It appears like Romanian has only 5 inflected/conjugated tenses (excluding imperative), while all other Romance languages have much more. For example, in Spanish, French and Italian, there are 7(8) tenses:

  • Indicative: Present, Imperfect (Imparfait / Imperfetto), Preterite (Passé Simple / Passato Remoto), Future, Conditional
  • Subjunctive: Present, Imperfect*, [Future*]

Additionally, in Iberian languages, there's a subjunctive future tense which is presumably derived from Latin subjunctive active perfect. (Spanish has 2 tables for subjunctive imperfect tense, this is occasionally seen in other Iberian languages.)

On the contrary, Romanian has only 5 tenses: Indicative present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, plus a subjunctive present.

In addition to word inflection, an extra word is introduced to form the subjunctive present.

The future tense is notably absent in Romanian, and it's instead constructed with a modal verb vrea (eu voi / tu vei etc.), which makes me feel like I'm looking at a Germanic language.

  • After further research, I noticed that the "modal verb" vrea comes from Latin volo, which is different from all other Romance languages that use habeo (prefix in Sardinian, suffix elsewhere). The latter appears to be directly related to a late Latin construction that uses "infinitive + habeo" to express a near future. Similarly, there is "infinitive + habebam" for future perfect, which later turned to conditional. This is interesting in Romanian: The conditional "tense" preserved the word habebam but put it before the infinitive of verb, while replacing habeo with volo for future.

Another thing that should be noticed is that perfect and pluperfect are formed with word inflection, instead of using auxiliary verbs. Compare RO eu vrui, FR j'ai voulu and IT ho voluto (and ES he querido).

What is the history behind this vastly different tense system and its conjugation tables?

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    @iBug. Not simply appended, but fused. Vous passer+avez > vous passerez. – fdb Dec 17 '18 at 14:54
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    @jknappen. The passé simple is also used only in the written language. But that is not the point. The question is about the full battery of inflected verb forms. – fdb Dec 17 '18 at 14:57
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    @iBug In fact the construction of the future using the infinitive plus the verb have is typical of the Romance languages and it already started occurring in Vulgar Latin. As far as I can see in no Romance language the old Latin future has survived, rather the composite forms have gone through a process of grammaticalization and the verb to have converted in endings – Denis Nardin Dec 17 '18 at 18:43
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    @amegnunsen: The etymological derivation of the French future is as fdb gave it: from the infinitive along with a present form of the habeo/avoir verb. Note that "aurez" is itself a future form, and it's clear that it couldn't have developed from "avoir + aurez". – ewawe Jan 1 '19 at 17:49
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    @amegnunsen: Oops, I made a mistake in my previous comment. It looks like the reason we have "courrai" is actually because the "ir" of the infinitive is an innovation; the infinitive form "courre" is apparently attested for Old French. – ewawe Jan 1 '19 at 22:45

The short answer: centuries of use of Old Church Slavonic instead of Latin or Romanian as a written language BUT note there is a tendency towards analytic tenses in spoken languages across Europe.

The long answer:

Questions of the form "Why?" in historical linguistics are not necessarily answerable, but we can try.

One theory could be that there was some difference in Vulgar Latin dialects at the time of the split, and there may have been, for that we would need the comparative method.

Another theory is that there was some factor since the split, however we define it, some time in the first millennium.

As we know, the other major Romance languages, and even many of the now minor ones, were essentially in constant contact with written Latin as they evolved from Vulgar Latin. So the orthography and prescriptive grammar of the standard languages have always lagged behind the vernacular languages, and conversely, the standard languages remained an influence on the vernacular.

Notably, Latin was a liturgical language, and a bureaucratic one, and for this reason the lexicon, semantics and grammar in those spheres evolved less. An obvious example is Spanish espíritu, Jesús and Dios, which, if the normal shifts that occurred between Latin to Spanish had been applied, would by now be something like *espirito, *Jeso and *deo, like Romanian zeu.

Another example of continued legacy is the mismatch of orthography and pronunciation in modern French, as extreme as that in English, if more predictable. That only happened because the literary class were continuously writing Latin, then Old French, generally dragging their heels at every step. It would have never happened had the French woken up one morning and decided to write their language for the first time.

Meanwhile, in Dacia:

The oldest surviving written text in Romanian is a letter from late June 1521,[101] in which Neacșu of Câmpulung wrote to the mayor of Brașov about an imminent attack of the Turks. It was written using the Cyrillic alphabet, like most early Romanian writings. The earliest surviving writing in Latin script was a late 16th-century Transylvanian text which was written with the Hungarian alphabet conventions.

In the 18th century, Transylvanian scholars noted the Latin origin of Romanian and adapted the Latin alphabet to the Romanian language, using some orthographic rules from Italian, recognized as Romanian's closest relative. The Cyrillic alphabet remained in (gradually decreasing) use until 1860, when Romanian writing was first officially regulated.

1521 is very very recent, given that the Roman province of Dacia was founded in 106.

The Romanised Dacians, of course, ended up Christians and as literate as any others over the centuries, the liturgical language, however, was Old Church Slavonic, with a bit of Greek, and the political language was also often Slavic, or even Magyar or Turkic, hence voivoda, cneaz, ban and so on.

Both other Romance languages and Romanian have masses of doublets, borrowings from earlier or parallel branches of Romance in addition to inherited words, but the Romanian ones happened mostly during a sudden and short but massive wave in the late 19th and early 20th century, whereas the borrowing into the other languages was more continuous.

But suddenly prescribing grammar, as opposed to lexicon, is much more difficult, it sort of works if there is continued passive literacy in the standard language, but suddenly introducing new structures top-down sounds hard, and I am not aware of many examples of it. In any case, the nuances of parse trees and morphology do not appeal to political and cultural forces the way that lexicon and pronunciation do.

The result is a language which is both more divergent in some ways with regard to Latin, and more conservative in other ways, especially with regard to Vulgar Latin, in lexicon, and in grammar.

The future tense is notably absent in Romanian, and it's instead constructed with a modal verb vrea (eu voi / tu vei etc.), which makes me feel like I'm looking at a Germanic language.

We can theorise, certainly Romanian is part of the Balkan Sprachbund, but there is also plenty of Romance influence on the non-Romance languages of the Balkans, and, moreover, a tendency towards fewer and more analytic tenses is observable in languages across Europe.

Re-use of to want as a future auxiliary specifically is a feature of Old Church Slavonic, Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian and Albanian, but in Bulgarian and Albanian it is an indeclinable particle, exactly like o să in Romanian, and it is a feature of Yiddish, and English, but not modern Standard German.

So Romanian mirrors nearly exactly the situation in South Slavic, right down to the incomplete shift to the indeclinable particle, but keeping in mind of course that this is not Slavic per se, as this is not seen in East or West Slavic, so Slavic is not obviously causal here.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Church_Slavonic_grammar#Future is not very explicit, but https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Church_Slavonic#Basis_and_local_influences claims:

Periphrastic compound future tense formed with the auxiliary verb 'хотѣти' (xotěti, "to want"), for example 'хоштѫ писати' (xoštǫ pisati, "I will write").

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  • Compare Ger. ich will "I want" and English will be "futuer be; want". ich will can stil be found in constructions where it's interchangeable with werde "become, will" (e.g. "ich will dir mal was sagen" - "I'm gonna tell you what"). – vectory Jan 7 '19 at 8:45
  • @vectory I'm not so sure, that's not how I would translate that. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 7 '19 at 9:29
  • I'm sure there's no correct way to translate "mal", I was just going for the colloquial register. I was looking for the stress on was/what and you are correct that e.g. ich will dir etwas zeigen is just "I will/want to show you something", the intricacy of which was left out on purpose. Your take? – vectory Jan 7 '19 at 9:36
  • I don't find it fundamentally different than the English I want to..., other than mal. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 7 '19 at 9:43
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    @vectory: Ich wil dir mal was sagen and Ich werde dir mal was sagen are two different constructions; the former means I want to tell you something, whereas the latter translates as I will tell you something. – Lucian Jan 16 '19 at 7:35

For all I know know as a Romanian myself who has done grammar in school, Romanian has more than 5 tenses. First of all, we have verbal modes. These are personal and impersonal. The personal modes are Indicative, Conjunctive, Conditional Optional and Imperative. The non-personal ones are Infinitive, Participle, Gerund and Supine.

Some have tenses:

  • Indicative: Present, Imperfect, Compound Perfect, Simple Perfect, Pluperfect (More than Perfect), Proper Future (with 4 different forms) and Previous Future.

  • Conjunctive, Conditional Optional and Infinitive have 2 tenses: Present and Perfect.

This scheme is the one most Romanian students will recognize.

The differences between the tenses in your question and this scheme are the Perfect Conjunctive (or Subjunctive, but in languages like French, Subjunctive also has values that do not corespond with the Romanian Conjunctive) and the Indicative Perfect forms (Simple and Compound).

The last part of your question is not true: word inflection is used in Perfect Simple, while Compound Perfect uses auxiliary verb "a avea" ("eu vrui" is Simple Perfect and "eu am vrut" is Compound Perfect). Simple Perfect is seldom used in modern Romanian and one ussualy uses the Compound Perfect.

P.S.: I'm not exactly sure if everything I named is how one should translate it in English.

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