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The phonological system of Romanian

Virginia Hill
Romanian is a Romance language spoken in Romania, by approximately 20, 000, 000
people. The capital of Romania ? Bucharest ? is the central area for the standard spoken and
written dialect. The following site provides a map showing the location of Romania in Europe:
This paper aims to offer an overview of the Romanian sound system. For this purpose, I
will make a distinction between phones (the possible sounds of this language) and phonemes
(sounds that have an impact on the meaning of words) and will focus on the latter. Constraints on
alternations will be mentioned only when they have peculiar manifestations, specific to this
language. In this paper, the term alternations means phonetic modifications that arise when
sounds are produced in strings (Zsiga 2006: 44). Finally, I shall address the question of syllable
structure and stress.
1. The phonological system
The list of Romanian phonemes comprises vowels, consonants, diphthongs and
triphthongs. The following tables present these classes of phoneme: vowels and consonants are
classified according to their phonetic features; diphthongs and triphthongs are only listed. The
information is compiled from Chi?oran (2001) and Teodorescu et al. (2012). The symbols come
from standard IPA (Zsiga 2006: 21).
1.1. Vowels
Table 1: The phonemic vowels
front central back
closed i ? u
mid e ? o
opened a
Table 1 indicates the following language specific properties:
(i) There is no phonemic distinction between short versus long or tense versus lax
(ii) The closed central vowel is rare to find in world languages. It is not common in IndoEuropean
languages. A pronunciation sample can be found at this site (Teodorescu et
al. 2012):
The phonemic property of the vowels in Table 1 can be verified through minimal pair tests, e.g.:
(1) /k?t/ = ?how much?
/kot/ = ?elbow?
/kit/ = ?even?
1.2. Consonants
Table 2: The phonemic consonants
bilabial labio-dental dental postalveolar
velar glottal
nasal stop m n
oral stop p b t d k g
affricate ts t? d?
fricatives f v s z ? ? h
trill r
lateral l
The list of phonemic consonants is unexceptional, these sounds having a high incidence in the
world languages (Crystal 1987: 165-172). A language specific property is that stops followed by
[i] undergo palatalization (an assimilation process), and that this palatalization is phonemic in
word final position. For example, in (2), the contrast between palatal and non-palatal /p/ triggers
a contrast between first and second person interpretation in verbs (/p/ = [p], [pj
(2) [rup] = ?I break?
] = ?you break?
1.3. Diphthongs and triphthongs
Diphthongs are strings of two vowels that occur as one nucleus in a syllable. In
Romanian, they are rising (i.e., the second vowel predominates in articulation) or falling (i.e., the
first vowel predominates in articulation). Most diphthongs involve the palatal glide [j] and the
velar glide [w] in combination with vowels. Hence, some researchers (mainly, Chi?oran 2001) do
not consider these strings as diphthongs, but as vowel-glide alternations (i.e., assimilation). In
that case, only those strings of vowels that do not contain the glides would qualify as diphthongs,
which amounts to /e?a/, /e?o/ and /o?a/. E.g.:
(3) /re?a/ = ?bad.FEM.SG.?
/mo?ara/ = ?mill.the?
/vre?o/ = ?some?
The following list will include the vowel-glide strings as diphthongs, for a more complete
Table 3: The complete list of diphthongs
Falling diphthongs: /aj/, /aw/, /ej/, /ew/, /ij/, /iw/, /oj/, /ow/, /uj/, /uw/, /?j/, /?w/, /?j/, /?w/.
Rising diphthongs: //e?a/, /e?o/, /ja/, /je/, /jo/, /ju/, /o?a/, /wa/, /we/, /w?/, /w?/.
All the diphthongs are phonemic, since we can build minimal pair tests; e.g.:
(4) /re?a/ = ?bad.FEM.SG.?
/r?w/ = ?bad.MASC.SG?
/r?w/ = ?river?
/raj/ = ?heaven?
Samples of Romanian diphthongs are available as sound files at:
Following Chi?oran?s (2001) reasoning for defining diphthongs in Romanian, we may
also say that there is only one triphthong in this language, namely, /e?o?a/. All the other
triphthongs involve the glides [j] and [w] combined with diphthongs.
Table 4: The complete list of triphthongs
/e?aj/, /e?aw/, /jaw/, /jaj/, /jej/, /jew/, /joj/, /jow/, /o?aj/, /waw/, /waj/, /w?j/, /e?o?a/, /jo?a/
Triphthongs are phonemic, as shown by the minimal pair test in (5).
(5) /be?aj/ = ?you were drinking? /mjaw/ = a cat?s call
/be?aw/ = ?I am drinking? /mjej/ = ?baby sheep.MASC.PL.?
2. Suprasegmentals
The syllable structure in Romanian is flexible and unexceptional, allowing for consonants
or consonantic strings in both onset and coda. The nucleus is vocalic and includes diphthongs
and triphthongs.
Romanian is a stress (versus tone) language, and the location of the syllable stress is
variable. The only restriction is that the stress falls on the syllables of the word stem, not on
ultimate syllables if they consist of inflectional endings. Cases where stress is phonemic may
occur, as shown in (6), but they are not systematic. Thus, we cannot classify Romanian as a
lexical or a paradigmatic stress language.
(6) Paradigmatic stress: [?intr?] = ?he?s coming in? [?baza] = ?base.the?
[in?tr?] = ?he came in? [ba?za] = ?to base?
Lexical stress: [?vesel?] = ?joyful?
[ve?sel?] = ?dishware?
For the rhythm, Romanian is a syllable-timed language. That is, the articulation of
syllables is equal w.r.t. time of production, irrespective of where the stress is located.
3. Conclusions
The phonological system of Romanian is generally typical for Romance languages. The
only exception is the closed central vowel. For the syllable structure, this language belongs to
the syllable stress group, with further classifications as stress-timed and variable sound
distribution in the coda.
Chi?oran, I. 2001. The Phonology of Romanian: A Constraint-based Approach. Berlin & New
York: Mouton de Gruyter
Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. New York: Cambridge University
Teodorescu, H-N; L. Pistol; M. Feraru; M. Zbancioc; D. Trandabat. 2012. Sounds of the
Romanian Language Corpus., accessed Dec 15,
Zsiga, E. 2006. The sounds of language. In Fasold, R.W. & J. Connor-Linton (eds.), An
Introduction to Language and Linguistics. 13-54. New York: Cambridge University Press.