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Austrian Romani

From a sociolinguistic perspective, Romani is a dominated minority language. From a linguistic standpoint, it is a heterogeneous body of varieties with a lexically and morphologically homogeneous core, but without any homogenising standard. The absence of a standard is the result of the marginalisation of the Roma people: Only communities that have the necessary means of power to establish political, economic or cultural centres develop a standard that is established by law as a linguistic norm in the respective area of influence through the education system. The lack of such opportunities for the Roma has prevented the emergence of a generally accepted standard. Consequently, the Austrian Roma population is linguistically inhomogeneous. The following Table 1 provides an overview of the linguistic plurality of the Austrian Roma:

Table 1
Group Branch Variety Contact languages
Northwestern Sinti-Manuš Sinti Romani German
Central Northern Servika Romani Slovak/Czech German
Southern Burgenland Romani Hungarian (Croatian) German
Vlax Northern Lovara Romani Hungarian German
Banatoske Romani Hungarian Serbo-Croatian/Serbian German
Kalderaš Romani Serbo-Croatian/Serbian German
Southern Gurbet Romani Serbo-Croatian/Serbian/Macedonian Ge rman
Balkan Balkan I Arlije Romani Turkish Albanian/Macedonian/ Serbo-Croatian German
Prizren Romani Turkish Albanian /Serbo-Croatian German
Prilep Romani Turkish Mace donian/Serbo-Croatian German
Balkan II Bugurdži Romani Turkish Albanian /Macedonian/Serbo-Croatian German

Classification and Contact Languages

The classification used in Table 1 corresponds with the current state of research (Matras 2005, 2002: 214-237). Austrian Romani is accordingly composed of the varieties of four dialect groups:

  • Northwestern varieties
    Of this dialect group, varieties of the Sinti-Manuš subgroup are spoken in Austria. Rómanes or Sintitikes, as Sinti refer to their Romani, are greatly influenced by German as they are the variety cluster of the first immigrants who have lived in the German sphere of influence the longest. The Sinti are distinguished into several groups of whom the so-called Gadžkane and Lallere are found in Austria. The former regard themselves as "German" and consider the latter as being under a Slavic influence because they spent long periods on Bohemian and Moravian territory. Yet this contrast appears to be neither linguistically nor otherwise relevant to the Sinti currently living in Austria.
  • Central varieties
    Burgenland Romani is one of the Southern Central varieties of the former greater Hungarian area. In addition to the so-called Romungro varieties of Hungary and Slovakia, they also include the northeastern Slovenian Prekmurje Romani and the southern Hungarian Vend Romani, both of which are closely related to the varieties of Burgenland.1 Burgenland Romani is, like all Southern Central varieties, strongly influenced by Hungarian. Individual sub-varieties such as the often mentioned "Liebinger dialect" are in addition influenced by Croatian, which is also Burgenland's largest minority. It can be assumed that speakers of the southern Slovakian Romungro and the eastern Slovakian Servika Romani, a Northern Central variety, live in the greater Vienna area today.
  • Vlax varieties
    Due to their common origin in Wallachia and adjacent areas, all Vlax dialects exhibit a Romanian influence. The Lovara varieties which came to Austria at the turn of the 19 th century and as a result of the "Hungarian Uprising" in 1956 are additionally influenced by Hungarian. The same applies to the variety of the Banatoske Roma who migrated to Austria from the 1960s and originated in the former greater Hungarian area which today is the Serbian part of the Vojvodina’s Banat. Their Northern Vlax dialect is also as much n influenced by Serbo-Croatian and Serbian as are the varieties of the Kalderaš and Gurbet who also came to Austria as migrant workers mainly from the Serbian part of the former Yugoslavia from the 1960s. In contrast to Kalderaš Romani, which belongs to the Northern Vlax dialects, the Gurbet varieties are classified as Southern Vlax dialects. It can be assumed that in addition to the Serbian Gurbet there are also speakers of Bosnian and Croatian varieties and of the Macedonian Džambazi Romani, another variety of the Gurbet cluster, resident in Austria.
  • Balkan varieties
    The varieties of the Arli form one of the Balkans' largest dialect continua. Arli speakers resident in today's Austria migrated from the former Yugoslavia mainly as migrant workers. One can today distinguish between speakers of Macedonian, Serbian and Kosovan Arli dialects, with the dialects of the Arli from Prilep/Macedonia and Prizren/Kosovo taking a special position within the dialect cluster. Speakers of Bugurdži Romani or Kovački Romani which form part of the Balkan II subgroup of the Balkan-zis dialects are also resident in Austria. All of these dialects are influenced by Turkish due to being former parts of the western Rumelian Ottoman cultural area. They also possess more characteristics of Greek than the dialects of the other groups, as Greek was the culturally dominant language in the Balkans before Turkish. Another common contact language is Serbo-Croatian which dominated or subsumed the current national languages ​​of Albanian, Macedonian and Serbian in the former Yugoslavia. In addition to the dialects of the Arli and Bugurdži, there are also speakers of other Balkan dialects found among the people who came from Turkey, such as Sepečides Romani which originated in Izmir. We can assume that there are speakers of further Balkan varieties among the Roma from Bulgaria and Romania who are only temporarily resident in Austria. One such example is Ursari Romani, the numerically largest group of Romani speakers in Romania.

The vertical arrangement of the contact languages ​​in Table 1 corresponds to the chronology of the various language contact situations. In addition to this chronological stratification of younger loan strata, most of which are already covered in the above description, this collection also shows the potential plurilingualism of the individual groups of speakers. 'Potential' because the full spectrum of expertise, if at all, is only present on an individual basis.

All Austrian Romani varieties have a German influence which has manifold effects due to the different duration of residence in German-speaking countries: Sinti Romani is most strongly influenced by German, followed by Burgenland Romani and Lovara Romani. Among the latter two, the following differences between the two subgroups can be observed: The Romani of those speakers who immigrated in 1956 is less strongly influenced by German than that of those immigrants who arrived in around 1900. The influence of German among the Roma immigrants who arrived from the 1960s is far less than that among the longer-term residents.

In addition to the groups of speakers listed above there may be speakers of other Romani dialects in Austria who are not covered by research and perhaps never will be because their speakers often do not declare themselves as Roma.

Plurilingualism and Language Use

The following table gives an overview of the linguistic repertoire of the individual Austrian Roma groups:2

Table 2
Sinti O GERMAN Romani GERMAN (Romani) GERMAN
Burgenland O GERMAN Romani GERMAN (Hungarian or Croatian) [Romani] GERMAN
Y GERMAN (Romani) GERMAN (Hungarian or Croatian) [Romani] GERMAN
Lovara O GERMAN Romani GERMA N (Hungarian) Romani GERMAN
Kalderaš, Gurbet, etc. O (German) Serbian ROMANI (German) Serbian Romani (German) Serbian
Y GERMAN Serbian Romani GERMAN (Serbian) Romani GERMAN
Arli, Bugurdži, Prizren,
O (German) Albanian/Macedonian/Serbian ROMANI (German) Albanian/Macedonian/Serbian Romani (German) Albanian/Macedonian/Serbian
Y GERMAN Albanian/Macedonian/Serbian Romani GERMAN (Albanian/Macedonian/Serbian) Romani GERMAN
Prilep O (G erman) MACEDONIAN Romani German MACEDONIAN (Romani) German Macedonian
Y GERMAN Macedonian (Romani) GERMAN Macedonian (Romani) GERMAN

O/Y older generation(s)/younger generation(s)
()/[] low use/very low use
PRIVATE varieties of the social microcosm (family, friends, etc.)
EVERYDAY varieties of the social macrocosm (acquaintances, workplace, strangers in the street, etc.)
PUBLIC varieties of the (formal) public (government, school, media, etc.)

CAPITALS primary language
(HUNGARIAN) only applies to the Lovara who immigrated in 1956

Against the background of the socio-historical development of the individual groups one can generally conclude from Table 2 that the role of German in the repertoire correlates with the length of stay in Austria, the level of public communication situations and the age of the speaker: the longer, the more public, the younger, the more German dominates. This generally corresponds to the situation of dominated languages ​​whose speakers are under strong pressure to assimilate. Apart from the repertoires of the older members of recently immigrated groups of speakers from southeastern Europe who usually have only limited competence in the official language, only varieties of German serve in language use in public domains. At least for some of the older generations of the groups of speakers who arrived from the 1960s, German is not essential in the public official context since in these situations younger family members who are competent in German usually act as interpreters. The use of the language of the country of origin in formal functions by the older generation depends primarily on the still intact bonds to Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia and to the associated contacts with the authorities in those countries.

German dominates across the entire repertoire and thus also in all linguistic domains among the Sinti, Burgenland Roma and Lovara in both age groups and among the younger generations of the Roma groups who arrived as migrant workers. This is partly due to the duration of stay of the individual speakers in the German-speaking area, but also to the relatively high degree of assimilation which can be deduced from the domain-specific language use. The dominance of German in private domains and its use as an intimate variety in the social microcosm serves as the assimilation index. The cause of linguistic assimilation is the German-speaking environment: Kindergarten, school, semi-public life, work, shopping, etc., as well as the media, newspapers, radio, television, etc. are German. A reinforcing effect in this context is the attitude of some parents who deem it better to speak only German with their children in order "to facilitate their life". The considerations behind this are primarily economic: Only high competence in the majority language allows access to education and hence participation in the affluent society. The use of the intimate variety, Romani, which in this respect has no relevant "economic value", hinders social advancement. Taking into account the "self-imposed forced assimilation" among Burgenland Roma, the "no longer wanting to be gypsies" resulting from the negative experiences in the war and post-war period, it becomes clear why the outlined language attitude – Romani will only hinder the future life of Roma children – is relatively strong in this group.

All groups apart from the Sinti are plurilingual in the social macrocosm. In everyday domains such as communicating with friends, at work, when shopping, during their leisure time, with strangers in public places, etc. they also use Romani and the languages of their countries of origin or other minorities in addition to German. The latter applies to Burgenland Roma, some of whom have retained competence in Hungarian and Croatian, the two other minority languages in Burgenland. Yet the meaning and function of these languages have in recent decades declined in the repertoire of the Burgenland Roma parallel to the decline of language use within the Hungarian and Croatian minorities themselves. Only older Roma living in Hungarian or Croatian villages or linguistic enclaves are still fully competent in the respective language. The younger generations have only passive partial competence in Hungarian or Croatian, if at all. In private and public domains, the languages ​​of other ethnic groups play a rather insignificant role today. The same applies to Hungarian in the repertoire of the Lovara: Hungarian varieties serve neither in private nor in public domains. The use in everyday life also only occurs in the older generation of the subgroup who immigrated in 1956 if families or individuals still, or again, have contact with relatives or friends in Hungary. In contrast to the Burgenland Roma and Lovara, most members of the groups who immigrated from the 1960s are usually still trilingual. Among the younger generations, however, the language of the country of origin – Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian – increasingly loses significance, which is caused by the weaker bond of the younger to the country of origin of the parents and which also manifests itself in the low use in everyday life. The older generations use the language of their respective country of origin to communicate with other labour migrants from the Balkans, but also with Gadže in their country of origin. Due to these contacts the languages of the countries of origin are not only used in everyday life, but also in public domains.

For the Arli from Prilep, Macedonian is not only the means of communication with fellow migrant workers and Gadže in the country of origin, but also a common means of communication between the generations. The result is the function of Macedonian as an intimate variety in private domains which has replaced Romani. Romani loses its significance in the repertoire with decreasing age of its speakers. Macedonian is the common language of generations and thus also a factor in generating group identity. Romani mostly acts only as an internal means of communication of the older generation and partly also in contact with other Roma from or in the country of origin.

Among the Kalderaš and partly also among the Gurbet and Banatoske Roma, Romani still dominates the internal communication. It is the primary basilectal diatype and also acts as mesolectal diatype in contact with other Vlach Roma. The reason is the largely intact social structure and functioning cohesion within the extended family or clans across borders. Family cohesion and an intact social structure are also the primary parameters for the use of Romani among the Lovara who immigrated in 1956. In families where the cohesion and the traditional conventions of living together are still present, Romani is still in use as an intimate variety. A lack of family cohesion leads to infrequent or no use of Romani in internal communication. Similar traits applies to the Lovara, Burgenland Roma and Sinti who immigrated during the last century. In cases where the rift caused by the genocide – the loss of social structure due to the generation of grandparents who passed down both culture and language being murdered in concentration camps – was successfully overcome and the original social structure was partially restored, Romani still serves equally alongside German in the social microcosm. Among the Sinti and Lovara who live primarily in urban areas, the situation varies from family to family. Among those Burgenland Roma who have remained in the rural areas of Burgenland there are a few "language enclaves" in which Burgenland Romani is used on an equal footing with German. Romani is used by the older rather than the younger speakers in everyday life: Rómanes becomes significant during the summer mobility of the Sinti when they communicate with other domestic and foreign groups. The Lovara use their Romani variety in dealing with other Lovara Roma and Vlach Roma groups. Burgenland Romani is rarely used in the social macrocosm, only when in contact with linguistically related groups in Slovenia, Hungary and Slovakia who also speak South Central varieties. Contacts with members of these groups are relatively rare due to the isolation of the Burgenland Roma within the European Roma society and are more likely to occur at association level rather than through individual, personal contacts.

The above repertoire table does not include the public functions of individual Romani varieties which have arisen only in recent years. Due to the use of Romani in the media and partly also in the political context, it now also serves in formal domains. This is however a reduced domain usage: Romani is still not or very rarely used in all other formal domains such as education, business, law, etc. Moreover, the use of Romani in the media is restricted to elites and is partly also influenced by the Gadže. This fact also supports the decision to not include this function in the description of the respective collective repertoire of the individual groups of speakers. Similar traits apply to the use of Romani varieties in a religious context, at official functions and in the international political context. As these situations are limited to a few representatives of each group they therefore also do not appear in the collective repertoire outlined in Table 2.

Table 3 provides a summary of the plurilingualism as well as language loss and preservation and the maintenance-shift scenario of each group.

Table 3
Group Maintenance-shift scenario Plurilingualism
Sinti shift: Romani > German monolingual: German[ bilingual: German-Romani]
Burgenland shift: Romani > German monolingual: German
[ bilingual: German-Romani]
{ plurilingual: German-Romani-HUN/ HRV}
Lovara shift: Romani > German monolingual: German
( bilingual: German-Romani)
{ plurilingual: German-Romani-Hungarian}
Banatoske maintenance: Romani shift: Serbian > German { monolingual: German}
bilingual: German-Romani
[ plurilingual: German-Romani-SRP/ HUN]
Kalderaš /Gurbet maintenance: Romani shift: Serbian > German { monolingual: German}
bilingual: German-Romani
( plurilingual: German-Romani-Serbian)
Arli /Bugurdži/Priren maintenance: Romani shift: MKD/ SQI/ SRB > German { monolingual German}
bilingual: German-Romani
( plurilingual: German-Romani-MKD/ SQI/ SRB)
Prilep-Arli shift: Romani > Macedonian shift: Macedonian > German [ monolingual: German]
bilingual: German- Macedonian
{ plurilingual: German- Macedonian -Romani}

(...) = rather rare // [...] = rare // {...} = very rare

ISO 639-3 codes: HRV = Croatian / HUN = Hungarian / MKD = Macedonian / SQI = Albanian / SRB = Serbian

With regard to the maintenance-shift scenario, Table 3 also shows the already mentioned overall shift of the individual groups of speakers to German. Among the primarily bilingual groups – Sinti, Burgenland Roma, and Lovara – there is a tendency towards practical monolingualism in German. Although Romani has received new symbolic functions through its recognition as a minority language in Austria, its active use is steadily decreasing and losing its communicative functions in the speech communities mentioned.

Among those Roma who arrived from the second half of the 20th century as migrant workers and refugees, one can observe a tendency towards abandoning the language of the country of origin and bilingualism, whereby Romani is increasingly pushed back into the informal private areas and German increasingly dominates. Only among the Arli from Prilep do the outlined roles between the Romani language and the language of the country of origin reverse. It can be assumed that the bilingualism described above subsequently has a tendency towards monolingualism similar to be those groups who have resided in Austria for a longer period of time. This development would correspond to the standard language shift scenarios under huge pressure to assimilate.

Yet it should be noted in this context that individual cases can be completely contrary to the trends described above. It should also be mentioned that the projection of a future trend towards monolingualism is based only on empirical data and on the assumption of unaltered monolingual education and media policies. One cannot predict whether the official recognition as a national minority and thus the related international commitments, such as for example within the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages​​ and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities by the Council of Europe, may not contribute to at least preserving Romani-German bilingualism. Another unforeseeable factor is the development of collective and individual attitudes towards language and their effects on the use of Romani.3

Language Attitudes

Similar to the previously discussed linguistic and sociolinguistic parameters, language attitudes also differ between the individual groups.

Among Roma with a continuous generational transfer of language – mainly among those who immigrated to Austria in the 1960s as migrant workers and refugees – Romani is a natural part of identity, but does not play a special role as a conscious identity marker. Language is one factor among several that in sum make up the ethnic self-consciousness. Language only becomes a conscious factor among members of these groups when they actively participate in a self-organisation process. As this takes place according to the parameters set by the majority society, their concepts, including the European ideology of nation states, become the basis of social mimicry, the underlying strategy of the emancipation movement. Thus Romani becomes the identity factor for the "nation of Roma" as with the European nations, which in turn manifests itself in language awareness and positive language attitude of the involved Roma. Changes in the collective language attitude in the groups represented by these activist groups are by no means a self-evident consequence. Positive language attitude is often limited to the few active representatives. For the majority of speakers, Romani remains a matter of course which is not consciously perceived. This attitude is, as mentioned above, frequently encountered in all those groups in which Romani dominates the internal communication, i. e. the Arli, Bugurdži, Gurbet, Kalderaš, etc.

In the case of the Lovara, the picture is split: Primarily members of older generations often stress the importance of one's own language for the self-image and group identity, yet this often remains mere lip service. Romani is often not passed on to the younger generation. The younger are linguistically already partly assimilated and only have a passive competence in Romani, if at all. Many, including older speakers, regard Romani as the language of a retrospectively glorified past of independence and freedom, which has lost its meaning and function due to changing living conditions.

The situation among the Sinti is similar. The vast majority of their younger generations is de facto monolingual German-speaking. Yet in contrast to the young Lovara, Rómanes or Sintitikes, as the Sinti refer to their Romani varieties, are generally an identity factor for these linguistically assimilated young people. This is most probably due to the language attitude prevalent among the Austrian Sinti: For them, Rómanes is a taboo in-group marker, which must under no circumstances be "revealed" to the Gadže. While this attitude resulting from the Holocaust trauma is partly also found among older Lovara and Burgenland Roma, it does not persist with such ramifications and effects as among the Sinti. Members of other groups who immigrated at a later stage, however, hardly regard Romani as a protected language. They do not hold any resentment towards Gadže who are interested in their language and want to learn it.

Since the years after World War II, Romani has had a negative connotation for some Burgenland Roma as it is considered part of their "being gypsy", which they wanted to escape. Their self-organisation in the late 1980s turned Roman, as they call their Romani variety, into the primary identity factor. This applies also for group members who have little or only passive Roman competence according to their own assessment. This language attitude is the result of their self-organisation which puts representatives of the Burgenland Roma in contact with members of other Roma groups. The fact that Romani dominates intra-group communication in other groups lets the Burgenland Roma regard the sharp drop in their own language use as a loss. Consequently language maintenance activities have become one of the main concerns in cultural work, which in turn fosters a positive language attitude and makes Roman a conscious part of their identity.4

Groups that have undergone a language shift and in which Romani was replaced in its function to create an identity by the majority language of the respective country of origin, as in the case of the Arli from Prilep/Macedonia, perceive Romani merely as the language of the elders and of the past, if at all.


Austrian Romani and its linguistic and sociolinguistic parameters show the same variety as its speakers and groups of speakers in terms of their socio-cultural, socio-historical and socio-political background. Both the introductory description of the individual varieties as well as the fact that the depiction cannot be based on any tenable empirical basis shows that this description is merely a limited snapshot. Since marginalised and stigmatised fringe groups are statistically and demographically hardly or not at all tangible, such descriptions are based on experiences and observations of interested or involved individuals. In the Austrian case, these individuals are the contributors of the Romani Project and researcher Mozes F. Heinschink who is known far beyond the borders and without whom this project would not be possible. It hardly needs to be stressed that the outlined image permanently changes, based on the background of the social dynamics in Europe and beyond. Despite all these conditionalities, however, this description should provide a useful impression of the diversity of Austrian Romani.

1. ^ As both Burgenland and Prekmurje formed part of Hungary, these three varieties most likely formed a single dialect cluster in the past which broke into three varieties with different primary contact languages due to political developments.

2. ^ For a more detailed description of the repertoire model see Halwachs (1993).

3. ^ Moreover, neither linguistics nor sociolinguistics are predictive sciences.

4. ^ The fact that the importance of their own language as an identity factor increases parallel to the decline in language use, is limited neither to the Burgenland Roma nor to the speakers of Romani.