“The Romani Language” – Ronald Lee

© Ronald Lee, October 1998, all rights reserved

The language spoken by the Roma is called Romani. It is closely related to the Sanskrit from which all modern Indo-Aryan languages are derived. Romani developed in parallel to its sister languages still spoken in India until the 11th century AD. Then the ancestors of the Roma left India and Romani was influenced in its development by languages spoken elsewhere. These were Persian, Armenian, Byzantine Greek, Old Slavic and Rumanian. The same words from these languages can be found today in all dialects of Romani. This shows that the Roma travelled together as one group until they reached Rumania in the 14th century.

In the 15th century, Roma entered Central, Western, Northern and Eastern Europe via Rumania and from then on, a large number of differing Romany dialects evolved in the many countries where the Roma lived as the Roma adopted loan words and grammatical forms from the non-Romani languages spoken around them. Today, many of these dialects are mutually intelligible between Roma from different countries. Others are difficult to understand by a speaker of another dialect of Romani.

When the Roma arrived in Europe in the 15th century, nobody knew what language they spoke or where they had come from. It was only in the latter 18th century that scholars in Europe began to realize that the unknown language spoken by the Roma had originated in India like its speakers. This has still not become common knowledge among people in general.

The sister languages of Romani like Hindi, Bengali, Rajasthani, etc., still spoken in India continued to develop in parallel so that today, while most of the Romani vocabulary is of Sanskrit origin, Roma are unable to communicate with people in India speaking languages related to Romani because of the loan words from languages spoken outside of India and the older grammatical structure of Romani which is an inflected language like Latin. This is the way the other Indian languages were in the 11th century AD.

Until this century, Romani was an unwritten language and was transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Now educated Roma are writing in Romani but there is no standard alphabet. Generally, Roma employ the alphabet of the language of the country they live in and try to adapt this to Romani. There is an international alphabet used by Romani scholars and it is gradually being introduced to Romani speakers in different countries. Today, there is a growing body of literature in Romani, from newspapers and magazines to Biblical texts and even books in Romani, published in many countries and in different dialects of Romani. There are also music tapes with songs in Romani.

Today and in the past, many European governments are trying and have tried to abolish Romani by forcing the Roma to speak only the national language of the country. In the 18th century, Empress Maria Theresa of Austro-Hungary introduced a deliberate program to separate Romani children from their parents and have them brought up by Hungarian foster parents or in state-run orphanages. The result of this is that today large numbers of Hungarian Roma, called Romungere, do not speak Romani. In Spain, a similar program was practised and the Spanish Romani dialect called Calo has almost disappeared.

While nobody knows how many Roma speak Romani today in the many countries where they live, scholars estimate that about two thirds of the people calling themselves Roma speak a Romani dialect. Other groups like the Rumanian Bayash Roma speak a dialect of Rumanian as their own language. The Rumanian Vlach Roma, however, speak inflected Romani.

Romani activists and leaders are trying to have Romani taught in the school systems in various European countries where there are large numbers of Romani children in school. There has been some success but generally speaking, the authorities are reluctant to have Romani taught in the school system.

Romani is still spoken by large numbers of native-born Roma whose ancestors arrived over a hundred years ago in Canada, the US, Mexico, Central America and South America. It has been preserved orally from one generation to the next.

In Europe, because of widespread prejudice against Roma and active persecution in many countries, the more assimilated Roma tend to lose the Romani language. The parents believe it is better if the children do not learn it, so as not to attract attention to themselves by speaking it in public and thus risking active persecution. Roma who have become integrated into mainstream society also speak languages other than Romani most of the time and lose their fluency in Romani.

Romani tends to survive among large communities of Roma. For example in the Macedonian town of Shuto Orizare about 80,000 Roma live together, have their own municipal government, police and fire departments, schools, newspapers, radio and television stations and they speak Romani all the time to one another. Romani also survives among nomadic Roma, and Roma who work and interact mainly with other Roma.

The earliest examples of Romani recorded in Europe in the 16th and early 17th centuries show that the language has changed very little since then. Modern Roma can understand perfectly examples quoted from these early linguistic specimens.

According to scholars, about 65 percent of the vocabulary of modern Romani dialects is of Sanskrit origin. Romani is still entitled to be called an Indian language according to linguists. In comparison, only 15 percent of modern English is of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Romani is a difficult language to learn because it exists in many dialects and it is not taught in universities or language schools. The books that exist are mostly scholarly treatises designed by one academic for others. What few useful learning tools are available are difficult to find, or are in a foreign language and are inaccessible to English-speaking students. Dictionaries with English to Romani entries do not exist in English and examples of the spoken language exist mainly on music tapes.