DUTY AND BEAUTY, POSSESSION AND TRUTH: THE CLAIM OF LEXICAL IMPOVERISHMENT AS CONTROL
By Ian Hancock
© Ian Hancock, 1997, all rights reserved. Originally published in T.A. Acton and A. Mundy (eds.), Romani culture and Gypsy identity (University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 1997), pp. 180–7.
Language is essentially the control of thought. It becomes impossible for us to direct our future until we control our language. The sense of language is in precision of vocabulary and structure for a particular social context. (Asante, 1988: 31).
The manipulation by societies in power of the identities of subordinate groups is achieved in many ways. One such way is through discriminatory legislation, such as that enacted against the Romani people in almost every land, including the US. Another is through media representation, both factual and fictional. This last category, the portrayal of ‘Gypsies’ in poetry, film and novels, is the most effective in establishing such negative feelings because they are absorbed subliminally by children, at a time when they are most susceptible to acquiring the attitudes of mainstream society. Apart from descriptions of Romani people and their life, which are legion, the Romani language has also been the target of comment, invariably worded as fact rather than supposition. In his Tales of the Real Gypsy, Paul Kester gives his readers those ‘real’ facts about it (1897: 305):
The Gypsies, like the birds and all wild things, have a language of their own, which is apart from the language of those among whom they dwell … the Gypsy[’s] … language is deep and warm and full of the charm of the out-of-doors world, the scent of the clover and the ripple of streams and the rush of the wind and the storm. For the Rommany speech is full of all this, and although the Gypsy has few traditions, his rich mother tongue must embalm in each word a thousand associations that thrill in the soul.
Kester was not a linguist, and it is easy to see how he was able to allow his fantasies about the Romani people to shape his preconceptions of the language. Doris Duncan, however, presumably is, and can claim no such excuse. Writing seventy years later in a journal of popular linguistics, she made the following observations (1969: 42),