Last week we took a look at the multilingual Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of the at least 14 languages spoken in the realm, how many did you recognize? Surely the German and Hungarian “flagship” languages are well known, but not all of the others may have been familiar. In particular, we’d like to dedicate our attention to one of the more obscure elements of the list, a language which despite its perpetual minority status is of great interest for language enthusiasts and of great relevance for modern European society.
Romani is certainly not a household name as far as languages go, and this is likely because it is not now nor has it ever been linked to a nation, state, kingdom or political body of any sort. As a matter of fact the name by which the Romani, or Rom, people are more commonly known is synonomous of an intinerant, landless population — Gypsy. The Romani always have been and for the most part continue to be nomadic.
The beginning of the Romani people’s journey can be traced back to India, and it is here that their language has its ancestral home as well. The řomani čhib (language of the Rom) belongs to the Indo-Aryan language group of the Indo-European family and is related to languages such as Hindi and Urdu which are now the principal national languages, respectively, of India and Pakistan.
However, the Romani language preserves evidence not only of its people’s origin but of the path of their journey as well. Linguistic evidence has proven that it is not likely that the Romani left the Indian subcontinent before 1000 A.D. Lexical influences from Persian (Farsi), Armenian, Georgian, and Kurdish show that they probably sojourned in the Caucasus and in Anatolia (a historical region corresponding to the Asian part of modern-day Turkey without the eastern Armenian Highlands). Above all, Romani contains signs of a heavy influence from the medieval Greek spoken in the Byzantine Empire. At the time that the Romani likely first crossed over into Europe, the imperial city of Byzantium (now Istanbul) presided over the gates to the continent.
Although their journey didn’t stop at Byzantium, the countries with the highest percentages of Romani are in the historical area of influence of the Eastern Roman Empire. Romania is at the top of this list with its more than 1 million Romani, but the similarity in the name of the country and the people is a sheer coincidence. The name Romani comes from the word řom, meaning “a member of the group” or “husband”, whereas Romania is a reminder of the region’s history as a Roman province.
The Mongol invasion of the 13th century likely pushed the Romani people further into Europe, and they can now be found as a minority population in most urban realities in Europe. Its more than 3.5 million speakers make it is the most important minority language in Europe by number, although the diffused nature of the Romani has led to the development of a variety of dialects.
Whereas in many other parts of Europe the Romani language has continued to subsist alongside the national language or languages, it started to disappear in the United Kingdom near the end of the 19th century. Nonetheless, traces of the language have persisted in the speech of the British Romani and these elements of vocabulary have now been identified as Angloromani. Some of these words have achieved usage in the broader English-speaking community, including pal, which comes from the Romani word phal or phral meaning “brother” and nark, from the Romani word nak which means “nose.”
Despite its lack of literature and political realization, Romani is a language as rich and colorful as its speakers. It has many unique grammatical features, such as having no verb “to have.” Possession is expressed with the verb “to be”, by saying something like “it is with me.” Linguists warn us against associating this grammatical feature with the Romani people’s nomadic nature and relative lack of possession, as some other languages (Irish, Welsh, Finnish, Russian and others) have this feature as well. However, we can’t help but find the link between language and life style interesting all the same.