The phoneme inventory of Romanian consists of seven vowels, two or four semivowels, and twenty consonants. In addition, as with all languages, other phonemes can occur occasionally in interjections or recent borrowings.
The table below gives a series of word examples for each vowel.
|/a/||Open central unrounded|| apă /ˈa.pə/ water |
balaur /baˈla.ur/ dragon
cânta /kɨnˈta/ to sing
|/e/||Mid front unrounded|| erou /eˈrow/ hero |
necaz /neˈkaz/ trouble
umple /ˈum.ple/ to fill
|/i/||Close front unrounded|| insulă /ˈin.su.lə/ island |
salcie /ˈsal.tʃi.e/ willow
topi /toˈpi/ to melt
|/o/||Mid back rounded|| oraş /oˈraʃ/ city |
copil /koˈpil/ child
acolo /aˈko.lo/ there
|/u/||Close back rounded|| uda /uˈda/ to water |
aduc /aˈduk/ I bring
simplu /ˈsim.plu/ simple
|/ə/||Mid central unrounded|| ăsta /ˈəs.ta/ this |
păros /pəˈros/ hairy
albă /ˈal.bə/ white (fem. sg.)
|/ɨ/||Close central unrounded|| înspre /ˈɨn.spre/ toward |
cârnat /kɨrˈnat/ sausage
coborî /ko.boˈrɨ/ to descend
While most of these vowels are relatively straightforward and similar or identical to those in many other languages, the close central unrounded vowel /ɨ/ is uncommon as a phoneme and especially uncommon amongst Indo-European languages.
In addition to the seven core vowels, in a number of words of foreign origin (predominantly French) the close-mid front rounded vowel /ø/ has been maintained without replacing it with any of the existing phonemes, at least in careful speech. These words have become part of the Romanian vocabulary and follow the usual inflexion rules, so that vowel /ø/, though less common, could be considered as part of the Romanian vowel set. Examples: bleu /blø/ ('light blue'), pasteuriza /pas.tø.riˈza/ ('to pasteurize'), loess /løs/ ('loess').
Similarly, recent borrowings from languages such as French and German contain the close front rounded vowel /y/: ecru /eˈkry/, tul /tyl/, fürer /ˈfy.rer/. Older words that originally had this sound have had it replaced with /ju/, /i.u/, /u/, or /i/. For instance, Turkish kül became ghiul /ɡjul/ ('large ring'), German Düse gave duză /ˈdu.zə/ ('nozzle'), French bureau became birou /biˈrow/ ('desk', 'office'), etc.
|/aj/||rai /raj/ 'heaven', aisberg /ˈajs.berɡ/ 'iceberg'|
|/aw/||sau /saw/ 'or', august /ˈaw.ɡust/ 'August'|
|/ej/||lei /lej/ 'lions', trei /trej/ 'three'|
|/ew/||greu /ɡrew/ 'heavy', mereu /meˈrew/ 'always'|
|/ij/||mii /mij/ 'thousands', vii /vij/ 'you come'|
|/iw/||fiu /fiw/ 'son', scriu /skriw/ 'I write'|
|/oj/||oi /oj/ 'sheep (pl.)', noi /noj/ 'we'|
|/ow/||ou /ow/ 'egg', bou /bow/ 'ox'|
|/uj/||pui /puj/ 'you put', gălbui /ɡəlˈbuj/ 'yellowish'|
|/əj/||răi /rəj/ 'bad (masc. pl.)', văi /vəj/ 'valleys'|
|/əw/||dulău /duˈləw/ 'mastiff', rău /rəw/ 'bad (masc. sg.)'|
|/ɨj/||câine /ˈkɨj.ne/ 'dog', mâinile /ˈmɨj.ni.le/ 'the hands'|
|/ɨw/||râu /rɨw/ 'river', brâu /brɨw/ 'girdle'|
|/uw/||eu continuu /konˈti.nuw/ 'I continue' (partly replaced by eu continui)|
|/e̯a/||beată /ˈbe̯a.tə/ 'drunk' (f.), mea /me̯a/ 'my (fem. sg.)'|
|/e̯o/||Gheorghe /ˈɡe̯or.ɡe/ 'George', ne-o ploua /ne̯o.ploˈwa/ 'it would rain us'|
|/e̯u/||(only in word combinations) pe-un /pe̯un/ 'on a'|
|/ja/||biatâ /bja.tə/ 'poor' (f.), mi-a zis /mjaˈzis/ '(he) told me'|
|/je/||fier /fjer/ 'iron', miere /ˈmje.re/ 'honey'|
|/jo/||iod /jod/ 'iodine', chior /ˈkjor/ 'one-eyed'|
|/ju/||iubit /juˈbit/ 'loved', chiuvetă /kjuˈve.tə/ 'sink'|
|/o̯a/||găoace /ɡəˈo̯a.tʃe/ 'shell', foarte /ˈfo̯ar.te/ 'very'|
|/we/||piuez /piˈwez/ 'I felt (a fabric)', înşeuez /ɨn.ʃeˈwez/ 'I saddle (a horse)'|
|/wa/||băcăuan /bə.kəˈwan/ 'inhabitant of Bacău', ziua /ˈzi.wa/ 'the day'|
|/wə/||două /ˈdo.wə/ 'two (fem.)', plouă /ˈplo.wə/ 'it rains'|
|/wɨ/||plouând /ploˈwɨnd/ 'raining', ouând /oˈwɨnd/ 'laying (eggs)'|
|/e̯aj/||ceainic /ˈtʃe̯aj.nik/ 'tea pot', socoteai /so.koˈte̯aj/ 'you were reckoning'|
|/e̯aw/||beau /be̯aw/ 'I drink', spuneau /spuˈne̯aw/ 'they were saying'|
|/jaj/||mi-ai dat /mjajˈdat/ 'you gave me', ia-i /jaj/ 'take them'|
|/jaw/||iau /jaw/ 'I take', suiau /suˈjaw/ 'they were climbing'|
|/jej/||iei /jej/ 'you take', piei /pjej/ 'skins'|
|/jew/||maieu /maˈjew/ 'undershirt', eu /jew/ 'I (myself)'|
|/joj/||i-oi da /jojˈda/ 'I might give him', picioică /piˈtʃjoj.kə/ 'potato (regionalism)'|
|/jow/||maiou /maˈjow/ 'undershirt'|
|/o̯aj/||leoaică /leˈo̯aj.kə/ 'lioness', rusoaică /ruˈso̯aj.kə/ 'Russian woman'|
|/waj/||înşeuai /ɨn.ʃeˈwaj/ '(you) were saddling'|
|/waw/||înşeuau /ɨn.ʃeˈwaw/ '(they) were saddling'|
|/wəj/||rouăi /ˈro.wəj/ 'of the dew'|
|/e̯o̯a/||pleoape /ˈple̯o̯a.pe/ 'eyelids', leoarcă /ˈle̯o̯ar.kə/ 'soaking (wet)'|
|/jo̯a/||creioane /kreˈjo̯a.ne/ 'pencils', aripioară /a.riˈpjo̯a.rə/ 'winglet'|
As can be seen from the examples above, the diphthongs /e̯a/ and /o̯a/ contrast with /ja/ and /wa/ respectively, though there are no perfect minimal pairs to contrast /o̯a/ and /wa/. and, impressionistically, the two pairs sound very similar In some regional pronunciations, the diphthong /o̯a/ tends to be pronounced as a single vowel /ɒ/.
Other triphthongs such as /juj/ and /o̯aw/ occur sporadically in interjections and uncommon words.
Borrowings from English have enlarged the set of ascending diphthongs to also include /jə/, /we/, /wi/, and /wo/, or have extended their previously limited use. Generally, these borrowings have retained their original spellings, but their pronunciation has been adapted to the Romanian phonology. The table below gives some examples.
|/jə/||yearling /ˈjər.linɡ/ 'one-year-old animal (colt)'|
|/we/||western /ˈwes.tern/ 'Western (movie set in the American West)'|
|/wi/||tweeter /ˈtwi.tər/ 'high-pitch loudspeaker'|
|/wo/||walkman /ˈwok.men/ 'pocket-sized tape/CD player'|
Borrowings such as whisky and week-end are listed in some dictionaries as starting with the ascending diphthong /wi/, which corresponds to the original English pronunciation, but in others they appear with the descending diphthong /uj/, closer to the actual way these words are pronounced by native Romanian speakers.
|Plosive||p b||t d||k ɡ|
|Fricative||f v||s z||ʃ ʒ||h|
Besides the consonants in this table, a few consonants can have allophones:
The Romanian consonant set is almost the same as that in Italian, with a few exceptions: The Italian palatal consonants /ɲ/, /ʎ/ and affricate /ʣ/ are missing in standard Romanian, which in turn has the fricative /ʒ/ and the "glottal" /h/.
Here are some examples, with an approximate indication of how each consonant is pronounced, intended for English native speakers.
|/p/||p in speak (1)||pas /pas/ step, spate /ˈspa.te/ back, cap /kap/ head|
|/b/||b in boy||ban /ban/ money, zbor /zbor/ I fly, rob /rob/ slave|
|/t/||t in stop (1)(2)||tare /ˈta.re/ hard, stai /staj/ you stay, sat /sat/ village|
|/d/||d in day (2)||dacă /ˈda.kə/ if, vinde /ˈvin.de/ he sells, cad /kad/ I fall|
|/k/||k in sky (1)||cal /ˈkal/ horse, ascund /asˈkund/ I hide, sac /sak/ sack|
|/ɡ/||g in go||gol /ɡol/ empty, pungă /ˈpun.ɡə/ bag, drag /draɡ/ dear|
|/ts/||ts in nuts||ţară /ˈtsa.rə/ country, aţă /ˈa.tsə/ thread, soţ /sots/ husband|
|/tʃ/||ch in chin||cer /tʃer/ sky, vacile /ˈva.tʃi.le/ the cows, maci /matʃʲ/ poppies|
|/dʒ/||j in jingle||ger /dʒer/ frost, magic /ˈma.dʒik/ magical, rogi /rodʒʲ/ you ask|
|/m/||m in man||mic /mik/ small, amar /aˈmar/ bitter, pom /pom/ tree|
|/n/||n in name||nor /nor/ cloud, inel /iˈnel/ ring, motan /mo'tan/ tomcat|
|/f/||f in fine||foc /fok/ fire, afară /aˈfa.rə/ out, pantof /panˈtof/ shoe|
|/v/||v in voice||val /val/ wave, covor /koˈvor/ carpet, mov /mov/ mauve|
|/s/||s in sound||sare /ˈsa.re/ salt, case /ˈka.se/ houses, ales /a'les/ chosen|
|/z/||z in zone||zid /zid/ wall, mazăre /ˈma.zə.re/ pea, orez /oˈrez/ rice|
|/ʃ/||sh in shy||şarpe /ˈʃar.pe/ snake, aşa /aˈʃa/ so, oraş /oˈraʃ/ city|
|/ʒ/||s in measure||jar /ʒar/ embers, ajutor /a.ʒuˈtor/ help, vrej /vreʒ/ stalk|
|/h/||h in hope||horn /horn/ chimney, pahar /paˈhar/ glass, duh /duh/ spirit|
|/l/||l in like||lung /lunɡ/ long, alună /aˈlu.nə/ hazelnut, fel /fel/ sort|
|/r/||Italian r (3)||repede /ˈre.pe.de/ quickly, tren /tren/ train, măr /mər/ apple|
(1) Note that p in speak and p in peak are not the same sounds: The second is aspirated. Romanian /p/ is not aspirated. The same holds for /t/ and /k/.
(2) /t/ and /d/ are only similar to their English counterparts. While in English they are alveolar, pronounced by touching the alveolar ridge with the tip of the tongue, in Romanian and other Romance languages they are dental, obtained by touching the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth with the flat of the tongue. The same remark is valid for consonants /n/, /s/, and /z/, although the difference is not as obvious.
The interpretation commonly taken is that an underlying morpheme /i/ palatalizes the consonant and is subsequently deleted. However, /sʲ/, /tʲ/, and /dʲ/ become [ɕ], [tsʲ], and [zʲ], respectively, with very few phonetically justified exceptions, included in the table below, which shows that this palatalization can occur for all consonants.
|/p/||rupi /rupʲ/ 'you tear'||/b/||arabi /aˈrabʲ/ 'Arabs'|
|/t/||proşti /proʃtʲ/ 'stupid (masc. pl.)'||/d/||nădejdi /nəˈdeʒdʲ/ 'hopes'|
|/k/||urechi /uˈrekʲ/ 'ears'||/ɡ/||unghi /unɡʲ/ 'angle'|
|/ts/||roţi /rotsʲ/ 'wheels'||–|
|/tʃ/||faci /fatʃʲ/ 'you do'||/dʒ/||mergi /merdʒʲ/ 'you go'|
|–||/m/||dormi /dormʲ/ 'you sleep'|
|–||/n/||bani /banʲ/ 'money (pl.)'|
|/f/||şefi /ʃefʲ/ 'bosses'||/v/||pleşuvi /pleˈʃuvʲ/ 'bald (masc. pl.)'|
|/s/||bessi /besʲ/ 'Bessi'||/z/||brazi /brazʲ/ 'fir trees'|
|/ʃ/||moşi /moʃʲ/ 'old men'||/ʒ/||breji /breʒʲ/ 'brave (masc. pl.)'|
|/h/||vlahi /vlahʲ/ 'Wallachians'||–|
|–||/l/||şcoli /ʃkolʲ/ 'schools'|
|–||/r/||sari /sarʲ/ 'you jump'|
In certain morphological processes /ʲ/ is replaced by the full vowel /i/, for example
This may explain why /ʲ/ is perceived as a separate sound by native speakers and written with the same letter as the vowel /i/.
The non-syllabic /ʲ/ can be sometimes found inside compound words like câţiva /kɨtsʲˈva/ ('a few') and oriunde /orʲˈun.de/ ('wherever'), where the first morpheme happened to end in this /ʲ/. A word that contains this phoneme twice is cincizeci /tʃintʃʲˈzetʃʲ/ ('fifty').
In old Romanian and still in some local pronunciations there is another example of such a non-syllabic, non-semivocalic phoneme, derived from /u/, which manifests itself as labialization of the preceding sound. The usual IPA notation is /ʷ/. It is found at the end of some words after consonants and semivowels, as in un urs, pronounced ('a bear'), or îmi spui ('you tell me'). The disappearance of this phoneme might be attributed to the fact that, unlike /ʲ/, it didn't play any morphological role. It is possibly a trace of Latin endings containing /u/ (-us, -um), this phoneme is related to vowel /u/ used to connect the definite article "l" to the stem of a noun or adjective, as in domn - domnul ('lord - the lord', cf. Latin dominus).
Although not a central part of the Romanian phoneme inventory, other consonants are often used in certain interjections:
Stress is not normally marked in writing, except occasionally to distinguish between homographs, or in dictionaries for the entry words. When it is marked, the main vowel of the stressed syllable receives an accent (usually acute, but sometimes grave), for example véselă - vesélă (jovial, fem. sg. - tableware). If the accent must be placed on low-case letter "i," the dot is normally replaced by the accent: copíi - cópii (children - copies).
In verb conjugation, noun declension, and other word formation processes, stress shifts can occur. Verbs can have homographic forms only distinguished by stress, such as in "el suflă" which can mean "he blows" or "he blew" depending on whether the stress is on the first or the second syllable, respectively. Changing the grammatical category of a word can lead to similar word pairs, such as the verb "a albi" /al'bi/ (to whiten) compared to the adjective "albi" /'albʲ/ (white, masc. pl.).
The distinction between these timing categories may sometimes seem unclear, and definitions vary. In addition, the time intervals between stresses/syllables/morae are in reality only approximately equal, with many exceptions and large deviations having been reported. However, while the actual time may be only approximately equal, the differences are perceptually identical.
In the case of Romanian, consonant clusters are often found both in the syllable onset and coda, which require physical time to be pronounced. The syllable timing rule is then overridden by slowing down the rhythm. Thus, it is seen that stress and syllable timing interact. The sample sentences below, each consisting of six syllables, are illustrative:
The total time length taken by each of these sentences is obviously different, and attempting to pronounce one of them with the same rhythm as the other results in unnatural utterances. Note that the second sentence features in several places the non-syllabic vowel /ʲ/ which has the effect of lengthening the syllable time.
To a lesser extent, but still perceivably, the syllables are extended in time also on one hand by the presence of liquid and nasal consonants, and on the other by that of semivowels in diphthongs and triphthongs, such as shown in the examples below.
|pic - plic||bit - envelope|
|cec - cerc||check - circle|
|zic - zinc||I say - zinc|
|car - chiar||carriage - even|
|sare - soare||salt - sun|
|sta - stea||to stay - star|
|fi - fii||be (inf.) - be (imperative)|
A simple way to evaluate the length of a word, and compare it to another, consists in pronouncing it repeatedly at a natural speech rate.
In non-emphatic yes/no questions the pitch rises at the end of the sentence until the last stressed syllable. If unstressed syllables follow, they often have a falling intonation, but this is not a rule.
In Transylvanian speech these yes/no questions have a very different intonation pattern, usually with a pitch peak at the beginning of the question: [ai ↗stins lumi↘na]
In selection questions the tone rises at the first element of the selection, and falls at the second.
Wh-questions start with a high pitch on the first word and then the pitch falls gradually toward the end of the sentence.
Repeat questions have a rising intonation.
Tag questions are uttered with a rising intonation.
Unfinished utterances have a rising intonation similar to that of yes/no questions, but the pitch rise is smaller.
Various other intonation patterns are used to express: requests, commands, surprise, suggestion, advice, and so on.