I've read that some people attribute it to influence from the Slavic languages. But it doesn't just appear in Slavic loans — it also shows up in obviously Latin-derived words like câine 'dog' (from CANEM). On the other hand, not all words with a in Latin have â in Romanian — e.g. FRATER went to frate rather than *frâte. So was this a sporadic sound change, or a regular change conditioned by some environment, or what?

  • Turkish also has a similar sound in ı (dotless i) and Romania was part of the Ottoman Empire, so I wonder if this is also an influence. An important thing not to forget about Romanian though is that â/î contrasts with ă which is like a schwa in English and French. Its's particularly strange for an Indoeuropean language to have two contrasting central vowels. Nov 9 '11 at 12:35
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    And while we're counting, Albanian and Armenian also have phonemic schwa -- even in stressed syllables, not just as a result of vowel reduction. Seems like it cropped up in IE languages all through Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Nov 9 '11 at 18:21
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    Those sounds are not abnormal in a Romance language. Similar ones can be found in Portuguese and many Italian dialects/languages. That doesn't exclude a possible Balkan connection, especially through Albanian.
    – cipricus
    Nov 19 '19 at 13:12

wrt. the other answer:

  1. Romanian sfânt does NOT come from Latin sanctum, but from Slavic svętъ (compare with Polish święty); most Romanian (and Hungarian) Slavic borrowings turned the nasal vowels (which were de-nasalized in most Slavic languages) into vowel + n (vz. luncă, rând, mândru, muncă, smântână, etc).

  2. Romanian /ɨ/ may also come from any vowel + /n/ [1], not just /a/; off the top of my head: /e/ (pavimentum -> pământ, tener -> tânăr, fenum -> fân), /u/ (aduncus -> adânc). Neither of those are later loans.

  3. The same process from 2) also happened extensively with borrowings from other languages (e.g. gond -> gând).

Taken all together, it may be probable that the /ɨ/ (which btw, sounds more like /ɯ/ with most speakers) evolved by merging a series of nasal vowels that existed at some point in time; a hint in that direction is that /ɨ/ was written with Cyrillic ѫ in the old Romanian alphabet (the letter used for ǫ /õ/ in Church Slavonic).

Once established, the /ɨ/ became an euphonic alternative for almost any vowel, depending on the consonants surrounding it.

[1] I'm pretty sure that it also happened with vowel + /r/, though I cannot think of any example right now ;-)


In words of Latin origin, Romanian /ɨ/ arises from a few different places:

  • Latin /a/ followed by /n/: cânt < canto, sfânt < sanctum. The diphthong in pâine, câine is due to assimilation to the following vowel.
  • The Latin word /in/. This is not a regular sound change in that not all Latin instances of /i/ followed by /n/ are centralized, but all forms of the preposition "in" have /ɨ/.
  • The vowel /i/ preceded by /rr/ or initial /r/: râu < rivum, urî < horrire.

Other instances of /ɨ/ are generally loans. Also, there are numerous words of Latin origin which appear to violate the rules above, but these are usually later reborrowings from Latin or sometimes French.

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    sfânt is not from Latin sanctum, it's from Slavic. But sânt is. Jun 19 at 20:18

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