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World: Roma Find They Speak A Common Language

  • Jolyon Naegele

Some 250 Romany activists were able to conduct a congress in Prague this week in their own language -- Romany -- and, to their own surprise, they understood each other without translation. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke to several participants.

Prague, 28 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Perhaps the most surprising element of the Fifth International Romani Union (IRU) congress held in Prague this week was that the working language of the conference was Romany.

The overwhelming majority of speakers and participants at the congress spoke in Romany. The exceptions were delegates from Finland, Britain, and Spain, where the Roma speak a dialect of the majority language, as well as monolingual English-speaking Roma from the United States. Translation was available into Czech and English.

The week-long congress, the first such gathering in 10 years to bring together Romany leaders from around the world, ends today.

Czech professor Milena Huebschmannova, a leading non-Roma authority on the Romany language, says the success of the congress "is absolute proof that Romany is capable of developing." She told our correspondent:

"For three days, a wonderful Romany has been spoken here -- not only to express folk tales and traditional themes, but you see that in Romany one is capable of speaking about political issues, cultural themes. So it is a language that is developing on its own, spontaneously, and the delegates are all speaking different dialects and they understand one another perfectly!"

Huebschmannova notes that when speakers at the meeting were in doubt about being understood, they frequently resorted to words and terms from other Romany dialects than their own. She calls this "spontaneous standardization." For her, the task now is to implement this new awareness in countries where Roma live. This could help Romany children have more opportunities to learn their own language in school, so that more is written, published, and disseminated in Romany, including Romany television programs and films.

Huebschmannova calls for a gradual adoption of a standard Romany but she adds she is strongly opposed to what she terms "slavishly enforcing some artificial language." That is her phrase for attempts by some other IRU members to force through an internationally standardized Romany that would replace all existing national versions. She warns that it is not enough to create a norm, it has to be used and taught:

"For the revival of Romany, which was suppressed for 40 years, the attitude of the Roma themselves toward their own language must gradually change. Because, imagine if someone tells you for 40 years that you speak a jargon and that you won't be civilized if you just speak 'Gypsy' -- well, that has some influence on one's psyche."

Huebschmannova says Romany parents must start speaking Romany to their children, with the understanding that Romany is a language like any other, that it has an immense richness, that it is bonded to what she calls "a traditional, fantastic culture." But she calls for the development of dialects spoken "at least as long as there are no teachers or Romany schools" -- while continuing to develop an internationally standardized Romany. In the long term, Huebschmannova says, Romany literature written and published in national orthographies for domestic use could be transliterated and published in international Romany transcription.

Hristo Kyuchukov, a Bulgarian Rom linguistics professor at Sofia and Varna universities, says much has been accomplished during the last 10 years to standardize the Romany alphabet and vocabulary, particularly in finding Romany equivalents for new words.

Kyuchukov says he expects it will take another 10 to 15 years before IRU's linguists complete a dictionary of internationally standardized Romany:

"There is an alphabet which is in use, but a lot of linguists and non-linguists, particularly Romany speakers, do not agree with this alphabet, unfortunately."

Kyuchukov notes a further problem involves the formation of new Romany words, particularly technological terms. He says disputes have arisen over regional differences. Some Romany dialects use the "k" sound while others the "g" sound in the same words. Similarly, Kyuchukov says the words for teacher or worker in any given Romany dialect tend to be words borrowed from the local majority language and that new words have to be created that every Rom can understand.

"All linguists from all over the world agree that Romany is one language with different dialects. So when Roma speak with one another there will be some words which won't be understandable -- incomprehensible -- but at the same time the rest of the words are from the Romany language."

Kyuchukov and his colleagues have gained from the experience of Italian and African linguists who have recently standardized certain central African languages. They have also studied the work of 19th century Bulgarian, Romanian, and Czech pioneers in language standardization.

There is a danger that a new, internationally standardized Romany could be as artificial as Esperanto, an invented "universal" language, that never really caught on.


"Yeah, in a way it is true that it is an Esperanto, but we can say this is some kind of lingua franca, which means we develop the new Romany for the purposes of international communication. At the same time, we pay attention to dialects and the importance of dialects."

Luminita Mihai Cioaba is a Romany poet from the central Romanian city of Sibiu, a daughter of the late Romany "king," Ioan Cioaba. She writes in Romany and publishes her poetry in the original accompanied by Romanian, German, and English translations.

Cioaba has compiled a dictionary of 30,000 Romany words she hopes to have published next winter. But she is dismissive of the Prague congress's attempts to standardize the Romany language. In her words, "codifying and standardizing Romany is as if I suddenly wanted to learn Japanese."

"Now the standard is a new language and the Roma do not understand it. At this congress Marcel Corthiades had to write the statute of the congress and the new presidium in standard Romany. And believe me, I don't understand it. I don't understand what he wanted to write."

Cioaba says she doubts it is possible to successfully standardize Romany, despite considerable financial aid from the European Union. Nevertheless, she adds, the Romany dialects as they are currently spoken are comprehensible to all Romany-speaking Roma. "In Romany you can write as you like and the language keeps the sense."

To prove her point about Romany's rich quality and musicality, Cioaba recited a poem in the language:

English translation: "Never did Lady Autumn, the Queen of the Leaves, seem to me to have been so foolish as to call like this to me/and even to carry me by force with her to the forest..."