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24 September 2014
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Romani today
The history of Romani

The history of Romani

Romani was once spoken by most British Romanies. It was the language of a travelling population ('Gypsies') that immigrated into Britain from the early sixteenth century onwards, spoken by various clans who appear to have entered the country independently, coming from France, Germany, and Scandinavia. They settled all over the country, continuing to specialise in trades that made them mobile. Quite often, they were evicted from the places they occupied, and so continued to travel.

For a while, the border area between Scotland and England was a favourite area of settlement. Although Romani is no longer spoken there, many local dialects in Northumbria have incorporated words of Romani origin into the local slang. Examples are gaji 'woman', chavvy 'boy', to nash 'to run', peeve 'drink', yag 'fire', and many more. Edinburgh slang also contains a large number of Romani-derived words. A few words, like pal (originally 'brother'), have entered common English slang.

Romani was used exclusively as a language of the family or clan, or as a language of conversation in occasional encounters with members of other Romani clans. It was not written down, and was often used to keep conversations among family members in public places such as markets or fairs unintelligible to outsiders.

Romani was not used as a language of school, administration, or technology, and so it lacked everyday vocabulary that is associated with these domains. Generally, such terms were simply taken over from English. But in order to keep their language unintelligible to outsiders, Romani speakers often coined new terms by combining, altering, or extending simple Romani words. For example, a 'forester' is called veshengro, from the Romani word for 'forest', vesh; a 'restaurant' is a habbinkerr from the words habbin 'food' and kerr 'house', thus literally 'food-house'; and a 'mayor'is a gavmoosh, from the words gav 'village, town' and moosh 'man', literally 'town-man'.

Gradually, British Romanies began to give up their language in favour of English, though they retained much of the vocabulary, which they now use occasionally in English conversation - as Angloromani. This had partly to do with increasing intermarriage between Romanies and other Travellers of non-Romani origin, as a result of which Romani declined as the main language of the family. Romani proper appears to have survived as an everyday language until the end of the nineteenth century, in regions like Cheshire or Lancashire, and even later among some clans in Wales.

Although it has been spoken in eastern Europe for many centuries now, especially in the Balkans, Romani is not originally a European language. Its origins are in India, and the core of the vocabulary and grammar still resemble modern Indian languages like Urdu, Kashmiri, or Punjabi.

Linguists have been investigating the dialects of Romani since the second half of the eighteenth century, and although there are no ancient written records of the language, it has been possible to reconstruct the development of Romani from the medieval languages of India to its present forms as spoken in Europe. Because the language is Indian, it is assumed that the ancestors of the Roma migrated from India to Europe. They appear to have settled in Asia Minor (now Turkey, then part of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire) sometime before the tenth century. The language absorbed many Greek influences in grammar and vocabulary, which are still recognisable today.

Romani populations gradually moved into the Balkans, and from there, from the late fourteenth century onwards, into central and northern Europe. With the dispersion of Romani populations throughout the continent, different dialects of the language were formed. Although the language remains similar at its core, it is sometimes quite difficult for Roma from different regions to understand one another if they have not had any exposure to other dialects before. Alongside the different pronunciations of words, many loanwords from different European languages create an additional hurdle toward mutual intelligibility.

Find out more...
About the Romani community in Britain with Where I Live Kent.

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