Published: April 10, 2019

The study of Roma migration is essential for understanding the grammatical and lexical structure of the Romani language

By Marianna Marquardt
Course: Morphology and Syntax (Ling 4420)
Advisor: Jared Desjardins
LURA 2019

During my annual trips to Romania, I repeatedly came across a conspicuous people with an invisible past. I knew virtually nothing about them, other than that they looked different from other Romanians and frequently walked through my grandfather’s neighborhood collecting metals and advertising their presence with an unmistakable, musical cadence. Claustrophobic in-flight anecdotes from vacationing Americans about Bohemian fashion and fortune-telling were overly romantic and uncomfortable, as I knew that, in Romania, Gypsies were vehemently disliked and certainly not romanticized. Years later, studying Romani, the language of the Roma, has provided a glimpse into the rich, diverse history of the Roma people, which in turn has revealed both regular patterns and idiosyncrasies in language contacts.

Romani is an Indo-European language of Indic origin, closely related to Gujarati, Punjabi, and Rajasthani, with its lexicon mostly comprised of action words, prepositions, body-related nouns, grammatical markers, and socio-cultural terms of Indian origin. Of course, the number of Indic words in Romani extends far beyond these categories; however, these are the types of words that remain notably Indic despite Roma migration and settlement throughout the Near East and Europe during the past millennium. The Indic origins of Romani are also visible in the form of syllable stress, as stress in words of Indic origin is placed on the ultimate syllable.

In or following the 11th century, Romani communities migrated north, leaving India through the Persian Empire, Armenia, and then settling in Greece for more than three hundred years, where they primarily worked as metalworkers and entertainers; these occupations, according to some Romani linguists, were most likely brought from India as remnants of a caste system, and have remained for centuries. The knowledge of Romani migration up to this point is essential to understanding Romani grammar. Indian migrants coming into contact with Persians and Armenians—and engaging with Greek locals as societal equals for many centuries—has resulted in what could be called Romani's "default layer", known as the thematic layer. Hence, words of Persian, Armenian, and Greek origins undergo the same morphological processes as Indian words, and in a sense, are treated as native and not foreign. Greek verbs and nouns, which are the second most frequent in the Romani lexicon after Indic words, are formed with the same inflectional and case-marking processes as words of Indic roots; this is also true for Armenian and Persian borrowings. The same cannot be said for words encountered and incorporated into Romani following migration out of Greece – they are marked by different or sometimes additional suffixes.

The dialects of Romani, which are further split into a plethora of sub-dialects, arise from the athematic layer of Romani, which includes words and sounds borrowed from languages such as Turkish, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Welsh, English, and many more. As opposed to Greek and Armenian influence, athematic words are not consistent across dialects, differing from dialect to dialect depending on the languages that have been interacted with, and the circumstances in which that interaction had occurred. For instance, the Vlax dialect of Romani, located primarily in Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary, contains a large array of Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, and Hungarian word borrowings, while Angloromani, spoken by Romanichal Travellers living in the United Kingdom since the 16th century, demonstrates heavy borrowing from English sentence structure and vocabulary. Athematic words across dialects and sub-dialects undergo visibly different morphological and stress processes, making them easy to identify in a dialect's lexicon.

The evolution of Romani dialects based on geographic region and the sedentary, or non-nomadic, languages encountered in those regions is fairly straightforward. After all, many languages have borrowed aspects of other languages in close proximity; the Balkan language group, comprised of several languages from diverse language families that share facets of vocabulary and grammar, is a prime example of this phenomenon. However, I have noticed that there are varying influences on Romani based on occupation, which, to me, is an utterly fascinating topic in sociolinguistics.

The social circumstances of language contact after the exodus from Greece became much more dire, as Roma were often the targets of Ottoman and Balkan slave trades. Kalderash Romani, a sub-dialect of Vlax, contains noticeable Romanian influence, resulting from the five hundred years during which the Roma were enslaved by boyars and monasteries. “Kalderash”, derived from Romanian, means “coppersmiths”, referring to Roma people who worked as coppersmiths in Romania between the 1300s and 1800s and the modern-day descendants of this group. “Lingurari” refers to spoon-makers, “Aurari” refers to gold-washers, “Lautari” refers to musicians, “Ursari” refers to bear-trainers, and the list goes on. The groups mentioned are similar in that they describe modern-day Roma identities that possess their own dialects, originate as occupations, and are non-Romani appellations. All of these words are derived directly from Romanian; however, the individual words such as “bear”, “spoon”, “gold”, “music”, and “copper”, in the corresponding dialects, are not Romanian, but rather have thematic origins.

Across its dialect spectrum, Romani demonstrates many borrowing idiosyncrasies – and to expound upon these idiosyncrasies would be a lengthy paper in itself. In further work, I hope to explore why Vlax Romani sub-dialects such as Kalderash adopt new lexical items from Romanian, especially since many of these borrowed words would have existed before contact with Romanian.