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In short, the language is confusing. You might hear Moldovans referring to it as limba de stat (state language) or limba nostra (our language). Debate about whether or not there is such a language as Moldovan at all continues to rage among nationalist circles. The language spoken here is essentially Romanian, but nationalists wishing either to distance themselves from Romanians (who are not overly beloved here), or to snuggle up to Russia, doggedly insist there is such a language as Moldovan.

The debate was briefly rekindled after the publishing of the Dicţionar Moldovenesc-Românesc in 2003, a Moldovan-Romanian ‘dictionary’ by Vasile Stati, financed entirely by the Ministry of Culture in a politically (ie communist) motivated move to separate Moldova from Romania. More of a compendium of slang than an actual dictionary, its publication caused a passing scandal but was greeted overall with laughter and dismissal by the general population who know they speak Romanian, no matter what you call it.

The Soviet regime from 1924 onwards attempted to manufacture a ‘new’ language for its newly created Moldavian ASSR to pave the way for the incorporation of Bessarabia in 1940. Under Soviet ‘tutelage’, Romanian was written with the Cyrillic alphabet – until 1989! New words were also invented and lists of Romanian words ‘polluting Moldovan’ were drawn up. Some minor differences between Romanian and ‘Moldovan’ can be heard, and there are varied local expressions. Still, linguists agree that ‘Moldovan’ is at best a Romanian dialect; roughly equivalent to the difference between the English spoken in England and in America. The word mântenesc is sometimes used for ‘thank you’ instead of mulţumesc.

Recent changes to Romanian have been slow to take root in Moldova; thus you will still see the letter î rather than the contemporary â. Almost everyone in the republic speaks Russian fluently, and you’ll find many flyers, posters and business cards written in Russian only, particularly in Chişinău. In Transdniestr and Gagauzia, Russian is what you’ll see on most signs and hear on the street, though Romanian is generally understood.

Though it has been downplayed considerably since 2001 when the communists got back into power, 31 August remains National Language Day, a national holiday. Falling just after Independence Day and just before the first day of classes, it’s mainly considered to be an extension of the former, serving as a convenient preparation day for students and, alas, devoid of flamboyant parades with monstrous inflatable dictionaries.

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