about current research projects at the following pages:

All the materials associated with this project are preserved in the Oxford Research Archive.[5].

From 26 June to 24 August 2022, the ISTROX project and Hurren’s work was the subject of an exhibition (in English and Croatian) at the Lapidarium Museum in Novigrad, Croatia, entitled ISTROX 50 years of the Istro-Romanian Language: from the Oxford Hurren Collection to the ISTROX project. At the opening of the exhibition, many members of the surviving Istro-Romanian-speaking community attended – photographs below.

The Oxford tradition of research into Istro-Romanian is also now being carried forward by a doctoral student, Fabian Helmrich, who is working on a subject which also fascinated Hurren: the expression of ‘aspect’ in the Istro-Romanian verb system. Helmrich is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Maiden and Uță Bărbulescu are also involved, in collaboration with scholars at Universitatea de Vest in Timișoara, Romania, in editing and preparing for publication the fifth and final volume of P. Neiescu’s dictionary of the Istro-Romanian language, left unfinished when the author died in 2021.

Our work on Istro-Romanian in the diasporic community has earned such appreciation that one of its members, Mr Libero Soldatić, now resident in Australia, has generously endowed the annual Anton Soldatić and Antonija Soldatić (née Skalir) Memorial Prize, in memory of his parents, for the best piece of work by a student on Istro-Romanian or other languages of the Istrian peninsula.

The long-term aim of Oxford research into Istro-Romanian is to publish a comprehensive history of the language and its speakers.

Martin Maiden

Statutory Professor of the Romance Languages
Director, Research Centre for Romance Linguistics
Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics & Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages
Fellow of Trinity College
University of Oxford


[1]Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Canon. Gr. 122. Four Gospels (‘Gospels of Gavril’):

[2] Burlacu, C. Translation and Circulation of Romanian and Slavonic Biblical Books in the Romanian Lands: a Textual Analysis of the Sixteenth Century Apostolos and Psalter Texts. University of Oxford, 2022.

[3] Hurren, H.A. A Linguistic Description of Istro-Rumanian. University of Oxford, 1971.

[4]Hurren, H.A. Istro-Rumanian : A Functionalist Phonology and Grammar. Unpublished manuscript. Oxford, 1999.

[5]ISTROX Dataset. The Oxford University Hurren Donation and the Istro-Romanian language, 2021.