Saturday, April 8, 2017

Romani Culture

From Roma Facts:
"Roma Culture: An Introduction"

The Roma usually identify themselves and one another based on the external features of language, appearance (in particular women’s dress), and occupations (in particular men’s occupations). Internal features such as customs, practices and attitudes constitute additional identifying characteristics but are more likely to vary among different groups. Some aspects of language, dress, and occupation may also vary. When discussing a population as dispersed as the Roma, it is therefore essential to consider internal diversity as well as similarities. Not all Roma populations use the word Roma to designate their ethnic group, but this word usually appears in some derivation or other either in the name of the language spoken by the group (romanes, romaneh, roman, romacilikanes, etc.), or in the terms used within the group to denote ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ (rom and romni). In this way, we can define the boundaries of the population that one might refer to collectively as Roma or Romani.


The Roma language is the most obvious indicator of the origin of the Roma population. The language is closely related to early modern languages of central and northern India, and appears to have separated from them in the second half of the first millennium CE. This is usually considered the time period during the which the ancestors of today’s Roma population moved out of India, ultimately to reach Anatolia and southeastern Europe and subsequently other regions of the European continent. The origin of Roma cultural practices is much less obvious. Some observers, activists and even some researchers have tended to search for similarities between the culture of the Roma and those of the Indian subcontinent in dress, food preparation, music, dance, burial customs, and more. On the other side, a well-established tradition of research in social anthropology has been able to identify countless similarities between the socio-economic organisation of the Roma as (traditionally) a peripatewtic or travelling community, and the customs and beliefs of travelling communities of non-Indian origins. Finally, Roma culture is influenced by contacts with the respective settled populations.

Language and culture

 The Roma language is the most obvious characteristic of Roma culture. A person whose family language is Romani is considered to be a Rom. Romani is generally spoken in the family, and with other Roma who may or not be related. It is usually absent from schools, media, and public institutions. But in recent years there have been many initiatives all over Europe to establish Romani-language media such as newspapers, radio and television programmes, and websites. Especially electronic communication in Romani via chat forums and email networks is flourishing. There is no official written version of Romani, and users of these media usually improvise a form of spelling that mirrors their own local pronunciation of the language.Various features of the Roma language represent cultural notions that are specific to the Rom. Perhaps the most obvious is the absence of ‘neutral’ words for ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘boy’ and ‘girl’, and ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. When using any of these concepts, speakers must specify whether the individual that is being referred to is an insider, i.e. part of the group (e.g. a Rom ‘man’ or romni ‘woman’), or an outsider (usually gadžo ‘man’ or gadži ‘woman’). A further noteworthy feature of the language is the tendency to create new names for surrounding nations, rather than simply adopt a word that is similar in sound to those nations’ self-appellation. In the Balkans, for instance, Greeks are referred to by the Roma as balame, Turks and Muslims in general are referred to koraxane, the latter derived from the name of the Karakhanide medieval Turkic state in Central Asia. Orthodox Christians are referred to as das, an Indic word meaning ‘slave’, in a word play based on the similarity to term ‘Slavs’ in Greek (as in English), and across Europe Jews are called bibolde or ‘non-baptised’. Attempts to associate the origin of customs and beliefs with the origin of individual terms denoting them have not always proven fruitful, however. Some ancient Indic terms are used for Christian concepts acquired in all likelihood in Europe, as in rašaj ‘priest’ and trušul ‘cross’. On the other hand, terms like kris ‘court’ and magardo ‘polluted’ are derived from Greek, though the associated concepts are often believed to be much more ancient. For this reason, attempts to use the composition of Romani vocabulary to reconstruct the ‘original’ Roma culture or the environment from which the ancestors of the Roma originated have usually proved futile. The fact that the Romani language has been retained for such a long time testifies to its important role as a token of identity. Traditional Roma families will usually insist on speaking Romani within the family and in all interaction with other Rom. However, language learning is considered a natural, necessary skill, and children are accustomed from a very young age to learn the languages of the surrounding populations. Romani remains the language of emotion and the language that is used among Roma, and therefore children and adults alike will tend to switch back into Romani when addressing fellow Roma, whether family members or strangers. This has little to do with ‘secrecy’, which is often the perception that outsiders associate with such language preferences, and more to do with language acting as a symbol of identity and emotion, and as a further boundary separating the outer world from the world of the Rom. Some Roma communities, however, have abandoned Romani as the everyday language of the family, as a result of pressure from the authorities and a policy of direct repression by imposing penalties on language use. This has been the case in most Scandinavian countries, in Britain, in Spain and Portugal, and in parts of Hungary. It is interesting that even in these regions, Roma communities continue to use vocabulary derived from the Romani language, which they embed into conversations in the majority language (English, Portuguese, and so on). In this way, language continues to serve as a boundary between insiders and outsiders.


There are some special challenges in trying to understand Roma society and culture. For a start, Roma tend to live a segregated life, torn apart from majority society through generations and centuries of exclusion and suspicion. Consequently, few outsiders gain first-hand experience with Roma cultural practices. These remain hidden to most people, and thus they become the subject of speculation, fantasy, and pre-conception. While there is growing number of public displays and information sources on Roma traditions and customs, both in the form of published academic research and media reports and in the form of self-depiction by Roma associations, activists, and writers, direct and reliable information on Roma is still more difficult to access in the public domain than information on the dominant majority society of any individual country or region in Europe. At the same time, certain images of Roma continue to prevail in mainstream fiction, film, and folklore. For this reason, discussion of Roma culture seldom takes place in a neutral and unbiased space. Most Europeans have some kind of association with the word ‘Gypsy’, based on images that are transmitted through mainstream cultural outlets of various kinds. The absence of a tradition of literacy and public institutions within Roma society confines Roma culture largely to the private domain of the home and closed communities and thus makes it inaccessible to outsiders unless they undertake a special effort to become acquainted with Roma and their way of life and values. In writing about Roma culture we are therefore challenged to do more than simply inform; we must also undo much of the process of accumulation of incorrect information based on hearsay, projection, and fantasy.

^ Today is International Romani Day. This gives a good, brief summary of Romani culture and language. The link below has even more interesting information. Most of which I didn't know. ^

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