Celebrating ‘Our Language’

Suppose America organized a big party every year to celebrate the English language.

That’s what Moldova does with Romanian through its annual Limba Noastră holiday, which it celebrated again on Thursday. IMG_7223The words mean “our language” in Romanian, which is the official national language here.

Simultaneously, one in four Moldovans speak another language as their native tongue, mainly Russian, Ukranian or Gagauz, all of which have official status in certain regions.

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Limba noastră is also the title of Moldova’s national anthem. Just as The Star-Spangled Banner honors the American flag, Moldova’s anthem proclaims the Romanian language to be a “treasure” that is “more than holy,” a heritage that “surges from deep shadows the past.” You can see a video of the anthem at the top of this post or on YouTube.

The Limba Noastră holiday goes beyond language to celebrate Moldova’s heritage more broadly. It occurs immediately after the country’s Independence Day, adding a cultural counterpoint to the politics of Moldova’s identity. Both celebrations are followed by First Bell, on September 1, when schools across Moldova hold colorful ceremonies to open the new year and ring out summer.

Here in Ialoveni, hundreds of people gathered at the Casa de Cultură, or cultural center, on Thursday to celebrate Limba Noastră. There were musical performances, dramas, dances and poetry, some of which you can see here. The library where I work, Biblioteca publică orăşenească „Petre Ştefănucă,” organized the program together with the town hall, or primăria, and the cultural section of the county government, or Consiliul Raional. It also created a series of exhibits celebrating Moldovan authors and the Romanian language. That’s library director Valentina Plamadeala speaking at the ceremony in the photo above.

During its Soviet period, Romanian was called Moldovan to distinguish it from the adjacent country with which so many Moldovans feel connected. Some people still insist on calling the language “Moldovan” even though its differences with the Romanian spoken in Romania are slight.

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In places like Ialoveni that have strong ties to Romania, most people embrace the holiday, seeing the Romanian language as part of their ethnic identity. One speaker at Thursday’s ceremony recalled how he and others were forced to speak Russian in the years before Moldova’s independence. For them, limba noastră has a resonance that goes deeper than the language itself.

Elsewhere in Moldova, the holiday can be perceived differently. One of my fellow volunteers who lives in a Russian-speaking area said his host father calls it limba voastră, or your (not our) language.

The relationship between language and identity is complicated, in other words, and not always easy for an American to understand. We have plenty of experience with these issues back home, though, so the story can sound familiar despite the translation.

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Want to learn more? This article offers useful background about Moldova’s languages. Also interesting is this article about how language is perceived by different groups in Moldova. [Hat tip for the second article to my volunteer colleague Haley Bader, whose excellent blog you should check out.]

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