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The Austrian ROMANI Project

The scientific study of the language and culture of the Roma at the University of Graz started in the early 1990s. Initially limited to Burgenland, the project now covers both Romani as a European minority language as well as the socio-cultural and socio-political situation of its speakers in the European context. The core area of research is still linguistics and the documentation of the plurality of Romani as part of their cultural evolution. In addition, the Romani Project also contributes to the preservation of culture and identity and thus also to the emancipation of Roma as a European ethnic group through the practical application and implementation of its research results. Including the speakers in the codification and implementation efforts also reduces the likelihood of language loss and associated cultural assimilation while contributing to increased self-esteem and consequently also to the potential for socio-economic integration. The Romani Project is therefore neither a purely scientific-academic research effort nor an imposed folkloristic vanity project for language maintenance, but science-based work in the public interest.

The Romani Project was initiated by researcher Mozes F. Heinschink, known far beyond the borders of Austria, who in 1993 as a member of the Viennese association Romano Centro, established contact between Emmerich Gärtner-Horvath, then a member of the Verein Roma in Oberwart and now chairman of the association Roma-Service1, and staff and students at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Graz. The spontaneous approval of Gärtner-Horvath's request for help in "preserving Burgenland Romani from extinction" was followed by confusion and a feeling of it being an overwhelming task on the part of the linguists. The then head of the Department of Linguistics, Norman Denison, alleviated the situation with what from today's perspective was the only correct advice, namely to defer linguistic knowledge and scientific claims in favour of going out and speaking to the Roma – in short, behaving like humans. It was the former seniors of the Institute, Norman Denison, Hermann Mittelberger and in particular Karl Sornig who guaranteed the project's success due to their scientific competence and, more importantly, thanks to their social competence and human qualities.

Codification and Didactisation of Roman2

Initially the Roman project was a tentative “learning by doing” experience. First, cautious queries were accompanied by parallel project seminars on Roma Language and Culture where literature and knowledge about Roma and Romani were worked on jointly by teachers and students. The most important factor in this initial phase, however, was the active participation of the research team in the Burgenland Roma associations and the participation in their events. For a short period of time the collaboration was compromised by events surrounding the murder of four Roma in February 1995 but it was never seriously in question. The established trust was the basis for the successful collaboration whose main results are briefly outlined below:

1995: First publication: ABC spelling book Amen Roman Pisinas 'We Write Roman'

1996: Grammar, glossary, texts and teaching materials

1997: Extra-curricular language courses

1998: Bilingual quarterly magazine and children's magazine in Roman

1999: For the first time Roman was used on Romani Radio and taught at a school

2000: Illustrated volume of fairy tales and bilingual text volume including a CD

The status of Burgenland Romani has changed fundamentally within a decade because of the project. At first, Roman was hardly perceived in public, barely passed down and used less and less. It was the endangered oral language of a marginalised group who were isolated even within the Roma community. Even its speakers disdained the language. Roman is today the most prominent variety of any officially acknowledged Austrian ethnic minority language and is used both in the media as well as in teaching, not only thanks to the work within the project, but also because of the general political development. In addition, Roman has become the primary factor of identity not only of its few competent speakers, but of the vast majority of Burgenland Roma.

The prerequisites for this were, besides the aforementioned trust between linguists and Roma, a number of factors: The Roma themselves took the initiative, the participating Roma respected the linguists as experts, the Roma themselves were involved actively and equally in the work process and the results were propagated and disseminated by a widely accepted and valued representative of the Burgenland Roma. A crisis-like situation in the project which had until then been run by the Verein Roma3 made the transfer of further implementation (development of language teaching, further use of Roman in the media, etc.) to the newly founded association Roma-Service in 2004 possible. This association of young Roma and former employees of the project successfully and independently continued and still continues the process initiated by the codification.

The Codification of Lovara Romani

Inspired by the Roman project, the Romano Centro association initiated the Codification of the Romanes Variant of the Austrian Lovara in 1996. Due to limited human resources in this project and other factors, no parallel but only a successive development of codification and didactic implementation was possible. As in the previously described Roman project, initial results were nonetheless presented after about three years:

1999: Grammar, glossary and a text collection

2000: Illustrated volume of fairy tales

2001: Bilingual text volume including CDs

In the case of the Lovara Romani codification there was no implementation of the results similar to the Roman project. Despite an increasing number of Lovara Romani texts being published in the journal Romano Centro and Romani Lovara being one of the varieties used in the monthly radio show of the same name from March 1997 to May 2000, didactic implementation did not take place. This was and is only partly due to the different socio-cultural conditions of Lovara and Burgenland Roma: While the former are fairly socio-economically integrated and are distributed throughout the city of Vienna, the latter tend to be socially marginalised in villages and small towns in Burgenland. Lovara, unlike Burgenland Roma, are usually self-confident and feel not only superior to other Roma, but usually also to most Gaže 'non-Roma'. In addition, Burgenland Roma have a better organisational structure and thus also a better lobby in the majority population. The main reasons for the low level of implementation of the results of the Lovara project, however, are the lack of interest of the Austrian Lovara, the lack of a universally accepted authority and especially the attitude that Romani is the language of the past, a glorified time of true "Roma existence", Romanšago.

Although the results of the codification of Lovara Romani were not didactically implemented and sometimes not even realised in the media, the project must not be regarded as a failure. The records both documented aspects of cultural evolution and also created a basis for possible implementation requirements for future generations.

Romani Varieties in Austria

Work on Burgenland Romani and Lovara Romani was mainly funded by the Volksgruppenförderung of the Austrian Federal Chancellery and co-financed by the Austrian Ministry of Education and the EU. The Roman project was additionally supported by the Province of Burgenland, the Lovara project by the Anniversary Fund of the Austrian National Bank.

Thanks to the Volksgruppenförderug, the activities within the Romani Project were expanded in 1999 to encompass another four varieties of Romani spoken in Austria: Arlije, Gurbet, Kalderaš and Sinti Romani.

The Austrian Roma population is, as in other central and western European countries, heterogeneous, which can be attributed to three major migratory waves with pan-European impact:

  • 1st Migration/Initial Immigration: indigenous Roma population, mostly living in the respective areas since the 15th or early 16th century;
  • 2nd Migration/Vlach Migration: Vlach Roma who have spread around the world from the mid-19th century starting from Wallachia, Moldavia and adjacent areas as a result of socio-political changes such as abolition of serfdom and slavery in these countries;
  • 3rd Migration/(South-)East-West Migration: labour migrants and refugees who from the 1950s have moved from east and south-east Europe to economically more developed and socio-politically stable western Europe.

The first immigrants to what is now Austrian territory were the Sinti and Burgenland Roma. As part of the Vlach migration, Lovara arrived from around the turn of the 20th century. These three groups are socio-politically considered autochthonous or indigenous. Immigrant Roma who arrived in Austria as part of the third migration wave are regarded as allochthonous or as migrants. The following list gives a sense of the diversity of the Austrian varieties of Romani:

Group Branch Variety
NORTH WEST SINTI-MANUŠ Sinti Romani
CENTRAL NORTH East Slovak Romani, ...
SOUTH Burgenland Romani, ...
VLAX NORTH Banatoske Romani, Kalderaš Romani, Lovara Romani, .. .
SOUTH Gurbet Romani, ...
BALKAN BALKAN I Arlije Romani, Prilep Romani, Prizren Romani, ...
BALKAN II Bugurdži Romani, ...

Since 1999 the work of the Romani Project has, as already mentioned, been focusing on six varieties of this diversity: Arlije, Burgenland, Gurbet, Kalderaš, Lovara and Sinti Romani. The primary focus of this work is the lexical and grammatical analysis of already existing text samples or of samples collected as part of field research. The results are either published as working papers, as part of a series or are integrated into international sub-projects. The following list gives an overview of the results published. It should be noted, however, that also in this case the first publications were published about three years into the project:

2003: ABC spelling book Ramosaras Romanes in Kalderaš Romani

2003: Glossary of Kalderaš Romani

2003: Bilingual text volume of all Romani varieties spoken in Austria including CDs;

2004: Glossary of Arlije Romani;

2006: Bilingual text volume of Gurbet Romani;

2009: Bilingual text volume of Arlije Romani.

In mid-2009 the Romani Project was integrated into the newly founded Research Centre for Plurilingualism of treffpunkt sprachenCentre for Language, Plurilingualism and Didactics at the University of Graz. At the same time the association [spi:k]Language, Identity, Culture which is associated with the research centre was entrusted with Austria-specific activities in the field of Romani. After the Roma-Service association, [spi:k] is the second branch or "spin-off" of the Romani Project. The international co-operation projects for Romani will continue to be conducted at the University of Graz as part of the Research Centre for Plurilingualism.

International Activities

The internationalisation of the Romani Project began in the mid-1990s with the first presentations of results at scientific meetings. This also led to initial contacts with who are now the closest co-operation partners: the Manchester Romani Project at the University of Manchester led by Yaron Matras since the 1990s.4 Further long-term partnerships exist with linguist Peter Bakker of Aarhus Universitet and colleagues at Charles University Prague. The latter collaboration is the continuation of a close co-operation between the indologist and "romologist" Milena Hübschmannová, who unfortunately has since passed away, and the initiator and founder of the Austrian Romani Project Mozes F. Heinschink. The latter collaboration also gave rise to the first significant international project in the framework of the EU's education programme:

ROMBASE – Didactically edited information on Roma – This project was carried out as part of the Socrates Programme (87757-CP-1-2000-1-AT-Comenius-C2) between 2000 and 2003 and led to a cultural online multimedia documentation with pedagogical-didactic commentary.5

Apart from the co-operation partners of Charles University Prague, colleagues of the University of Ljubljana and the Phonogram Archive of the Austrian Academy of Sciences were also involved in the project. The Austrian activities were co-financed by the Volksgruppenförderung of the Austrian Federal Chancellery, the work of the Slovenians by the Austrian Science and Research Liaison Office in Ljubljana.

Among the follow-up activities based on ROMBASE, the following project is probably the most important and sustainable:

FACTSHEETS – The production of information materials on Roma history, culture, literature, music and language is the direct consequence and continuation of ROMBASE and is carried out on behalf of and in co-operation with the Education of Roma Children project of the Council of Europe.6 The further development of this flexible and open-plan materials collection is now managed by the [spi:k] project. The Council of Europe, in this case the Language Policy Division, also initiated the following, on-going project:

QUALIROM – Quality education for Romani in Europe – This project is funded by the EU's Lifelong Learning Programme (511678-LLP-1-2010-1-AT-KA2-KA2MP) co-financed by the Austrian Volksgruppenförderung and the Ministry of Education and is a pilot study on the Curriculum Framework for Romani (CFR) and the corresponding European Language Portfolio Models (ELPs). 7 Framework and portfolios were developed by the Council of Europe's Language Policy Division based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages​​ (CEFRL), with the active involvement of staff now in charge of the QUALIROM project. Based on the Curriculum Framework for Romani, the work within this project covers the following:

  • production of teaching materials in various Romani varieties for primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as for adult education
  • conduction of sample lessons using these materials at all educational levels
  • development modules for further education and training for future teachers of Romani

In addition to the University of Graz as the coordinating partner, the universities in Belgrade, Helsinki, Novi Sad and Prague actively take part in the development of teaching materials and preparation of sample lessons. The European Centre for Modern Languages and the Bucharest-based Centrul National de Cultura Romilor are involved in an advisory capacity.

Just as with the production of FACTSHEETS and the work carried out under QUALIROM, this final project is still on-going:

ROMLEX – The lexical database of Romani8 – This project was initiated by Yaron Matras of the University of Manchester in 2000. The structure and technology of this resource were developed under the active participation of Peter Bakker of Aarhus Universitet and Viktor Elšík of Charles University Prague on the basis of the existing electronic documentation of the lexicon of spoken Romani varieties in Austria which had been collected by the Graz Romani Project before 2000. Early stages and development stages up to 2008 were approximately equally funded by the Open Society Institute in Budapest and the Austrian Volksgruppenförderung. Since 2008, ROMLEX has been funded by the Austrian Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research (FWF) (P20756-G03). Until the end of 2012 the current project includes inter alia the harmonisation of ten of the most prominent Romani varieties and a basic lexicon of 5000 lexemes. The general objectives of ROMLEX are:

  • the documentation of the lexical diversity of the Romani language including as many translation languages as possible; currently: 27 Romani varieties, 16 translation languages.
  • the development of variety-specific dictionaries.
  • the development of an etymology-based dictionary of Romani.

Over time even more search options will be available via the web interface to access the information already stored in the underlying electronic resource. Despite various minor and major deficiencies, ROMLEX is already the primary internet resource for Romani vocabulary and is consulted on a similar frequency as the online dictionaries of many national languages.

In addition to these co-operations co-ordinated by the Austrian Romani Project, there are a number of other partnerships. The participation in the creation of the Romani Morpho-Syntax Database and ROMIDENT are worth mentioning in this context. Both projects are co-ordinated by the Manchester Romani Project.

The Austrian contribution to ROMIDENT – The Role of Language in the Transnational Formation of Romani Identity (09-HERA-JRP-CD-FP-030) is the analysis of the functional extension of Romani in formally-written domains, both of the resulting language change and the associated lexical expansion.

These and other international co-operations and contacts consequently resulted in the organisation of workshops and meetings, for example the 6th International Conference on Romani Linguistics in 2002 and the Annual Meeting of the Gypsy Lore Society in 2011, as well as national and international education and training events such as the Pestalozzi seminar series by the Council of Europe on Roma history, culture and language. It was always of importance to actively integrate the Roma and Roma NGOs.

Conclusion

The above-mentioned active involvement of Roma in the labour process has proved to be the primary factor for success in applied research and the implementation of research findings of the various tasks and activities of the Austrian Romani Project. This involvement is crucial in this context. It is pointless to consider Roma as the only true Romani experts only because they speak the language. Roma activists repeatedly express the opinion that only Roma may work on and research Romani, an approach which is just as nonsensical as considering speakers and speaker groups as mere research objects in line with 19th century ethnography. Also included in the list of absurdities is linguistic research without the involvement of the speakers of a language. Since such results originate primarily from analyses of publications such as grammars, dictionaries, text collections, etc., they are not based on data but on mere interpretations of data including all the associated uncertainties and weaknesses.

However, the involvement of the speakers and the Roma in the data collection process, not only as informants but as "field researchers", does make sense. Provided adequate training, the voice recordings and query results of Roma by Roma are in general far more natural and more meaningful than those of scientists because their outsider status is eliminated. In this context the ROMLEX project has gone one step further: Funded by the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, 16 young Roma and Romnja actively collaborated in the lexical coverage of their spoken Romani varieties in the initial stages of work. Thereby they not only contributed to ROMLEX, but as equal team members were also able to gain experience in an academic context. For some this has certainly helped to complete an academic education and today they are directly engaged in or professionally work for the political interests and the socio-cultural needs of the Roma as well-trained and competent individuals.

Equality is another prerequisite for successful co-operation between the Roma and academia. However this does not mean that every person involved in a project may take on the same responsibilities regardless of their respective background, knowledge and skills. Each individual involved uses their specific skills for a common goal. This kind of co-operation requires mutual respect. If this respect is not given, then the reason usually lies with the divergent objectives of those involved in a project. Some academics are only concerned with their career, status and vanity. Some Roma are only concerned with prestige and material security. These are the worst possible conditions for successful co-operation and relevant results.

Yet equal co-operation must not become a cursory prerequisite for collaboration between Roma and academia. The involvement of Roma in applied research and its implementation for political correctness's sake should be ruled out as should the above-mentioned "research object" approach along the lines of 19th century ethnography. Only equal co-operation for pragmatic reasons and based on reflected considerations regarding common objectives ensures mutual respect between the parties which is the basic prerequisite for successful work and useful results. The Austrian Romani Project is ruled by this principle, thanks to the above-mentioned academic mentors Norman Denison, Hermann Mittelberger and Karl Sornig and also owing to the initiator Mozes F. Heinschink who works as the project's supervisor, friend and collaborator to this day. The focus of his curiosity and his interest were never the Roma population as mere objects, but always people, some of whom even became good friends. His basic approach to applied research in the socio-cultural context finds its expression in the Austrian Romani project – both with him and through him.

1. ^ Please see the associations' websites: www.romano-centro.org,www.verein-roma.at,www.roma-service.at

2. ^ The Burgenland Roma refer to their language as Roman, a result of the reduction of final vowels in high-frequency nominalised adjectives: Romani > Roman. Parallel: Gadžikani > Gadžikan 'language of non-Roma, the respective majority population’, in this case German.

3. ^ Such crises very commonly occur in organisations with ambitious socio-political goals.

4. ^ see: http://romani.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/

5. ^ see: Rombase

6. ^ see: Romafacts and http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/roma/

7. ^ http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/minorities_romani_en.asp

8. ^ ROMLEX