Romaninet : Beginners' Romani Language

Romani Language

1.1 - Origins

Romani is the only Indo-Aryan language that has been spoken exclusively in Europe since the middle ages. It is part of the phenomenon of Indic diaspora languages spoken by travelling communities of Indian origin outside of India. The name Rom or Řom, which is the self-designation of the speakers, has related cognates in the names of other travelling (peripatetic) communities that speak Indian languages or use an Indic-derived special vocabulary: the Lom of the Caucasus and Anatolia insert Indic vocabulary into their variety of Armenian. The Dom of the Near East, originally metalworkers and entertainers, speak Domari, one of the most conservative modern Indo-Aryan languages. In the Hunza valley in the north of Pakistan there is a population called the Ḍum, who are also metalworkers and musicians, and who speak a Central Indic (i.e. not a local) language. Based on the systematicity of sound changes attested in these languages, we know with a fair degree of certainty that these names all derive from the Indian term ḍom.

Romani Language

1.2 - Proto-Roman

Proto-Romani is believed to have emerged not in the Northwest of India, as is sometimes reported in popular literature (and as was indeed suggested by some nineteenth-century scholars), but in Central India (see already Turner 1926). It shares a number of early developments that are confined to the forerunners of the Central Indian languages, such as šun-'to hear' from Old Indic (Sanskrit) śr̥n-, jakh 'eye' from Old Indic akṣi-, or the phonological shape of the nominalising suffix -ipen (as in sastipen 'health'), from Old Indic -itvana. This combination of features emerged during the early transition stage from Old to Middle Indic, sometime after 500 BAD, and proves that Proto-Romani began its history as a Central Indian language.

Some Old Indic features are retained in Romani, even though they were changed in the group of Central Indian languages. For example, Romani retains the consonant combinations tr and št in words like patrin 'leaf' (from Old Indic patra-) and mišto 'good' (from Old Indic mr̥ṣṭaḥ). These were simplified in the Central languages during the transition to the Middle Indic period, giving patta and miṭṭha respectively.

It appears therefore that speakers of Proto-Romani left the Central Indian region at some point during the first half of the first millennium AD, before the clusters were simplified, and migrated to the northwest, an area that remained unaffected by these changes; this suggestion too was first made by Turner in 1926. Proto-Romani continued, however, to participate in structural changes that affected the bulk of Indic languages throughout the subcontinent, leading into the early New Indic period. These included the simplification of other sound combinations like rp and pt, for example in sap 'snake', via Middle Indic sappa, from Old Indic sarpa, and tato 'hot', via Middle Indic tatta, from Old Indic tapta. They also included grammatical developments, such as the loss of the elaborate Old and Middle Indic nominal case endings and their reduction to a simple opposition between Nominative and Oblique. It is clear, then, that Proto-Romani continued to be part of the subcontinental Indic language environment during the transition period to early New Indic, which took place in medieval times, perhaps around the eighth or ninth century AD.

There are several structural features that Romani shares specifically with the languages of the Northwest, the so-called 'Dardic' languages of India (such as Kashmiri). They include, first, the retention of consonant clusters such as tr and št, which were mentioned above. Other shared conservative features include the retention of consonantal endings such as -s and -n in oblique case endings, and the retention of -n- in words like dand 'tooth' (from Old Indic danta; cf. by contrast Hindi dẫt). But Romani also shares an important innovation with the Dardic languages: the emergence of a new past-tense conjugation, based on the attachment of enclitic pronouns to the participle. The Romani past-tense conjugation forms kerdjom 'I did', kerdjas 'he/she did' and so on emerged from combinations like *kerdo-jo-me 'done-by-me', *kerdo-jo-se 'done by him/her'. This development offers further evidence that Proto-Romani was spoken in the extreme northwestern areas of the Indian subcontinent in medieval times.

Romani Language

1.3 - Early Romani

The Romani language changed dramatically as a result of contact with Byzantine Greek. This justifies defining a later phase in its history, which we call Early Romani. We know somewhat more about the shape of Early Romani than about Proto-Romani, even though it is not documented either, because many Early Romani forms are continued into the present-day dialects of Romani. For example, present-day Romani dialects have numerous different forms for the word 'day': dives, dies, di, zis, zies, diveh, dive, djes, gjes, džive, džes and more. The oldest of those is dives, which corresponds most closely to the Indic divasa. We can therefore assume that Early Romani had the form dives, which was inherited by the dialects, then underwent different changes to its structure in various individual varieties of the language.

We assume that Early Romani was spoken in the Byzantine Empire, centred in Asia Minor, but spread between Anatolia and the Balkans, sometime from around the tenth century AD onwards. The immense Greek influence that Romani absorbed during this period testifies not only to widespread bilingualism among the Rom and to their minority status, but also to a long period of very intense contact with Greek-speaking populations. But there are also other influences. There are numerous Iranian loanwords in Romani (some of them might be attributed to any one of several Iranian languages, including both Persian and Kurdish), including words like diz 'fortress, town' (Persian diz), zor 'strength' (Persian and Kurdish zor), and baxt 'luck' (Persian and Kurdish baxt). Another important contact language was Armenian, which gave Romani words like bov 'oven', kotor 'piece' and grast 'horse'. It is often assumed that contact with Iranian and Armenian occurred before contact with Greek – mainly due to the geographical locations of the languages in our present era. But it is also possible that the Greek, Iranian and Armenian influences were all acquired during the same period; eastern Anatolia, where both Iranian languages and Armenian were spoken, was part of the Byzantine Empire.

The Greek influence on Romani includes numerous lexical items, such as drom 'way', luludi 'flower', fóros 'town', kókalo 'bone', zumí 'soup', skamín 'chair' and many more, including the numerals eftá 'seven', oxtó 'eight', enjá 'nine'. There are also morphological borrowings from Greek, including the marker of ordinal numbers (pandž-to 'fifth'), nominal endings (prezident-os 'president', slug-as 'slave', čač-imos 'truth'), and endings that identify loan verbs (mog-in-ava 'I can', intr-iz-ava 'I enter'). Greek has also had an immense impact on the syntactic typology of Romani. Features such as the preposed definite article (o čhavo 'the boy'), verb-object word order (xav manřo 'I eat bread'), postposed relative clauses introduced by a general relativiser (o manuš kaj giljavel 'the man who sings'), and the split between factual and non-factual complementisers – džanav kaj del biršind 'I know that it is raining', but džanav te ginavav 'I know how to read (lit. that I read)' – all these can be attributed to Greek influence.

Romani Language

1.4 - Dialectology

There is a tendency in Romani linguistics to identify, tentatively at least, the dialect groups of the Balkan Dialects, the Vlax Dialects, the Central Dialects, the Northwestern Dialects, the Northeastern Dialects, the British Dialects and the Iberian Dialects.

There is no ‘easy’ way to classify dialects. One must first select the criteria on which a classification is to be based. Sometimes dialect classification is based strictly on geography, sometimes it is based strictly on the structural features – lexicon, phonology, morphology – of the dialects. In the latter case, it is necessary to select those features that are of global relevance and that can be used as a reference grid to compare the different dialects and to determine the relationships among them. Scholars often disagree on which features should be given greater attention as a basis for a classification. As a result, is not unusual to find different classification models. There is also an objective difficulty: some dialects may share ‘typical’ features with two distinct dialect branches. Such transitional dialects are part of any linguistic landscape. It is therefore almost impossible to postulate clear-cut divisions between dialect groups or ‘branches’. Several factors are responsible for dialect differentiation in Romani:

  • The migration of Romani-speaking populations throughout Europe, in different periods
  • The geographical spread of structural changes, creating ‚isoglosses
  • The influence of contact languages
  • Specific changes that are limited to the structure of individual dialects

The following table shows a possible classification of Romani dialects:

ARLI “zis-dialects” Southern Northern Southern Northern
Krim Bugurdži Agia Varvara KALDERAŠ Roman Bergitka
Sepečides Drindari Čergari LOVARI “ROMUNGRO” Bohemian
URSARI Kalajdži GURBET Mačvaja Vend East-Slovak
etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.  


Lithuanian Sinte Manuš Finnish Welsh (Caló)
Lotfika Estrexarja (Scandoromani) (Angloromani) (Errumantxela)
Polska Manouche RÓMANES    
Xaladitka etc.    

CAPITALS = dialect clusters
 ( ) = Para-Romani varieties are ethnolects of the respective majority language with (mostly lexical) elements from Romani; e.g. Angloromani is a variety of English with Romani elements. Speakers of such varieties often label their ethnolects “their Romani language”

Romani Culture

The Roma usually identify themselves and one another based on the external features of language, appearance (in particular women’s dress), and occupations (in particular men’s occupations). Internal features such as customs, practices and attitudes constitute additional identifying characteristics but are more likely to vary among different groups. Some aspects of language, dress, and occupation may also vary. When discussing a population as dispersed as the Roma, it is therefore essential to consider internal diversity as well as similarities.

Not all Roma populations use the word Roma to designate their ethnic group, but this word usually appears in some derivation or other either in the name of the language spoken by the group (romanes, romaneh, roman, romacilikanes, etc.), or in the terms used within the group to denote ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ (rom and romni). In this way, we can define the boundaries of the population that one might refer to collectively as Roma or Romani.

Romani Culture

2.1 - Social organisation

Roma society is based around the group of close kin, which in most traditional Roma communities forms a single household. In settled communities, members of the extended family share living quarters. In travelling communities extended families travel together and share resting sites. Regardless of type of dwelling, the extended family is the unit within which resources are shared, work is organised, and food is prepared and shared.

The typical household unit will include the head of the family and his wife, their married sons and daughters-in-law (borja) with their children, as well as unmarried sons and daughters and occasionally divorced or widowed daughters who return to the parental household. Beyond the extended kin group, most Roma identify as belonging to a ‘nation’ or specific ethnic subgroup. This includes kin groups that may or may not be directly related but share external features such as the specific variety of the Roma language, a particular dress code, such as the type of headscarf or apron, length and style of skirt, and hairstyle, for women, or the style of hat, and presence and style of moustache, among the men.

The ‘nation’ or ethnic sub-group often shares a traditional region of settlement or origin, as well as a typical profile of occupations and trades. In southeastern Europe, ethnic sub-groups tend to derive their names from their traditional or historical trade. Sometimes, group names are derived from the region of settlement or the religion adopted by the group. Members of an ethnic sub-group or ‘nation’ usually intermarry. They tend to share customs surrounding important life-cycle events such as birth, marriage, and burial, as well as festivities, and they often share values, attitudes and fashions in a variety of domains. An ethnic subgroup usually shares the same kind of leadership and conflict-resolution structures. Members of the ethnic sub-group have a duty to attend burials of other members, even if they were not personally acquainted with the deceased or their close family.

Romani Culture

2.2 - Gender roles and occupations

Both men and women have roles within the household itself as well as in trade relations with outsiders, but these roles are typically regulated in different ways. Women are in charge of preparing food and cleaning the household, while men are usually in charge of production that takes place within the household, for example the production of tools such as baskets or copperware that are sold to customers. Both men and women take care of children within the household, including on those occasions where one of the parents is working outside the house. Care of children takes place within the household unit, and so children are often in the care of adults who are not their parents. Both men and women entertain and perform both within the households and professionally as storytellers, singers, and dancers, though only men tend to play musical instruments.

Outside the household, women tend to engage in economic activities that bring them in contact with a wide, general public rather than with just a selected, particular trade niche. In some countries they collect materials which they then trade, or engage in door to door hawking or selling of small artefacts. Frequent occupations of women in very traditional Roma communities are begging and fortune-telling. Men on the other hand engage in more specialised trade, which takes place at markets or with designated trade partners. Collection of scrap material for recycling is an activity that men share with women, though men will tend to specialise in metal objects. Men travel by car to provide door-to-door specialised household services such as tarmac construction, installing gutters or windows, or cutting trees.

Specialised, well-established craftsmen produce musical instruments and the relatively well-off among the Roma tradesmen typically sell cars, carpets, art, or antique furniture. Men and women work as seasonal labourers in many communities. Gender roles tend to be ritualised around ceremonies marking birth, marriage, and death. Women do not usually travel on their own to represent their close family at burials, but may accompany their husbands to do so. Marriage will usually require the consent of the bride’s parents, for which the groom’s family makes a formal request. In more traditional communities, a bride price is arranged as compensation to the bride’s family, though dowries also exist. Marriage by elopement is common in many communities. Almost invariably, married women will join their husband’s household, giving rise to a special relationship between the husband’s mother, who is usually the head female in the family, and her daughters-in-law (borja). Marriage within the ethnic sub-group is preferred.

Romani Culture

2.3 - Leadership

Since the family is the most important unit in Roma society, it is the head of the household who is the most immediate and most relevant leadership figure for most Rom. By default, this role falls to the eldest man in the extended household, though sometimes an enterprising and particularly successful son may take on the more strategic aspects of deciding the families priorities, leaving the more ceremonial aspects of representing the family to an elderly father or uncle.

Beyond the extended household, leadership is a function that is related to specific tasks and contexts. Many Roma communities have the institution of a court (often called kris) which is entrusted with community- internal conflict resolution. The primary function of the court is to secure the agreement of conflicting parties to a compromise solution, and thus to remove conflict, as far as possible without involving outside authorities.

Courts tend to have tightly-regulated procedures that are transmitted orally between generations, and are therefore prone to change and modification and thus appear in slightly different forms in each and every group. Courts may either propose a modus vivendi to the conflicting parties, or in the case of an injustice that has been brought about one of the parties the court may impose penalties on the guilty party. Court procedures can be initiated by individuals arguing against other individuals; however, they are ultimately seen as a process of mediation between the families of the two parties involves. Conflicts within families are resolved by the head of the family and are seldom brought before the court. Although procedures are regulated, there is usually no permanent membership of courts. Instead, individuals whose experience and impartiality are agreed on are invited by the conflict parties to serve as arbiters in the specific proceedings on their case.

Among some Roma populations, recognition of arbiters is informal, and individuals may simply enjoy a reputation of experienced arbiters who are frequently summoned to participate in courts. Among others, successful arbiters hold a life-long title – e.g. rechtsprechari among the Sinte of Germany. Among the Roma of central Poland the institution of the court is missing. In its place we find, exceptionally, a single person in a position of authority– the šero Rom or ‘head Rom’. The title is usually passed on to a son, nephew or other close relation of the predecessor in agreement with the heads of relevant families, and is thus a kind of combination of hereditary and elected office. There are few other examples of individuals in such a position of authority over an entire community. Many Roma settlements have a recognised person in authority, usually the head of one of the more influential families, who is often referred to as a ‘head man’ (baro, or Rom baro). This person’s authority is usually derived from his family’s status, wealth and influence among the local Roma community. This authority is often amplified by external recognition through local or regional officials seeking a dialogue of some kind or other with the Roma community.

Romani Culture

2.4 - Language and culture

The Roma language is the most obvious characteristic of Roma culture. A person whose family language is Romani is considered to be a Rom. Romani is generally spoken in the family, and with other Roma who may or not be related. It is usually absent from schools, media, and public institutions. But in recent years there have been many initiatives all over Europe to establish Romani-language media such as newspapers, radio and television programmes, and websites. Especially electronic communication in Romani via chat forums and email networks is flourishing. There is no official written version of Romani, and users of these media usually improvise a form of spelling that mirrors their own local pronunciation of the language.

Various features of the Roma language represent cultural notions that are specific to the Rom. Perhaps the most obvious is the absence of ‘neutral’ words for ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘boy’ and ‘girl’, and ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. When using any of these concepts, speakers must specify whether the individual that is being referred to is an insider, i.e. part of the group (e.g. a Rom ‘man’ or romni ‘woman’), or an outsider (usually gadžo ‘man’ or gadži ‘woman’). A further noteworthy feature of the language is the tendency to create new names for surrounding nations, rather than simply adopt a word that is similar in sound to those nations’ self-appellation. In the Balkans, for instance, Greeks are referred to by the Roma as balame, Turks and Muslims in general are referred to koraxane, the latter derived from the name of the Karakhanide medieval Turkic state in Central Asia. Orthodox Christians are referred to as das, an Indic word meaning ‘slave’, in a word play based on the similarity to term ‘Slavs’ in Greek (as in English), and across Europe Jews are called bibolde or ‘non-baptised’.

Attempts to associate the origin of customs and beliefs with the origin of individual terms denoting them have not always proven fruitful, however. Some ancient Indic terms are used for Christian concepts acquired in all likelihood in Europe, as in rašaj ‘priest’ and trušul ‘cross’. On the other hand, terms like kris ‘court’ and magardo ‘polluted’ are derived from Greek, though the associated concepts are often believed to be much more ancient. For this reason, attempts to use the composition of Romani vocabulary to reconstruct the ‘original’ Roma culture or the environment from which the ancestors of the Roma originated have usually proved futile. The fact that the Romani language has been retained for such a long time testifies to its important role as a token of identity. Traditional Roma families will usually insist on speaking Romani within the family and in all interaction with other Rom.

However, language learning is considered a natural, necessary skill, and children are accustomed from a very young age to learn the languages of the surrounding populations. Romani remains the language of emotion and the language that is used among Roma, and therefore children and adults alike will tend to switch back into Romani when addressing fellow Roma, whether family members or strangers. This has little to do with ‘secrecy’, which is often the perception that outsiders associate with such language preferences, and more to do with language acting as a symbol of identity and emotion, and as a further boundary separating the outer world from the world of the Rom. Some Roma communities, however, have abandoned Romani as the everyday language of the family, as a result of pressure from the authorities and a policy of direct repression by imposing penalties on language use.

This has been the case in most Scandinavian countries, in Britain, in Spain and Portugal, and in parts of Hungary. It is interesting that even in these regions, Roma communities continue to use vocabulary derived from the Romani language, which they embed into conversations in the majority language (English, Portuguese, and so on). In this way, language continues to serve as a boundary between insiders and outsiders.

Romani Culture

2.5 - The position of school and school attendance

Traditional Roma families educate their children by allowing them to participate in all family activities, including in economic activities. Children observe, participate, and gradually assume a share of responsibility for the extended household. There is no initiation ceremony and no formal testing of acquired skills or knowledge. School is a Gadže institution. It represents everything that outsiders stand for, and everything that separates Roma from outsiders: Rigid rules, obedience toward a person in authority who is not part of the family, oppression of children’s own initiative and withholding responsibility from them, imposition of arbitrary schedules, and perhaps the most difficult of all, partition of children from the rest of their family for long hours.

School is thus seen as interfering, potentially, with everyday Roma life. Indeed, it is seen as a threat since it removes children from their parents’ sphere of influence, and weakens their confidence in the ways and traditions of the Roma household. The school situation thus conflicts with Roma morality, with its protection of the family unit, and with the natural direction of education in the Roma home, which teaches children to rely on their own assessment of a situation rather than to follow strict formulaic behaviour instructions. For travelling Roma households, or those who rely on their children’s support in seasonal work, obligatory school attendance also constitutes a practical obstacle. Finally, mixing with non-Roma children in adolescence carries with it the danger of romantic liaisons with outsiders that threaten to alienate Roma children from their homes and traditions, and even to separate them from their families permanently. In many countries of central and eastern Europe, integration with other children was limited as a result of the almost automatic referral of Roma children to special needs schools.

Such schools only contributed, however, to the stigmatisation of the Roma, while still disrupting traditional family life and weakening parents’ ability to act as successful role models. In most Roma communities, it is now recognised that school cannot be avoided at younger ages. Families reluctantly send their children to school, hoping at least that they will benefit from the opportunity to acquire some key skills such as basic literacy, which can prove useful to the family as a whole. Many Roma communities have learned to integrate the presence of the school institution into their Roma way of life, by regarding school as the first concentrated opportunity that their children have to observe the ways of the Gadže and to practice the maintenance of the demarcation line between Roma and Gadže. Traditional Roma suspicion towards schools as Gadže institutions is almost invariably reinforced by hostile attitudes toward Roma children on the part of the majority children and their parents, and very often by the teachers and the school establishment. This adds to the pain of Roma parents, who feel reluctant yet forced to abandon their children to the emotional and often physical abuse of being an unwanted minority in an unwelcoming environment, ignorant of their own needs and values and confident in the supremacy of its own.

The strategy that most traditional Roma families prefer to pursue is to send their children to primary school, allowing them relative freedom of attendance and even encouraging them to skip school occasionally as a way of signalling that loyalty to the family and participation in important family events has precedence over anything else. As parents, they will attempt to maintain respectful but distanced relationship with the school, always siding with their children in the event of conflict as yet another way to teach their children the value of mutual support and reciprocal loyalty. Together with their children they will endure any hardships encountered by them at school, reminding themselves that this is an opportunity for the children to obtain a close understanding of Gadže values and priorities, an understanding on which they can later on draw in transactions with the Gadže.

Most Roma parents withdraw their children from school before they reach puberty. Parents often give several reasons for this. Most commonly cited is the fear of drugs, violence and other threatening behaviour that is often associated with secondary schools especially in deprived areas. Another is the fear of alienation from their home environment, and yet a further, more specific reason is the fear that boys and girls might be called to participate together in sex education classes, which, in the Roma context, would shame them and require much effort to restore their honour in the eyes of others within the Roma community. But it is not just sex education that is the cause of the anxiety; due to its content it is cited overtly as the most symbolic of situations that might bring shame upon the young adolescents. In fact, once children reach puberty they become responsible and so susceptible to the conditions of shame and honour in any potential situation.

At this stage of their lives, they must therefore return to the community where every aspect of their behaviour can be scrutinised to make sure that their behaviour is honourable. Absence for long parts of the day without being in the company of adults, whether family or neighbours, means escape from this scrutiny and might make them vulnerable to suspicions of dishonourable behaviour, whether baseless or not.

Romani Culture

2.6 - Outlook

There are some special challenges in trying to understand Roma society and culture. For a start, Roma tend to live a segregated life, torn apart from majority society through generations and centuries of exclusion and suspicion. Consequently, few outsiders gain first-hand experience with Roma cultural practices. These remain hidden to most people, and thus they become the subject of speculation, fantasy, and pre-conception. While there is growing number of public displays and information sources on Roma traditions and customs, both in the form of published academic research and media reports and in the form of self-depiction by Roma associations, activists, and writers, direct and reliable information on Roma is still more difficult to access in the public domain than information on the dominant majority society of any individual country or region in Europe.

At the same time, certain images of Roma continue to prevail in mainstream fiction, film, and folklore. For this reason, discussion of Roma culture seldom takes place in a neutral and unbiased space. Most Europeans have some kind of association with the word ‘Gypsy’, based on images that are transmitted through mainstream cultural outlets of various kinds. The absence of a tradition of literacy and public institutions within Roma society confines Roma culture largely to the private domain of the home and closed communities and thus makes it inaccessible to outsiders unless they undertake a special effort to become acquainted with Roma and their way of life and values. In writing about Roma culture we are therefore challenged to do more than simply inform; we must also undo much of the process of accumulation of incorrect information based on hearsay, projection, and fantasy.

In the previous passages, the reader may have come across a description of certain Roma customs and values that provide the seed, when interpreted out of context, for some of prejudices that surround Roma in the eyes of the majority population of many countries. When discussing Roma, just like any other nation, it is clear that values, attitudes, and cultural practices are best understood when examined in context, in the deeper meaning that they have to those practising them and in light of the manner in which such practices help maintain a community’s cohesion and sense of self-esteem. Roma culture is no different. It serves a purpose, namely the maintenance of the community and the family in its very core. At the same time we must always remember that Roma culture, like every other culture, is not static, but dynamic and subject to variation and change. Practically none of the practices or beliefs described in this text are the property of all Roma families and communities without exception. There are always different ways of doing things, and attitudes of individuals and communities evolve and are adjusted to changing realities and circumstances as well as to outside influences. Today more than ever before, Roma society is in a stage of transition, with new opportunities being sought by many of its members, especially but not exclusively those of the younger generation. Inevitably, social change leads to cultural change. The reality of Roma culture is therefore complex and multilayered.

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