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Romani – An Indo-Aryan Language of Europe

Romani and Romanes are the general names for the language of the Roma, Sinti, Kale and all other ethnic groups in Europe who speak or spoke an Indic or Indo-Aryan language. These population groups are collectively called "Gypsies", a term mostly used in a derogative sense.

  • Romanes is derived from an adverb: Džanes romanes? 'Do you know/speak Roma?' Romanes is used almost exclusively in German-speaking areas.
  • Romani is derived from an adjective: romani čhib 'Roma-tongue, Roma-language'. Romani – often spelled Romany in English texts – is used internationally. Moreover, most names in New Indo-Aryan languages, to which Romani is genetically affiliated, end in -i: Assami, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Maharathi, Panjabi, etc. The international name thus simultaneously implies its kinship to the language group.

In the following we use the term Romani exclusively. Single Romani varieties are labelled Burgenland Romani, Kalderaš Romani, Lovara Romani, Sepečides Romani, Sinti Romani, Ursari Romani etc.

Roma, Sinti, Kale, etc.1

The ethnonym Roma or Řoma – ř = /ʀ/ – is the plural of Rom / Řom 'husband, man'. Most groups use rom and romni as kinship terms to mean 'husband' and 'wife' respectively, but also as general designations for persons who are members of the group – rom '(Romani) man', romni '(Romani) woman'. As Sinti Romani lacks the latter meanings, Sinti do not accept Roma as a name for the collective 'Romani people'. To counteract a widespread error, it has to be noted that rom does not mean 'human being'. Instead the general use of the noun manuš has been observed in Romani.

The designation Romas is also frequent. It is based on the wrong assumption of Roma as a singular. As Romas is also used by competent speakers of Romani in statements in English, German, etc. the term has come to be generally understood and accepted and can be considered a valid neologism.

Some groups have adopted other labels as well: Romaničal, Kale, Manuš and Sinti are some examples of self-appellations used by Romani-speaking populations. Sinti is used by those subgroups who entered the German-speaking area at a relatively early point in time. The Sinti of France refer to themselves as Manuš (or in the French spelling, Manouche). Romanichal is found primarily among British groups. Some of them also designate themselves as Gypsies. Kale 'blacks' is used by the Calé who have been living for a long time on the Iberian Peninsula and by the Kaale of Scandinavia residing in Finland and Sweden. Roma is used as self-designation among all the groups living in central and eastern Europe or by those who emigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries from central and eastern Europe to western Europe and overseas.

Other group-specific names were adopted from other languages. These are often based on traditional occupations, such as in Kalderaš 'tinners' from Romanian căldărar, Čurari 'sieve-makers' from Romanian ciurar, Ursari 'bear trainers' from Romanian ursar, Sepeči 'basket-weavers' from Turkish sepetçi, Bugurdži 'drill-makers' from Turkish bugurcu, Arli or Erli 'settled' from Turkish yerli and Lovara 'horse-dealers' from Hungarian lo 'horse'.

Non-Roma are usually referred to as gadžegadžo 'non-Romani man', gadži 'non-Romani woman'. This is an ancient designation for outsiders which is also found among the Middle Eastern Dom as kaddža, among the Armenian Lom as kača, and among the different groups of Ḍom in India as kājwā, kajjā, or kājarō. In some regions, more specific names are found. For example, in the Balkans, Muslims (including Turks and Albanians) are referred to by the Roma as xoraxane. Slavs are referred to as das, based on the same original Indic word for 'slave' – a designation inspired by the similarity between Greek sklavos 'slave' and slavos 'Slav'.

Rom, Lom, Dom2

Romani is the only Indo-Aryan language that has been used exclusively in Europe since the Middle Ages. It is part of the phenomenon of the so-called Indic diaspora languages spoken by travelling communities of Indian origin outside of India. The name Rom or Řom has related cognates in the names employed by other travelling (peripatetic) communities that speak Indian languages or use a special vocabulary derived from Indic. The Lom of the Caucasus and Anatolia insert Indic vocabulary into their variety of Armenian. The Dom of the Middle 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, the population called the Ḍum, who are also metalworkers and musicians, 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. In various parts of India itself, groups known as Ḍom are castes of commercial nomads. The Ḍom are mentioned by a number of medieval Indian writers as early as Alberuni (~1020 CE), the grammarian Hemachandra (~1120 CE), and the Brahmin historian of Kashmir, Kalhana (~1150 CE). They all describe the Ḍom as a low-status caste whose typical trades included sweeping, making music, juggling, metal work and basket weaving, in some areas also seasonal farm work. Similar occupations are still reported for the Ḍom in modern India. The self-designation ḍom > řom thus appears to have originally been a caste-designation, used in different regions by different populations with similar types of trades.

Romani Linguistics

References to the origin and language of the Roma are completely speculative and often denigratory up to the end of the 18th century. In his 1697 paper titled "De civitate Norimbergensis commentario", Johann Christoph Wagenseil characteristically describes Romani as a mixture of German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and phantasmagorical words, claiming that:

The first Gypsies were German-born Jews.

Even in 1781, the weekly journal "Neueste Mannigfaltigkeiten" published in Temeşvar still reads:

Out of the mixing of Ethiopians, Troglodites and Egyptians, there evolved an individual, migrating folk, which has retained something of all three nations and whose descendants can be assumed to be today's Gypsies.

The development of comparative methods in linguistics helped to clarify the origin of the Roma. Modern scholarly discussion of this topic began with Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger, who in his study of 1782, titled "Von der Sprache und Herkunft der Zigeuner aus Indien" he proves the relationship between Romani and Indian languages. Criticizing prevailing discriminatory and romanticising prejudices, he calls the miserable living conditions of the Roma

political inconsistency, which our enlightened century should be ashamed to tolerate. (Rüdiger 1782/1990: 49)

In 1783, one year after Rüdiger's text, Grellmann's book "Die Zigeuner" was published. It became the most widely known and read work of its time and had a significant influence on public opinion. Grellmann continues Rüdiger's studies on a broad basis; his linguistic explanations are profound. Unlike Rüdiger, however, he is uncritical towards the discriminatory prejudices of his time.

Sixty years later, the publication of Pott’s "Die Zigeuner in Europa und Asien" marks another milestone in the linguistic discussion of Romani. Pott defines its origin and thereby the Roma provenance. Thus Romani is part of the north Indian languages and

thus has a blood relationship with the proud Sanskrit. (Pott 1844: XV; translated by the author)

It is worth mentioning the work of the Slavicist Franz Miklosich as another milestone of Romani linguistics. In two series of articles published between 1872 and 1881, Miklosich undertakes the first classification of Romani into regional dialects, identifying 13 idioms, mainly according to linguistic influences of the different majority languages, such as Greek, Romanian, Hungarian and others.

In 1926, Ralph L. Turner published an article called "The Position of Romani in Indo-Aryan", in which he compares Romani, Sanskrit and various New Indo-Aryan languages, concluding that there must have been an early relationship of Romani to the central group of Indo-Aryan languages. Thus, the ancestors of the Roma must have lived in the central Indian area. Since Romani also shares innovations with New Indo-Aryan languages of northwest India, he postulated that they must have migrated there at a later period.

  • Innovations shared by Romani (rom) with central Indian languages such as Hindi (hin): these regular sound changes suggest both that Romani is related to Sanskrit (san) and that the Roma were present in central India over a long period:
    san rom hin
    ṛkṣa rukh rūkh 'tree'
    rakta rat rātā 'blood'
  • Differences between Romani and central Indian languages: some features of earlier central Indian languages that have since been lost, but are conserved in Romani, support the idea that Romani speakers had left central India at an early date:
    san rom hin
    drākṣā drakh dākh 'grape'
    miṣṭa mišto mīthā 'good'
  • Parallels to innovations in northwest Indian languages such as Sindhi, which are not found in the languages of central India, suggest that Romani speakers subsequently spent a long period of time in the northwest of the subcontinent:
    san rom snd hin
    vaṇkuḥ bango wiṇgu bā̃kā 'bent'
    dantaḥ dand ḍandu dā̃t 'tooth'

Also in 1926, John Sampson's "Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales" was published. Cntaining a great deal of etymological evidence, this book is much more than a description of a single dialect, and is a landmark of Romani linguistics.

Scientific interest in Romani grew during the second half of the 20th century, in terms of both quantity and quality of the publications. Descriptive grammars include Gjerdman / Ljungberg (1963), Wentzel (1980), Boretzky (1993), Holzinger (1993), Matras (1994), Igla (1996), Halwachs (1998), Cech / Heinschink (1999) and Tenser (2005). Dictionaries were compiled by Valtonen (1972), Calvet (1982), Vekerdi (1983), Demeter / Demeter / Tcherenkov (1990), Hübschmannová / Šebková / Žigová (1991), Boretzky/Igla (1994). Anthologies on diverse topics were prepared by Matras (1995), Matras / Bakker / Kyuchukov (1997), Elšík / Matras (2000) and Schrammel / Halwachs / Ambrosch (2005). Sociolinguistic studies were done by Friedman (2003), Halwachs (2003) and Matras (2004). With Yaron Matras's comprehensive description "Romani: A Linguistic Introduction" (2002), Romani linguistics was finally established as an integral part of modern linguistics.

The Structure of Romani

Structurally, Romani may be described as a heterogeneous cluster of varieties with a homogenising morphological and lexical core. All Romani varieties exhibit typical features of New Indo-Aryan languages, e.g. the declension of the noun. These morphological features are primary criteria for the genetic classification of Romani. The following table – an overview of the singular declension of the substantive of different varieties – demonstrates this homogeneity.3

manuš 'human being'
Arlije Kalderaš Burgenland Lithuanian Sinti Welsh case
manuš manuš manuš manuš manuš manuš nom/acc
manuš-e manuš-es manuš-e manuš-es manuš-es manuš-es obl/acc
manuš-es-(k)e manuš-es-ke manuš-es-ke manuš-es-ke manuš-es-ke manuš-es-ki dat
manuš-es-tar manuš-tar manuš-es-tar manuš-es-tar manuš-es-ter manuš-es-te abl
manuš-es-te manuš-es-te manuš-es-te manuš-es-te manuš-es-te manuš-es-ti loc
manuš-eja manuš-es-sa manuš-eha manuš-es-(s)a manuš-eha manuš-esa inst/soc
manuš-es-(k)oro manuš-es-ko manuš-es-kero manuš-es-k(r)o manuš-es-kro manuš-es-k(er)o gen
manuš-a manuš-eja manuš(-a) manuš-a manuš(-a) manuš-aja voc

Furthermore, all Romani varieties have a selection of words of a basic vocabulary consisting of approximately 1000 pre-European roots of Indo-Aryan, Iranian, Armenian and Byzantine-Greek origin. All words in the following table are of Indo-Aryan origin:

Arlije Kalderaš Burgenland Lithuanian Finnish Sinti Welsh
buti bući buti buťi butti buti(n) buti 'work'
dela del del dêl dela del del 'he/she gives'
džala źal džal džal džal džal džal 'he/she goes'
kalo kalo kalo kalo kaalo kalo kalo 'black'
jevend ivend jevend ven vend vend 'winter'
šukar šukar šukar šukar šukar šukar 'beautiful'

The large majority of the words of Romani varieties derive from their European contact languages, and in fact any word of a contact language may be used by speakers of the corresponding Romani variety. Phonetics, phonology and syntax are also often adapted to the primary contact language. There are no Romani varieties that do not show at least some influence of the patterns of the contact language. The heavy impact of contact languages on Romani results from the marginalisation and stigmatisation of its speakers, who – as a rule – are plurilingual. Consequently, Romani is a dominated language. This characterisation, however, in no way challenges its status as a fully fledged language.

1. ^ Parts of this chapter have been taken over from the homepage of the Manchester Romani Project: Matras, Yaron. History of the Romani Language: Names.

2. ^ This chapter has been taken over from the homepage of the Manchester Romani Project: Matras, Yaron. History of the Romani Language: Origins.

3. ^ For the single varieties see the chapter Dialectology. For a description of the declension see the chapter Morphology, especially the subchapter Noun.