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Phonology

The sound inventory of Romani does not differ significantly from that of other European languages, most of which belong to the Indo-European family. Only the aspirated voiceless plosives /ph, th, kh/ are really distinctive as an element that is essentially absent from all other European language. At about 60, the number of phonemes (semantically distinct sounds) of Romani is relatively high compared to other Indo-European languages. As Romani is a cluster of varieties without any homogenising standards, this high number of phonemes can be seen both as a result of its heterogeneity and the generally strong influence of contact languages on dominated ones. Tables present an overview of the Romani sound inventory. The individual phonemes are represented by the same spelling system as used in ROMLEX, the multilingual and multidialectal lexical online resource, to represent all known sound phenomena of Romani1. The sounds highlighted in blue form the so-called core of Romani, whereas all the others are either loans from contact languages or result from developments within the variety itself that were also partly triggered by contact.

Consonants

The consonant system of Romani differs in one significant aspect from those of other European languages: it has the aspirated plosives (aspirated stops) characteristic of Indian languages. In the case of Romani, these are the voiceless aspirated plosives /ph, th, kh/, which in the majority of Romani variants, at least at the beginning of a word, have a semantically distinct function. The following examples illustrate this relative to their Old-Indo-Aryan (inc.) correlates, the aspirated voiced plosives:

perav : pherav < inc. bharati 'I fall' : 'I fill'
tav : thav < inc. dhāgga 'cook!' : 'thread'
ker : kher < inc. ghara 'make!' : 'house'

Some varieties also use the aspirated voiceless affricate /čh/ for a special function:

čor : čhor 'thief' : 'pour!'

Besides /čh/, Romani also has three more postalveolar affricates, /c/, /č/ and dž:

cidel 'he/she pulls'
čorel 'he/she steals'
džal 'he/she goes'

In Lovara Romani, a Northern Vlax variety, the affricates /čh/ and /dž/ are reduced to the fricatives /š/ and /ž/:

šavo < čhavo 'boy, son'
žal < džal 'he/she goes'

In Kalderaš Romani, another Northern Vlax variety, these fricatives are additionally palatalised:

śavo < čhavo 'boy, son'
źal < džal 'he/she goes'

Palatalisation, sometimes called jotation due to the quasi simultaneous articulation of the palatal approximant /j/, appears in all Romani varieties in contact with Slavic languages. The palatal affricate /ć/ is characteristic of Gurbet Romani, a Southern Vlax variety:

ćerel < kerel 'the/she makes/does'

The affricate /ć/ results from the palatalisation of /k/ before /i/ and /e/. The palatalised consonants of other Romani varieties can be explained in the same way:

ďes < dives 'day'
ǧiľa < gili+a 'songs'

Vlax varieties primarily dispose of two vibrants with distinctive function:

bar : bař 'garden' : 'stone'

Gemination (doubling) as a result of lengthening is a more recent phenomenon of contact, appearing among others in the Finnish variety of Romani. The following examples are loans from German (deu):

glattiko < deu. glatt 'even, slippery'
hoffos < deu. Hof 'yard'

The two dental fricatives /þ/ and /ð/ appear exclusively in loans from English in the Welsh variety described by John Sampson in 1926. They correspond to sounds represented in English by <th>.

The Consonants of Romani: core stock highlighted
place of articulation labial coronal
mode of articulation bilabial labio-dental dental alveolar post-alveolar
plosives p b t d
aspirated
palatalised
fricatives f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ
palatalised ɕ ʑ
affricates ʦ ʣ ʧ ʤ
aspirated ʧʰ
palatalised ʨ ʥ
approximant
nasals m n
palatalised
vibrants r
palatalised
laterals l
palatalised
voice + + + + +
The Consonants of Romani (continued): core stock highlighted
place of articulation dorsal laryngal
mode of articulation palatal velar uvular glottal
plosives k g
aspirated
palatalised
fricatives x h
palatalised
affricates
aspirated
palatalised
approximant j
nasals ŋ
palatalised
vibrants ʀ
palatalised
laterals
palatalised
voice + + + +

Vowels and Diphthongs

All Romani varieties have the five cardinal vowels /i, e, a, o, u/. The Old Indo-Aryan vowel system of Sanskrit, in which vowel quantity (length) and quality are distinctive, has come to be purely qualitative.

rom san hin
marel mārayati mārnā 'to beat'
merel marati marnā 'to die'

Today, purely qualitative vowel systems are characteristic of varieties spoken in the Balkans. This holds for both Vlax and Balkan varieties. Central varieties spoken in regions with Hungarian influence show vowel lengthening resulting from regional contact. However, the phonemic status of the length is often arguable. The same is true of Sinti Romani, Finnish Romani and Welsh Romani. As the examples illustrate, vowel lengthening affects lexemes of both pre-European and European origin.

aalato < hun. állat 'animal' Romungro-Romani
boori < inc. vadhūṭī 'daughterinlaw' Romungro-Romani
huusa < ger. Haus 'shop' Finnish Romani

Depending on the individual contact situation, some varieties have centralised vowels adopted from Romanian (ron.) or Turkish (tur.). Some varieties also have rounded vowels, another sign of contact with Turkish:

gîndisarel < ron. gîndi 'to think' Kalderaš-Romani
strêino < ron. străin 'stranger' Kalderaš-Romani
avdžîluki < tur. avcılık 'hunter' Sepečides-Romani
köti < tur. kötü 'bad' Sepečides-Romani
bülbüli < tur. bülbül 'nightingale' Arlije-Romani

The following table summarises the vowel system of Romani:

The vowels of Romani: core stock highlighted
front central back
closed i y ɨ u
mid e ø o
ə
open æ
a
round + + +

Diphthongs in words from the pre-European lexicon of Romani result from the elision of consonants between vowels.

řoj / roj < inc. ḍova- 'spoon'
duj < inc. d(u)vā 'two'
čhaj < *čhavi 'girl, daughter'

In some varieties, this process of elision is still going on. In Burgenland Romani, for instance, variants with consonant elision and the resulting diphthong are used alongside older full forms.

čau < čavo 'boy, son'
hojamo < hoľamo 'furious'

In the Northern Vlax varieties, the diphthong /aj/ is replaced by /ej/ in most words of pre-European origin:

dej < daj 'mother' Lovara-Romani
šej < čhaj 'girl, daughter’ Lovara-Romani

Other diphthongs appear in individual Romani varieties due to language contact or as a result of internal processes also partly triggered by language contact.

fuat < deu. dial. fuat 'away' Sinti-Romani
moudru < modro 'blue' Prekmurje-Romani

The following table summarises the diphthongs of Romani:

The diphthongs of Romani: core stock highlighted
aᵘ uᵃ iᵃ oᵃ eᵃ

Pronunciation and Stress

As realisation or pronunciation of the sounds of individual dialects always also depends on the respective dominant contact language, it is difficult to make any generalised statements on this matter. As to the so-called core stock, the following list roughly describes the pronunciation of individual sounds compared to English.

The pronunciation of "basic" Romani sounds

a roughly as in master
aj roughly as in fight
b as in but
c as in Betsy
č as in chair
čh "aspirated č" as in church holiday
d as in do
dž as in joy
e roughly as in pet
f as in fool
g as in go
h as in ham
x as in loch
i roughly as in easy
j as in yes
k as in take
kh as in kill
l as in left
m as in man
n as in no
o roughly as in pot
oj roughly as in joy
p as in spin
ph as in pin
r as in rose
ř as in French rien
s as in see
z as in zoo
š as in sure
ž as in pleasure
t as in stop
th as in top
u roughly as in pull
uj as in French Louis
v as in voice

The influence of contact languages can also be seen in stress. So-called conservative varieties with stress differentiation between the pre-European and European parts of the lexicon can be distinguished from varieties with quasi-homogeneous stress.

Kalderaš Romani can be attributed to the first group. Words of pre-European origin generally stress the final syllable. This applies to both uninflected forms and forms with primary suffixes.

maškarál < inc. madhya 'from the middle'
šukár < inc. śukra 'beautiful'
kal-ó < inc. kāla 'black'
vurdón < oss.2 wœrdon 'cart'
ker-ás < inc. karoti 'we make/do'

Inflected forms with secondary suffixes generally stress the penultimate syllable.

vurdon-és-ke 'cart' (dat)
ker-ás-as 'we made/did'

Forms with primary suffixes and uninflected words adopted from European languages are characterised by penultimate stress, that is, they stress the penultimate syllable. Inflection forms of European loanwords with secondary suffixes stress the penultimate syllable just like those of pre-European origin.

práx-o < sla. prax 'dust'
prax-ós-ke 'dust' (dat)
lúng-o < ron. lung 'long'

Like several other varieties, Burgenland Romani has most likely developed homogeneous penultimate stress under the influence of Hungarian.

maškáral 'from the middle'
šúkar 'beautiful'
kál-o 'black'
vérda 'cart'
kér-as 'we make/do'

Except for forms with bi-syllabic secondary suffixes that stress the syllable preceding the suffix, penultimate stress also occurs in words of pre-European origin with secondary suffixes and loanwords from European languages.

verd-és-ke <oss. wœrdon 'cart' (dat)
ker-áh-ahi 'we made/did'
prah-ós-ke < sla. prax 'dust' (dat)
dúg-o < sla. dug 'long'

As indicated by the fact that corresponding lexemes of Kalderaš and Burgenland Romani have different spelling, the individual varieties differ in sound structure. These differences primarily result from internal phonological processes.

Phonological Processes

We have already briefly outlined palatalisation and intervocalic consonant elision resulting in diphthongs and reduction of syllables. These are two of the most striking internal processes of Romani.

The shift from /s/ to /h/ in grammatical paradigms is found with several varieties, for instance:

grast-es-sa > grasteha 'with the horse'
ker-es-a > kereha 'you will make'
som > hom 'I am'

Loss of -s in final position likewise leads to variation in grammatical morphemes, such as in:

for-os > for-o 'town'
pap-us > papu 'grandfather'
amon-is > amon-i 'anvil'
murš-es > murš-e ' man (obl)'
lačh-es > lačh-e ' good (adv)'

Some lexemes show variety-specific variation concerning vowels in initial position (a- in most cases). From an etymological point of view, these are prothetic vowels:

anav : nav 'name'
ašunel : šunel 'he/she hears'

The most frequent prothetic consonants, which likewise contribute to variety-specific variation are v- and j-, such as in:

ov/oj//on >vov/voj//von 'he/she//they'
ušt > vušt 'lip'
iv > jiv 'snow'
aro > jaro 'flour'

Further phonological processes are specific to a variety or a variety group and are beyond the scope of this text.

1. ^ The writing conventions developed for ROMLEX are based on purely practical considerations and do not have any ambitions of standardisation.

2. ^ oss. stands for Ossetic, an Iranian language of the Caucasus.