The Elusive Roma and their Linguistic Legacy

Nov 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in June 2012.]

Several countries have recently seen an escalation of anti-Gypsy violence: Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Romania. Some Romanian MPs have even attempted to officially drop the name Roma in favor of “Gypsies” to avoid confusion with “Romanians”. Such rhetoric from politicians inevitably leads to rise in physical violence against the Roma: in the last month alone, Roma individuals have been attacked, killed, and threatened in two separate incidents in Slovakia and Ukraine. The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) has registered violent attacks against Roma in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Italy, Northern Ireland, and Turkey. State response to such anti-Roma violence is ineffective, as only one case in five results in conviction. In recent weeks, the social and political integration of the Roma in Bosnia-Herzegovina became the focus of that country’s negotiations for inclusion in the EU: before Bosnia-Herzegovina can join, it must amend its Constitution in relation to the Sejdić-Finci case. In that case, Dervo Sejdić, a Roma, and Jakob Finci, Jew sued the country in the human rights court in Strasbourg because it is impossible for minorities to run for high-level government positions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though the Strasbourg court decided in their favor two years ago, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Constitution has not been changed yet, and hence they still cannot run in elections.

Distribution of Roma in Europe

Given the long history of persecution, it is unsurprising that the Gypsies remain secretive about their ethnicity and their language. As a result, official statistic enumerating the Roma and Romany speakers are unreliable, differing greatly from source to source. One such estimate is mapped in the Wikipedia map on the left, where the size of the wheels reflects absolute population size, and the gradient indicates the percentage of Roma in each country’s population. Another Wikipedia attempt to map the Roma can be found here. Difficulties in determining Roma numbers are compounded by the fact that not all members of the ethnic group speak the Romany language. The most conservative sources estimate that upwards of 3.5 million Romany speakers live in Europe, with more than 500,000 dwelling in other continents, but the actual number may be much higher. Such numbers would make Romany the largest minority language in the European Union. Romania and Bulgaria have the largest Romany-speaking populations, but substantial numbers are also found in Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Slovakia, Moldavia, Hungary Central and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In western and northern Europe, in contrast, almost all of the long-established Roma groups abandoned Romany and adopted the dominant majority language. In the west, only communities of recent immigrants from Central or Eastern Europe continue to speak Romany.

Enumerating the Romany-speaking population is further complicated by the existence of Romany-influenced speech patterns in other languages. The various “Travellers” communities are of particular interest here. The so-called Travellers are a diverse lot, as some are ethnically Roma and others are not.  Whatever their background, they all have their own individual forms of speech, which typically have nothing in common with each other. But these modes of communication cannot be considered languages in the strict sense of the term, as they do not have their own grammatical systems. Instead, they are based on a highly distinctive core vocabulary of around 500 words, which are inserted into conversation in the dominant language. No historical connections and no similarities  seem to link these “special lexicons”, as linguists call them. (In common parlance, “argot” or “jargon” are used to describe this phenomenon, as in the case of Boontling, a jargon spoken only in Boonville in Northern California.) Notable groups include: the Jenisch Travellers in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria; the Irish Travellers; and the Woonwagenbewoners in the Netherlands and Belgium. The primary function of their special lexicons is to foster in-group identity and heritage, and to make conversations incomprehensible to outsiders.

A special case of such in-group vocabulary is “Para-Romani”, special lexicons that derive their unique vocabularies from the Romany language. Confusingly to outsiders, users of Para-Romani tend to call their styles of speech  “Romany”, but in actuality they are speaking a jargon-based form of the locally dominant language. Para-Romani is typically used by Travellers groups that descend from the Roma but abandoned the Romany language, due both to official bans on speaking it and intermarriage with other groups. Examples of Para-Romani-using groups include the Welsh Kaale, the Swedish Tattare, the Spanish and Portuguese Gitanos, and the English Romanichals. The argot of the latter group is known as Anglo-Romani.

The Romany language was spoken in England until the late nineteenth century, and in Wales it survived to the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, Romany was replaced by English as the everyday and family language of British Gypsies, but the language did not disappear entirely. Words of Romany origin, inserted into English conversation, were kept as a kind of family-language and in-group code. But like other forms of Para-Romani, Anglo-Romani is not a language in the strict sense of the term as it lacks its own grammar and pronunciation, relying instead on those of the English language in a manner reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” For example, “The mush was jalling down the drom with his gry” means ‘The man was walking down the road with his horse’. Further samples of Anglo-Romani speech can be heard on the University of Manchester Romani Project website.

On occasion, words from Romany penetrate the surrounding dominant language, though many such words stay in the regional dialects. For example, jougal ‘dog’ is found in English dialects in southeast Scotland, and bewer ‘woman’ in West Yorkshire. A few Romany words made it into standard English: for example, pal, which is a cognate of the English brother and the Sanskrit bhrātar). Sometimes, loanwords from other Indo-Iranian languages such as Hindi are mislabeled as Romany borrowings due to close similarity of Romany to languages of northern India.


In contrast to these special lexicons, Romany itself—spoken primarily in Central and Eastern Europe—is a full-fledged language, possessing a distinctive sound system and grammar. As with other languages, Romany exhibits geographic variation. Overall, however, this variation is relatively recent, going back to the settlement of Gypsies in Europe in 14th and 15th centuries. All Romany dialects derive from a single ancestral tongue, and the differences among them resemble the kind of variations found among dialects of such European languages as German and Italian. The exact enumeration and classification of Romany dialects remains a controversial subject, but several groups can be distinguished by the degree of mutual intelligibility. For example, Romany dialects spoken in Balkans and the Danubian Basin are largely mutually intelligible. A second group of closely-related dialects includes those spoken in central-eastern Europe: northern Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, southern Poland and western Ukraine. A third is found between central Poland, the Baltic states and Russia (see map of Northeastern Romany dialects; additional maps of Romany dialectal groups can be found on the University of Manchester Romani Project website). The Northwestern group of Romany dialects includes those found in, or formerly found in, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, and Finland.

Despite a high degree of linguistic similarity, the expected ease of cross-dialect communication in Romany is impeded by several sociolinguistic particularities. First, virtually all Romany speakers are bilingual in the local majority language and they tend to freely integrate expressions from their respective second languages into their native tongue, straining communication between speakers from different countries. Second, the Roma have traditionally used their language to communicate only within a small, close community, and hence they are not accustomed to speaking Romany with those who speak it differently. As a result, native speakers themselves often consider local varieties of Romany to be separate languages rather than dialects (the Ethnologue takes the same splitter’s approach to this issue). Finally, there is no tradition of a literary standard to which speakers can turn as a compromise form of speech. Codification efforts remain largely localized and no internationally accepted standard has emerged. Authors tend to write in their own individual dialects, or those that are most common in their own countries. Due to such processes, certain forms of Romany have become prevalent in certain states: for example, Lovari in Hungary. Elsewhere, most notably in Macedonia and Bulgaria, multiple varieties co-exist side by side in the public domain as well as in everyday speech. The one nod to the standardization Romany is the use of the Roman script, even in countries where the state language uses Cyrillic, such as Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia. Still, uniformity in written Romany is lacking almost everywhere. For example, the palato-alveolar sounds represented in English by digraphs sh and ch are sometime represented in the English manner and sometimes as š and č.

Although the use of Romany was long banned in the public sphere of most countries, in recent decades it has been gaining a little official recognition and legal support. In 1981, the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe called on member states to recognize the Roma as ethnic minorities and to grant them “the same status and advantages as other minorities enjoy, in particular concerning respect and support for their own culture and language”. In 1989, the Council of Ministers of Education decided to focus on pedagogical tools for teaching the Romany language. In 2000, the Committee of Ministers recommended that “in countries where the Romany language is spoken, opportunities to learn in the mother tongue should be offered at school to Roma/Gypsy children”. In Macedonia, Austria, Finland, Hungary, and elsewhere, Romany has a recognized status, either through explicit reference or through a general recognition of  minority languages in the state’s constitution. Of the eighteen countries that have ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, ten— Austria, Finland, Hungary, Croatia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Sweden—apply it to Romany to some extent. On the whole, however, most initiatives to promote Romany in the media and education are still run by NGOs. The state-run education systems have little place for the language. The main exception here is Romania, where a national Romany language curriculum was adopted in 1999, and has since been widely implemented through all levels, from pre-school to higher education.


Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: