Willing to speak Romani?

- Blog | Stanislav Daniel

Today is the International Day of Romani Language, recognized by UNESCO and the Council of Europe. While waiting for recognition by many other institutions and authorities, Romani is finding its ways towards usability. Diversity cannot be embraced without acceptance of Romani. Are there challenges? Well, we never said it was going to be easy.

Using the Romani language beyond the Roma community can indeed be a challenge. At the community level, it is expected that people speak your dialect. Also, they will most probably understand the words adopted by the nearby majority language(s). Exactly this might be an obstacle just the moment you leave your own community.

Old words, new words and everything else

For centuries, the Romani language remained mostly unwritten, shared from generation to generation by a word of mouth. It has never been a language of science (not yet) and thus it has not been developed with new, modern words.

To describe modern subjects, Roma would typically use the local majority language term with a suffix: “-is” or “-os”. This might be a challenge for people who do not speak the local majority language. In Slovakia, for example they would be suddenly expected to understand počitačis (“počitač”=computer, plus the “–is” suffix). Despite easily understood by Slovak Roma (and probably by  Roma speaking other Slavic languages), it may not work for Roma elsewhere.

There are two main streams in efforts to make Romani usable at the international level. One is trying to develop new words by transforming the original ones – e.g. modifying the Romani adjective meaning right (ćaćo, čačo, tʃatʃo) to refer to right as a noun (e.g. in human rights).

The second one, relies on the use of international words. Thus, constitution becomes konstitucija and inclusion is inkluzija.

The struggle of writing

As you have already witnessed, writing in Romani is another challenge – as you have to decide which transcription you are going to use. The word for a girl/daughter can be written as čhaj, ćhaj, tʃaj and many other forms, while still keeping the original sound.

But it does not stop there. With the wide variety of dialects and different pronunciations, you may hear Roma also using shay, tschey or similar words to refer to girl or daughter. And yet, with Roma being the real global citizens, do not forget about the Roma in Russia or China, whose writing would be very different.

And still we must try!

In 2016, we translated the Romani Early Years Network manifesto and some other materials in Romani. To reach as many communities as possible, we have used two of the most widespread Romani languages in Europe. And yet, exactly because of trying to be universal, we are losing those who understand only their own dialect.

Still, using Romani, especially in projects and initiatives aiming for Roma inclusion, is a must. We accept all challenges, we understand that they would need to be addressed. That’s because for today’s open society it is crucial that Romani is accepted. Exactly because the lack of its development is only the result of centuries of efforts towards obliteration.