The Transnistrian Civil War was largely fought over language and cultural rights. Naturally, Russian is the dominant language in the country but there are a range of languages spoken in this fascinating strip of land due to the amount of people and empires that have crossed it in centuries gone by.
Whilst many people assume that Russian is the only language spoken in Russian dominated Transnistria, if you spend a lot of time in the country with your ears open you’ll hear a bizarre range of languages spoken that take you on a journey through the turbulent heritage of this historically rich country that has been the crossroads for many cultures.
The official Languages of Transnistria
Russian – Of course, the primary language of Transnistria is Russian. It’s the first of the three official languages of Transnistria. It’s also widely spoken in neighboring Moldova also due to the Russian influence on the country throughout the years of the Soviet Union.
Romanian – Moldovans still have a small presence in Transnistria and as a result the Romanian language is part of the country’s three official languages. Romanian is a part of the Eastern Romance sub-branch of Romance languages, a linguistic group that evolved from several dialects of Vulgar Latin which separated from the Western Romance languages in the course of the period from the 5th to the 8th centuries. Romanian is also known as Moldovan in Moldova, although the Constitutional Court of Moldova ruled in 2013 that “the official language of the republic is Romanian”.
Ukrainian – The third official language of Transnistria is Ukrainian which is an old East Slavic language from the early medieval state of Kievan Rus’. After the fall of the Kievan Rus the language developed into a form called the Ruthenian language. The Ukrainian language has been in common use since the late 17th century, associated with the Cossack culture. From 1804 until the Russian Revolution, the Ukrainian language was banned from schools in the Russian Empire. It has always maintained a sufficient base in Western Ukraine, where the language was never banned, in its folk songs, itinerant musicians, and prominent authors. The language retains a degree of mutual intelligibility with Belarusian, Polish and Russian
Non-official languages of Transnistria
Bulgarian – The Bessarabian Bulgarians are a Bulgarian minority group of the historical region of Bessarabia, inhabiting parts of Ukraine, Moldova, and Transnistria. They settled in Bessarabia at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, at the time of feudal sedition in the Ottoman Empire, and after the Russo-Turkish Wars of the period. Particularly strong waves of emigration emerged after the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1806–1812 and 1828-1829. Today, they speak a dialect of Bulgarian and can be found in various parts of Transnistria. Mostly in the village of Parkani between Tiraspol and Bender, which is populated by around 60% Bessarabian Bulgarians and is home to a Bulgarian palace of culture from the Soviet Union.
German – Although few and far between, there are some elderly descendants of the Bessarabia Germans still living in isolated villages in Transnistria and speaking an old dialect of German. The Bessarabia Germans were an ethnic group who lived in Bessarabia (today part of the Republic of Moldova, Transnistria and south-western Ukraine) between 1814 and 1940. From 1814 to 1842, around 9,000 of them immigrated from the German areas Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria, some Prussian areas of modern-day Poland and Alsace, France, to the Russian governorate of Bessarabia at the Black Sea. The area, bordering on the Black Sea, was part of the Russian Empire, in the form of Novorossiya; it later became the Bessarabia Governorate.
Throughout their 125-year history, the Bessarabia Germans were an overwhelmingly rural population. Until their moving to the so-called Greater Germany during the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, they were a minority consisting of 93,000 people who made up some 3% of the population. They were distinguished from the Black Sea Germans who settled to the east of Odessa, and from the Dobrujan Germans in Dobruja.
Roma – the Roma Gypsy population of Transnistria was decimated during the genocide they suffered during WW2. But there are some Roma populated areas in Transnistria where Russian and Roma languages are spoken side by side. The Roma language and its origins are fascinating. It’s an Indo-Aryan macrolanguage spoken by the Romani Gypsy communities across Europe. It’s believed that seven varieties of Romani are divergent enough to be considered languages of their own. The largest of these are Vlax Romani which is spoken by about half a million people, Balkan Romani which is spoken by around 600,000 people,and Sinte Romani spoken by around 300,000 people. Like in Transnistria, many Romani communities speak mixed languages based on the surrounding language with retained Romani-derived vocabulary and these are known by linguists as Para-Romani varieties, rather than dialects of the Romani language itself.