Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

ROMANI between the Scylla of Language Death and the Charybdis of Folklorisation

Dieter W. Halwachs (University of Graz, Austria)



Romani, the language of the Roma, the Sinti, the Kale and other European population groups, summarised by the pejorative denomination "gypsies", can be described as a heterogeneous cluster of varieties without any homogenising standard. Until this day for most Roma their respective Romani variety is reduced to intra-group-communication. Only with the self-organisation these functional limitations were perceived as a shortcoming. As a result of this perception Romani became the primary marker of ethnic identity. Parallel to this, emancipation results not only in social integration but also in cultural assimilation. This led to a decrease in communicative functions paralleled by an increase in emblematic functions - a contradictory scenario which leaves Romani between the Scylla of language death and the Charybdis of folklorisation.


Romani, the common language of the Roma, the Sinti, and other European population groups, summarised by the pejorative denomination "Gypsies", belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family and is the only New-Indo-Aryan language spoken exclusively outside of the Indian subcontinent.

From a linguistic point of view Romani may be described as a heterogeneous cluster of varieties without any homogenising standard. Romani is a language that until recently has not existed in a written form and has exclusively been passed on orally. It has not developed a codified standard and, as a consequence, no prescriptive norms. This linguistic situation reflects the socio-political situation of the Roma: politically, economically and culturally marginalized, ethnically stigmatised, discriminated against and persecuted, the Roma could only survive in small groups, that led to the geographical and social heterogeneity that still exists today. Consequently, the people concerned have never participated in political and economic power. Considering that the development of standard varieties follows the development of power structures, it becomes clear why Romani does not have a codified standard and also that it will not be able to develop a generally accepted standard in the near future. This has to be seen in connection with the status of Romani as a non-territorial language. As Roma were denied large estate throughout centuries and were only able to live in small groups - extended families or communities of interest, the so called kumpanias - there was no chance to develop larger social units which are a.po. the basis for self-contained socio-economic structures. This consequently inhibited the development of Romani into a territorial language and the formation of a standard.

Until this day for most Roma their respective Romani variety is reduced to intra-group-communication and thus limited to certain domains. Nearly all Romani speakers are bilingual and use the language of the respective majority population(s) for inter-group-communication in public and most often also in informal domains.

Only with self-organisation according to the ideal of the majority culture these functional limitations were perceived as a shortcoming. As a result of this perception Romani became the primary marker of ethnic identity at least among the people involved in self-organisation. This may sound contradictory but is triggered again by the ideals of the majority cultures' principle "one nation, one language". Consequently, the resulting codification is to be regarded as a means of emancipating Romani vis á vis other European languages. At the same time, the first attempts to use Romani as a language in the media were launched. These attempts nurture the necessity of expanding the language into formal domains, which is most evident on the lexical level as a large amount of technolectal designations are lacking in Romani. Parallel to this, emancipation at least of speakers in European countries of the former Western hemisphere results not only in economical integration but also in cultural assimilation. As a consequence, the group internal communicative functions of Romani are reduced. Consequently, the current sociolinguistic situation of Romani is contradictory: on the one hand "artificial" expansion of pragmatic functions, on the other hand "natural" functional reduction. Or put differently: a language loss scenario caused by a decrease in everyday communicative functions paralled by an increase of primarily symbolic functions.


1. Communicative Functions

Romani is functionally reduced to intra-group communication and Romani speakers use the majority language(s) for inter-group-communication. The dominance of the majority language(s) becomes apparent in the abstracted collective repertoires:

table 1





varieties of
majority language(s)

varieties of
majority language(s)
Diatypes of the public sphere used in formal domains when dealing with authorities, at school, in the media etc.


varieties of
majority language(s)
& Romani

varieties of
majority language(s)
Diatypes of the social macrocosm that are used in partly public informal domains with acquaintances, at work, etc.


varieties of
majority language(s)
& Romani

varieties of
majority language(s)
& Romani
Diatypes of the social microcosm that are used in private informal domains in the family and when in contact with friends, etc.
diatype = functionally defined linguistic variety / underline = primary diatypes

Repertoire A displays the full range of functions of Romani as, for example, among some Kalderas groups where Romani dominates the internal communication and is also used when in contact with speakers of other Vlax varieties. More frequently, however, Romani does not function in the social macrocosm but is only used as intimate variety, as shown by repertoire B.

These limitations in the functional dimensions together with the lack of a written standard are the major reasons for the fact that Romani has not only very little prestige with the majority population, but also that many Roma consider it inferior as compared to the language of the majority population.

Low language prestige, reduced domains, bilingualism and assimilation pressure make Romani a dominated language whose relationship to the contact languages has always been asymmetric and never bilateral. As a result various phenomena of language contact and language shift occur ranging from lexical borrowings from the majority language to monolingualism in the majority language. In this way some Roma groups have given up Romani without, however, losing their ethnic awareness. Today, Roma living in Romania, Greece, Hungary, and Serbia have Romanian as their mother tongue but still feel culturally Roma. Of course, there are also groups whose ethnic awareness was also lost when language shift occurred.

Among many Romani communities especially in Western Europe the functions of Romani are only marginal. Every day life communication is dominated by the respective majority language and Romani is only used for special purposes like paying respect to the elders:(1)

example 1 A: male ~12 / B: male ~70 / 2000 / Lovara-Romani

underline = German

Apart from the intitial step in Romani the whole conversation is in German. The same is true for example 2:

example 2 A: female ~45 / B: female ~ 50 / 2002 / Burgenland-Romani

underline = German


Two women who haven't met each other for years are establishing intimacy by using the former primary intimate variety of the group. After this introduction, which re-established the relationship, the rest of the conversation was in German, the primary language of every day life of the two interlocutors.

It's only a small step from the mar ginal use of Romani to language shift. At the moment this process can be observed among the Turkish Sepeèides Roma. The language situation among the Sepeèides living in Austria corr esponds to the situation in Izmir one generation ago. Consider example 3:

e xample 3 A: male ~60 / B: female ~55 / C: female ~30 / 2002 / Sepeèides-Romani

small capitals = Turkish elements / underline = German elements

Both of the older interlocutors are trilingual: speaker A with German as mother tongue and native-like competence in both Romani and Turkish; speaker B has been socialised in Romani and Turkish and has learned German after migrating to Austria. This trilinguality explains why speaker C is using Turkish as well as German in conversation with her parents-in-law. In a situation with speaker B alone speaker C would most probably use Turkish and maybe also some Romani. If members of the young generation - C's three sons between the age of six and ten - were present the whole conversation would most likely be in Turkish and German only.

This data suggests that in the case of speaker C language shift goes hand in hand with language attrition. This is indicated by speaker C's use of the feminine form of the possesive pronoun mi 'my [fem.]' with the masculin headnoun rom 'hus-band'. Only in the second repetition she uses the appropriate masculine form mo 'my [masc.]'. Maybe the use of the feminine form mi in this example is triggered by the phonetics of the corresponding Turkish suffix -mi; another index that Turkish is the primary language of speaker C and her Romani competence is first of all a passive one. Besides Turkish, which is the linguistic bridge between the three generations, German plays an important role in the language use of this family. Romani is only used by the old generation, the younger generations almost exclusively use Turkish and German and have - if at all only reduced competence in Romani.

This language competence and language use scenario can be found among many Roma families and Roma communities in Western European cities. In many other cases language shift is completed and Romani only left lexical traces in the language use of the majority language as demonstrated:

example 4 male ~40 / 2002 / Rómanes (Sinte)


Chawe 'children' shows the regular plural ending of Rómanes. The second example - mangern < te mangel 'hawking' < 'to hawk' - indicates that most lexical relics are morphologically integrated into German. Semantically these relics denote elements of the traditional life of the Sinti.(2)

In the course of self organisation and emancipation Romani has become a primary factor of identity and new communicative functions have been emerging.

table 2




varieties of majority language(s)
& Romani
Diatypes of the public sphere used in formal domains when dealing with authorities, at school, in the media etc.


varieties of majority language(s)
& Romani
Diatypes of the social macrocosm that are used in partly public informal domains with acquaintances, at work, etc.


varieties of majority language(s)
& Romani
Diatypes of the social microcosm that are used in private informal domains in the family and when in contact with friends, etc.
diatype = functionally defined linguistic variety / underline = primary diatypes(3)

Today Romani is also used in formal domains as medium of intergroup communication, both in oral and written form. These new acrolectal and mesolectal functions of Romani do not affect whole speech communities but subgroups of activists and in most cases individuals only. The abstraced individual repertoire of activists using Romani in both formal and informal domains is shown in table 2 (previous page)-

In the associational context Romani is used on local level, as intra-group variety, as well as on national and international levels, as inter-group variety. In meetings on national level activists of different ethnolinguistic background try to fit to one another linguistically. In meetings on international level in most cases Kalderas-Romani is the basis of inter-group communication. This has to do with the international extension of Kalderas-Romani, the homogeneity and the consequential mutual intelligibility of Vlax varieties, and the high involvement of members of Kalderas groups in the process of self organisation and emancipation as well as their high self-esteem and the resulting status of Kalderas at least among Roma activists.

Another new acrolectal function of Romani is its use in the media. In most cases primarily radio broadcasts but also TV programmes use local or regional varieties of Romani. In countries with numerically small and/or linguistically heterogenous Roma populations, Romani programmes are mostly bilingual in Romani and the respective majority language. Normally only in regions with a relatively large and homogeneous Roma population programmes are monolingual Romani. Compared to the media brodcasts in the respective majority languages these Romani programmes remain peripherical and are in no way capable of counteracting the linguistic assimilation pressure exerted by the media of the majority.

The very same applies for newspapers and journals which are in most cases also bilingual in Romani and the respective majority language. Example 5 shows the acrolectal use of written Kalderas-Romani in the journal Romano Centro of the Viennese association of same denominator:(4)


example 5 Romano Centro 41/2003, p. 16 / Kalderas-Romani

Another result of emancipation and codification is the private and public use of Romani on the Internet. Example 6 shows parts of an e-mail received by the Austrian Romani project.(5)

example 6 male ~30 / 2003 / Slovak-Romani

Writing e-mails, petitions and applications to institutions and associations and informative material in Romani together with its use for oral inter-group communication on international organisational level as well as its use in the media have to be judged as functional expansions into formal domains. Taking into account that the active Romani users in these domains are in most cases individuals only, these new communicative functions are more or less peripheral with respect to the language use of Romani speech communities. As for Romani articles in journals and newspapers and on the internet their sole communicative function can at least be doubted. Although these articles reflect communicative objectives on the part of the authors, most of them are published bilingually, indicating that the symbolic effect of contributions in Romani is part of the overall conception. (cf. Matras 1999: 498). This is even more obvious for translations of official texts into Romani like the ones presented on the website of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). The functions of these texts - two of the headlines are listed in example 7 - can be seen both primarily communicative and primarily symbolic.

example 7


2. Symbolic Functions

Due to the newly arisen internal status of Romani as primary identity marker in the emancipation process symbolic functions emerged. First of all these new functions can be attributed to emblematic texts. Such texts are "not intended to enhance the adressee's knowledge in order to action on his part, but to elicit emotional identification on the part of the adressee with the aesthetic symbolism of the text in its particular language-external context."(6)

Symbolic-emblematic function on the micro level is attributed to Romani single words in texts in the majority language. In this context it is worth mentioning the numerous names of newspapers and magazines in Romani, such as the quarterly journal Romano Kipo 'Roma Picture' which is publsihed by an Austrian Romani association and - apart from its header - is exclusively written in German.

The same pattern - only titles and headers in Romani, the rest of the text in the respective majority language - can be observed with cultural products too. To give an example, the Austrian singer and actor Tony Wegas, who has been very popular among young Burgenland-Roma, entitled his 1994 released CD Durada Tschal 'Push Along'. Aside from this main title of the CD only for one song title and its refrain the same two words in Romani are used.(7)

The function of these Romani elements in an otherwise German text only can be found in the language-external context. By using Romani the artist wants to express solidarity with his people and at the same time uses this legacy for marketing his product.

Similar symbolic-emblematic functions of expressing solidarity and raising awareness have to be attributed to adresses of welcome, politeness formulas, introductory formulas and whole speeches in Romani which are given in front of an audience consisting mostly of people with no competence in Romani. As a rule, these formulas, adresses, speeches, etc. are either repeated by the speaker in the respective majority language or translated by a bilingual participant of the event. The communicative functions are fulfilled by the repetitions in and the translations into the majority language. The functions of this kind of Romani use are in the language-external symbolic context - awareness raising, expressing solidarity, demonstrating the values of the own language and culture, etc. - and can be labelled as political folklorisation. Another symbolic-emblematic use of Romani in the field of political folkorisation is the mobilising-rallying function; i.e. "the shaping of a text in such a way that would demonstrate ideological commitment and political allegiance and identification" (Matras 1999: 496).

example 8 1994 / "Standard" Romani

The texts of example 8 are taken from the minutes of a meeting of Romani delegates at an international conference. The mobilising-rallying function becomes apparent by the use of the so called "Standard Romani" of the Romani Union. The decision for this standard was taken in the context of the Fourth Romani World Congress in April 1990 in Warsaw.(8)

In the years after, the proponents of this decision have used the conventions defining the criteria for the implementation of a written language set by the Warsaw decision and also the neologisms in internal papers as well as in publicly obtainable publications, such as the Rromani Uniaquoro Lil , the newspaper of the Romani union which is published irregularly. By using these conventions, ideological commitment as well as political allegiance and identification with the Romani Union, its resolutions and its decision bearers is demonstrated. In the context of political folklorisation of Romani this mobilising-rallying function can be subsumed under the emblematic function.

Almost exclusively emblematic function has to be atrributed to the text in example 9. This text, which is accompanied by its German and English translations, was composed for the plate on the memorial commemorating the four young Roma who were killed by a bomb in Oberwart in February 1995.(9)

example 9 1998 / Burgenland-Romani

Adaj, ando 4. feberi 1995, schtar terne Romen murdarde.

O Erbakero Farajn Roma taj o pradime potschintschage pomoschin-de ada than le gondolipeske te kerel. O argondolinipe taj i buti o Reinhard Vitus Gombots kertscha.

O baro bar, savo maschkare ter-dschol, neka sikal oda murdajipe taj te le but brigaschne droma le Romendar te le avre tschulipendar. O schtar lole bara, save avral terdschon, hi odole, save diken upro vodschi amare schtar phralendar.

Here, on February 4th 1995, four young Roma were murdered.

The construction of this memorial was achieved by the Roma Association of Oberwart along with the help of public funding. It was designed and realized by RV G.

The big stone in the middle is meant foremost to recall the murder but also to remind us of the hardships suffered by the Roma and other minorities.The red stones forming the outer circle guard the souls of our four brothers.

Such bilingual commemorative texts can be found in former concentration camps and other places Roma have suffered from persecution. The function of Romani in these context is almost exclusively emblematic. As many Roma visiting these places are not used to written Romani at all, the information about the events commemorated is in most cases a secondary function of the texts in the majority languages.

Another acrolectal domain with similar symbolic-emblematic functions of Romani is religion. The use of Romani in religious services has intensified during the last decades in parallel to the self-organisation and emancipation of its speakers. Example 10 shows an intercession used in a Roman Catholic Mass which was celebrated for Roma especially.example 10 1996 / Burgenland-Romani

Del, amen molinas tut, kaj amen Roma le avre manuschenca khetan ando mirnipe schaj dschijas.

Amen molinas tut, schun amenge use.

God, we pray to you, that we Roma can live together in peace with the other people.

We ask you, to answer our prayers.

This use of Romani in religious services demonstrates the integration of Roma into the respective denomination. Symbolic functions again are prevailing the communicative ones. Consequently this use of Romani can be labelled religious folklorisation.

On the macro level of emblematic texts in the religious domain there are predominantly bible translations which have a tradition dating back at least to the 19th century. It seems obvious that only a minority of owners of Romani bibles uses them for edification. For the vast majority of bible owners their copies in Romani only have symbolic functions.

On the macro level of emblematic texts in the cultural domain there are first of all translations of world literature into various Romani varieties; the Ramayana translated by Leksa Manus into Latvian Romani; parts of Dante's Divina Comedia translated into Drindari-Romani, Euripides' Medea, Shakespeare's Hamlet and de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince into Hungarian varieties of Romani, etc. Such translations have their effects on the external world, the non Roma, and demonstrate to the majority population that Romani is suitable for long complex texts of the so called "high literature". But there are also internal effects on the Roma themselves: Translations of world literature demonstrate the value of Romani and its equality with other languages. This consequently strengthens the identification of Roma with their own language and culture. But the primary intention of the writer - to offer their audience reading pleasure - is mostly prevailed by the emblematic function which is in most cases the primary intention of the translator.

Aside translations, also literary production in Romani has predominatly symbolic functions. Poems like the one shown in example 11 are first of all created to demonstrate that Roma and Romani are capable of poetic language use.(10)

example 11 Romano Centro 13/1996: 18 / Lovara-Romani


E terne manuscha kamen
pe e neve djila te khelen
pe ratscha andej diskura
bute schejen de dikhena.
E ternimata schanen
schi de tehara te khelen.
Muken amen te trajinas
i nevi luma te dikhas.
Ame terne sam taj kamas
vi romanschago te keras.
I bari luma boldel pes
taj vi e Rom phiren neves.

The Young

The young people want
to dance to new songs
and to flirt in the disco
with girls until dawn.
The youth knows about
how to dance tomorrow.
Allow us that we live
to see the new world.
We are young and we also want
to lead life the Romani way.
The big world goes on turning
and the Roma are going on too.

As it is also the case for this example, such poems usually are published together with their translations into the respective majority language. The same applies for the majority of collections of fairy tales, songs and other stories. These bilingual products are also used for public readings and performances which first of all serve the ethnocultural folkloristic demands of both interested members of the majority as well as the minority, the Roma themselves. In many cases these events are connected with musical performances. Music is another one of the cultural fields contributing to the folklorisation of Romani. Aside from titles and headers in Romani, many of the booklets accompanying CDs with Romani music have lyrics translated into the majority language, reducing the Romani texts to the symbolic level.

Many of these bilingual products in particular target the majority and try to meet the folkloristic demands of non Roma interested in Romani language and culture. This also can be seen as integration of Romani culture into the majorities ethno-culture business. Consequently, some of these products contribute to the consolidation of stereotypes and strengthen prejudices.

Summing up the functional-expansion of Romani into public-formal domains, the conclusion can be drawn, that this expansion predominantly serves symbolic-emblematic demands and effectuates an at least threefold folklorisation of Romani: in the political domain, in the religious context, and in the cultural field.


3. Conclusions

The changes in the pragmatic functions of Romani in the repertoires of speech communities mostly living in western Europe are characterised by a reduction in informal domains and an expansion into formal domains paralleled by a decrease in communicative functions and an increase in symbolic functions.

The fact that majority languages have inserted even in informal domains results primarily from changed living conditions. Roma are no longer seperated geographically, most of them live in big cities. A development which lowers the social cohesion which was guaranteed in the past by the closed networks of the extended families and clans. This gradual loss of social cohesion results in mixed marriages and in the abandoning of the three generation household, which is hard to maintain in an urban environment. Both developments counteract or at least obstruct language continuity in Romani. Moreover, ethnic and social stigmatisation are no longer to be equalled to the concept of isolation. Also fringe groups participate in the modern information society. Roma are exposed to monolingual media as is the majority population. Furthermore, Roma are subject to high pressure to assimilate on the grounds of economic reasons. Consequently, more and more children are educated monolingually, in the language of the majority population. This monolingual education is reasoned with the argument that the opportunities of the children to participate in the society of wellbeing would increase.

These developments reduce the importance of Romani in both the social microcosm and the social macrocosm. The traditional primary intimate variety is marginalised and the respective majority language takes over its former communicative functions. In the course of self-organisation and emancipation this development is considered as a loss. Although endeavours are made to counteract the decline in language use, from today's point of view, this process towards language loss and language shift seems unstoppable, not to mention reversible. The new communicative functions, the use of Romani on associational level and in internet communication, are first of all linked to the increase in symbolic functions and most likely won't stop or reverse the outlined decrease of language use in basilectal domains. Roughly the same is true for inititatives to teach or use Romani in western European schools. Romani teaching can only assist Romani use and maybe can contribute making it more attractive. It may possibly slow down the process of language loss and lessen its probability, but cannot stop it.

Compared to the contribution Romani teaching can account for Romani maintenance, its use in political, religious and cultural domains is of lesser importance for slowing down the process of language loss. This is primarily due to the fact that the more public the domain the more symbolic the function of Romani is. The predominant symbolic-emblematic function of public text production makes the functional expansion into acrolectal domains more or less a pseudo-expansion. Emblematic texts contribute to a higher self-esteem and self-consciousness of Roma and help them to participate socio-culturally and socio-politically. They demonstrate the capability and value of Romani to the majority population as well as to the Roma themselves. They probably raise awareness for the situation of Roma and help them to integrate socially and economically. The price for this integration is the political, religious and cultural folklorisation of Romani and of Romani culture too. Consequently, Romani culture is included into the majority's ethno-culture business, which more or less can be labelled an economic folklorisation.

The outlined scenario - a decrease in communicative functions paralleled by an increase in symbolic functions - leaves Romani between the Scylla of language death and the Charybdis of folklorisation.

© Dieter W. Halwachs (University of Graz, Austria)


(1) All examples presented here are taken from the Austrian context which in respect of its Roma population is paradigmatic for Western European countries: there are autochthonous groups, there are members of Vlax groups who came from the second half of the 19th century onwards, as well as working migrants who came from the 1960s onwards, and recent migrants from Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

(2) This use of lexical relics resembles those of Para-Romani varieties and indicates that Angloromani, Caló, etc. are not products of language attrition but in-group varieties of the respective majority languages used by groups which are undergoing or which already have undergone language shift.

(3) For the basilectal diatypes no dominant language is indicated. Language dominance in the basilect depends on the collective repertoire of the speech community an activist belongs to.

(4) The quarterly Journal Romano Centro is a bilingual publication in Romani and German.

(5) As diacritics, carons, are used in this e-mail it is more or less an exception. In e-mails usually writing conventions based on the ASCII code are used for Romani.

(6) Matras 1999: 495.

(7) Durada Tschal, the title of this CD (EMI Austria 8301472) is a more or less phonetically transcribed calque from German 'weitergehen'. According to general accepted transliteration rules the written form of this title is Dureder Dzal.

(8) The low level of accepatance of this "standard" is, among others, demonstrated by the different writing conventions used in this article. A standard is first of all a necessity and consequence of political and economical power that the Romani Union is lacking.

(9) This example shows a regional group-specific codification: German conventions for the implementation of a written language are used.

(10) Romani literature with "acceptable quality" is in most cases literature in the respective majority language written by Roma on Romani topics.


Matras, Yaron (1999) Writing Romani: The Pragmatics of Codification in a Stateless Language, Applied Linguistics, 20/4, pp. 481-502.

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Dieter W. Halwachs (University of Graz, Austria): ROMANI between the Scylla of Language Death and the Charybdis of Folklorisation. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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