The Romani language, much like its speakers, is one of the most elusive languages in modern history. It is spoken by modern nomads called the Roma people, and while the Roma people are fairly widespread in modern Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa, their history and language is the subject of much speculation, and their secretive nature leaves much to the imagination.
Origins of the Roma People and Their Language
While it may seem logical to link the Roma people to the city of Rome and thus the Romance language family, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Romani people are Indo-Aryan in origin, meaning that they originated in the modern-day regions of Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab in Northern India. In fact, according to a study by David Comas and Manfred Kayser at the University of Rotterdam, all Romani people can be genetically traced back to a single group that left Northern India about 1,500 years ago.
According to one legend, a Persian epic poem called “Shahnameh”, the Persian king Bahram Gor requested ten thousand lute-playing experts from the King of India to entertain the poor. Upon their arrival in Persia, the Romani people were given an ox, a donkey, and a load of wheat to begin their lives in Persia and play music. Within a year, the Romani people returned to the Persian king having eaten the oxen and the wheat and looking for more food. Angered by their wasting of his resources, the Persian king expelled the Romani people from Persia to go wandering the world on their donkeys.
The historical accuracy of this account is debatable, but today there are somewhere between 2 million and 20 million Romani worldwide. It isn’t only genetic evidence that links the Romani people to Northern India: it is also their language. Romani is a Western Indo-Aryan language, meaning it is related to languages such as Gujarati, Domari, and Marwari. That also means that Romani is also related to Hindustani and Persian. We’ll look at some vocabulary between Romani and those languages a little bit later.
According to Ethnologue, it is estimated that there are approximately 1.5 million Romani speakers worldwide. Romani is a recognized minority language in Colombia, Germany, Hungary, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Sweden and Ukraine.
The Romani Language(s)
The trouble, however, is that even though Romani is seen as one language, it is actually a collection of dialects with no standard form, and some of these dialects may even be their own languages. Generally, the Romani language is divided into two groups of dialects: Northern dialects and Southern dialects. These dialects are generally based on their geographical distribution in Europe with northern dialects spoken in more northern European countries such as Germany, France, and the Baltic regions and southern dialects spoken in Italy, Greece and the Balkan region.
In fact, Romani is interesting in the sense that it will borrow certain grammatical features of the native language spoken in the country where those Romani people live. For example, according to one study by Yaron Matras at the University of Manchester, Romani often borrows the indefinite articles of the language of its host country. That could mean that the Romani dialect spoken in Italy uses the words un, uno and una to mean “a” or “an”. Because of this, some dialects of Romani are thought to be mixed languages. This is particularly prominent in Romani dialects spoken in Northern Europe as is the case with Angloromani spoken in the United Kingdom where Romani words are retained by the language has adopted an English grammatical structure.
The Romani language has 5 main vowels, and some consonant sounds make a distinction between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants. Romani is also a language that uses cases, though that is mostly limited to the nominative case for subjects and the accusative case for objects. Further, most Romani dialects are said to have a subject-verb-object sentence structure which are in contrast to other major Indo-Aryan languages such as Gujarati, Persian, and Hindustani which have a subject-object-verb word order.
Despite that, however, Romani shares quite a bit of vocabulary with Persian and Hindi. While Romani is not thought to be mutually intelligible with those languages, there are a fair number of cognates, especially in basic vocabulary.
While Romani has become one of the most widespread languages throughout the world, its origins in Northern India remain fully intact. It would be interesting, however, to see just how possible it is for speakers of Romani to understand Persian and Hindi and vice versa. If you have experience with Romani and these languages, leave a comment and let me know!