“The Romani language is an Indo-European language, of the Indo-Iranian branch’s Indo-Aryan subset. It is a daughter to Sanskrit and sister to Hindi, Maratha and Urdu. European Romani dialects are divided into 4 main groups: the northern dialects, the Balkan dialects, the Valakian and the central dialects. The Romani spoken in Finland is a northern dialect, of its northwestern group whose historical center is in the German area.”
–Kimmo Granqvist, a., Kotimaisten kielten keskus
The research tradition of the Romani language started as early as the 1700s, when it was noted that Romani was one of the Indian languages which wandering groups of people originating in India spoke outside of India.
Research into the Romani history and culture started at the same time. And it is true that as people with oral culture and wandering lifestyle, our history would seem much shorter and more vague, if there had not been research into it from the authorities and a little bit from ourselves, too. Now we know that we are the largest minority in Europe, about 10-12 million people who have lived in Europe for 800 years or so, but information about us is still scarce. As individuals we are not interesting, as a group we are a problem – a black spot; poor and marginalized people, out of reach from civilization, human rights and equality. It is an awkward position and climbing out from there is difficult because it makes us victims and casts blame on others, whether we want that or not.
As a mother tongue, about 4 million people speak Romani in Europe, for others, the language has disappeared either totally or it remains as a household language or just a slang-like vestige of phrases and words.
Despite all our hardships and misery, we have always had something of interest, and that is our language. Interest in the Romani language just keeps growing. Today there are linguists, universities and large projects involved in the research. Top scientists, highly educated and knowledgeable people all over Europe, and the project costs are in the millions. As a mother tongue, about 4 million people speak Romani in Europe, for others, the language has disappeared either totally or it remains as a household language or just a slang-like vestige of phrases and words.
Majority researchers have compiled and recorded many variations of the language in a written form. They have created glossaries, dictionaries, grammar books and descriptions of the language. The characteristics of the language have been bases for graduate studies and thesis, articles and studies. Dialect maps and studies into changes and the effects of migration have been completed.
In some countries the Roma themselves have started teaching. Especially in the Eastern European countries there are schools for the Roma, and they are taught Romani in them. You can study Romani at University level at least in Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland and Sweden. As far as I know, Romani studies have also been conducted in Austria, England and France. In Macedonia, a small company produces TV programs and news in Romani, some countries have radio programs, e.g. Sweden and Spain, and some countries publish newspapers in Romani. All vital steps in preserving the language.
In Finland and Sweden, we have a small population of the Roma, about 14000, and none of them speak Romani as their mother tongue. In the beginning of 2000, about a third of them spoke it at home but that number keeps diminishing, too. The situation here is the same as in the rest of Europe, we do not have the resources we need.
All this work may seem very good news, but the reality is not quite as good. A group of people, twice the number of Finland’s population, and only a few thousand are offered learning and study material, including both children and adults. And these numbers are just guesstimates. Books in Romany probably number a few thousand. In Finland and Sweden, we have a small population of the Roma, about 14000, and none of them speak Romani as their mother tongue. In the beginning of 2000, about a third of them spoke it at home but that number keeps diminishing, too. The situation here is the same as in the rest of Europe, we do not have the resources we need.
So, what is this all about?
In my mind, it is about ownership—who really owns the Romani language. We, the Roma, feel that the language was stolen from us. It has been taken over by the majority linguists, scientists, researchers, universities, EU projects—all those who know it better than we do and know what it is, where it came from and how it is written.
And yet, despite the records kept, we feel that our language was not just stolen, it was confiscated.
On one hand we understand how important it is that our language has been studied, recorded and preserved. Structures, words and idioms have been saved. Without that work, many of the Romani variations would have faded from our memories, and as carriers of oral history, we would not even recall which parts of the language had been lost. Along with the language, we have lost a lot of skills, values, history, legends, entire Roma universes, and those we will never retrieve. Even though the collected recordings only hold a fraction of what was lost, what remains is priceless. And yet, despite the records kept, we feel that our language was not just stolen, it was confiscated.
As a written tradition and a case study, the language exists but it is out of our reach. Taking possession of the language feels like theft, its preservation feels like confiscation, because we have not received anything back from the researchers. Not the glossaries, grammar or the written form that is vital for its development. Not the literacy campaigns, not even the appreciation it deserves, its significance or any efforts to revive it.
And when we have asked, wished, begged to have our language back, to use it, we are not heard, because the language has been confiscated for the use of people who are more important and more capable than we are. When those people write a book or teach us to write books, we are not pleased, but, apart from a few trained teachers, we say that it’s a foreign language, pig Latin, but definitely not Romani. And when we write the Romani we know they say the same to us.
Why is that?
Because in many areas Romani is only a spoken language that people cannot read, and we must remember that many Roma cannot read in any language. When you cannot read, you cannot understand what is written. And when you learn to read, you cannot understand what you are reading because the written language conveys ideas that do not exist in Roma Life, in a way that is not similar to the way the Roma use the language.
Or maybe we can say that a person who learns the language but does not live among the Roma cannot write about things that would deeply touch the Roma. Not things, concepts, humor, values, not in a living, touching, teaching way, but rather, as a version of the writer’s own culture. This is why it is hard for us to understand the written language, because it does not describe the Roma culture in the Romani language, it describes the majority’s idea of the Roma life from their point of view. They use the language in a way that feels dead to us, a forgotten language because we have moved on speaking it, and at the same time, the language structures used in books seem to be about 100 years behind us, with all the new words not ours, in a way ahead of our comprehension, and vice versa.
Yet, now that a written language exists, we still live in an oral, spoken culture. We would love to learn the written language and teach it, to preserve our language but it is painful. It is like covering a living flower with a sticker that shows how a flower should look like. And that hurts, it pains the heart and soul and yet we must try because that is the only solution we have. Our people have a million other needs, and the cry for help for those needs is louder and more urgent. We who cry help for the language will not be heard, because we want something that already exists for everyone else, they cannot see that we do not have it yet.
We dream about a life where Romani would translate Roma literature to stand alongside world classics.
We would like to have conversations similar to those about the Finnish language in the great language war. We want literary researchers to make simple language guides and materials which would include elements from the spoken language as images through which the language could bloom with more vim and vigor, thus allowing us to merge more readily the written and the spoken language. We would love to have all kinds of books that we could read, learn by heart, color, study and fold into dog ears. We dream about a life where Romani would translate Roma literature to stand alongside world classics.
To reach these goals we need big book projects, where the written and the spoken words meet and the material created will speak to a Roma soul and be comfortable on their tongue.
Books that will include words and pictures that the Roma use to describe their lives, hunger, begging, cold, joy, the solidarity in poverty, cold toes in rubber boots in the dead of winter, the joy of a spring day, sister’s wedding, cousin’s fight, get-togethers, where accordions are played and the old folk get up to show how people used to dance, a brother with weak lungs who will never grow up, a horse that is more important than a car, the stray dog that became the children’s friend, the games the children played, treasures found at the dump, missing your father, mom’s arms, granny’s potato soup, new cell phone, cars, brand name clothes. The sky where the sun shines for everyone, the stars that where above every village before the street lights came, flower wreaths in the summer, first love, new caravan. That everyday Roma life where the whole extended family lives, goes to schools, works and lives in different countries all over the Europe. And all this in the Romani language, too.
Päivi Majaniemi works at the Finnish Roma Association. She taught herself the Romani language as an adult through books and a university course, and has encountered the problem of ownership regarding both written and spoken language when writing and teaching Roma textbooks.