The invisible minority of Europe

Jan 7, 2011 by

To stay with the theme of languages of India, let’s look at the “invisible minority” of Europe: the Roma people, also known as the Gypsies, and their language, Romani.

First of all, although the majority of the Roma people live in Romania, there is no direct connection between the names of the two languages: Romanian and Romani. So what is the connection between the Roma people (who live mostly in Eastern Europe) and India?

For a long time, Europeans did not know where the semi-nomadic Roma people came from. It was a German philologer named Rüdiger who solved the puzzle of their origin — by looking at their language. He was the first to hypothesize — and to successfully prove — that the Roma came from northern India.

The first mentions of the Roma in European sources go back to the early 14th century: in 1322, a Franciscan monk named Symon Semeonis described people living in Crete he called “atsinganoi” (compare with the Russian word for the Roma, tsigane). A quarter of a century later (in 1350, to be precise) Ludolphus of Sudheim mentioned a similar people with a unique language whom he called Mandapolos, a word which some theorize was possibly derived from the Greek word mantes (meaning ‘prophet’ or ‘fortune teller’, and possibly referring to one of the Roma’s most popular occupations in Europe). Around 1360, the Roma established an independent fiefdom (called the Feudum Acinganorum) in Corfu; it became “a settled community and an important and established part of the economy”. By the end of the 14th century, the Roma had reached the Balkans; by 1424, Germany; and by the 16th century, they arrived as far north as Scotland and Sweden. Some Roma took a different root: through North Africa, reaching the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. The two currents — through the Balkans and through North Africa — finally met in France.

But what was the ultimate location where the Roma people originated? This puzzled was first solved by Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger, who in 1782 published his work titled On the Indic Language and Origin of the Gypsies. He used a surprisingly modern methodology, collecting his Romani language data directly from a Romani speaker (which he admitted to find “tiresome and boring”) and his Hindi data from a manual written by a missionary. His idea was this: words and even linguistic structures of the Romani language were just too similar to those of Indo-Aryan languages spoken in northern India, such as Bengali, Hindi and Punjabi, to be just an accident.

This comparison of basic vocabulary stocks — as well as of grammatical patterns — allowed Rüdiger to place the origin of the Roma in northern India (later linguistic studies were able to pinpoint the origin more precisely than that).

So now we know that the Roma came to Europe from northern India, but when did they leave there? This question too can be addressed by looking at linguistic evidence. To do so, we need to look at the evolution of the grammatical gender system in Indo-Aryan languages. Earlier forms of these languages had three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter (just like modern Russian or modern German). However, some time around 1,000 CE Indo-Aryan languages lost the neuter gender. When this happened, most formerly neuter nouns became masculine and the few remaining ones became feminine. This is what happened, for example, in the development of Hindi.

The Romani language is just like Hindi with respect to its grammatical gender system: it has only two genders — masculine and feminine — and the nouns that used to be neuter in early Indo-Aryan languages are now of the same gender in Romani as they are in Hindi. Like in Hindi, the majority of the formerly neuter nouns are masculine in Romani, with the few remaining ones being feminine. And most importantly, it is the same nouns that became feminine in both Hindi and Romani. For instance, the neuter agni ‘fire’ in Prakrit (ancestral language of modern Indo-Aryan languages) became the feminine āga ‘fire’ in Hindi and likewise a feminine jag ‘fire’ in Romani. Since we are talking about hundreds (if not thousands) of formerly neuter nouns, it is statistically highly unlikely that they could all change into the same gender, masculine or feminine, in both Hindi and Romani purely by chance. Imagine you and I toss a coin, hundreds of times over and over: what are the chances that on each toss we will get the same side up?

So the simplest explanation is that the Romani language was spoken in north-central India around 1,000 CE, after the neuter gender was lost and the formerly neuter nouns had been reassigned to masculine or feminine genders. It is, thus, the common ancestor of both Hindi and Romani that lost neuter gender and had the formerly neuter nouns reassigned, not both Hindi and Romani doing it exactly the same way, independently of each other. This means that the Romani exodus from northern India could not have started before the 11th century CE.

This story of the Roma exodus from India around a thousand years ago and their subsequent migration to Europe — based originally purely on linguistic evidence — has recently received further confirmation from genetic studies. In particular, approximately 60% of the total male Balkanic Romani population belongs to the Haplogroup H1a-M82. Generally speaking, the haplogroup H is frequently found among populations of South Asia, in particular in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. Because it is concentrated there, this genetic signature is believed to have arisen in India between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago. In fact, it seems to represent the main Y-haplogroup of the indigenous paleolithic inhabitants of India, because it is the most frequent Y-haplogroup of tribal populations (25-35%); on the other hand, its presence in upper castes is quite rare (around 10%). The high prevalence of South-Asian-specific Y-DNA signature supports the Indian origin of the Roma and a hypothesis of a small number of founders diverging from a single ethnic group in India.

The moral of this story: the languages we speak today, like our physical bodies, carry traces of our history that spans centuries. Oh, and isn’t it ironic that the Roma — the second group most persecuted by the Nazis, after the Jews — are the true descendants of the mythical Aryans?!

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