Learning Romany Romani Rromanes Roma Gypsy Gipsy Danubian

Spurred by an acquaintance's insistent, fervent appeals to learn Esperanto, I’ve decided to look at other languages that are more equally “learnable” by both Europeans and East Asians. As luck would have it, I’ve decided to look at the Romani, rromani or Gipsy language.

screenshot of TPL Learn Romani book pageVarianta în limba română pe FaṭăCarte Meta.

  • Romani language might very well be in the sweet spot currently occupied by Esperanto, but without the organized marketing muscle behind it – quite the opposite.
  • Of the numerous resources available to the Romani student, such as a (Face)book (group), TikTok and other language sites, YouTube is the richest.
  • The confusion between Romanian and Romani as well as other historical controversies are certainly unhelpful.

Recently, where I swim regularly, I met an individual who swims as well, and whenever he catches me, he keeps proselytizing Esperanto. I’ve found Esperanto on Duolingo, tried a lesson, and wasn’t terribly “drawn in”. But his entreaties reminded me about learning languages that are more difficult to learn (as they’re not on Duolingo), such as ASL and Romani.

I’ve learned a bit of ASL, to the point where I know what I don’t know (which is a lot). But with Romani or “rromani ćhib” I have absolutely no idea. Furthermore, Esperanto is an artificial (planned, he corrected me) language, as attractive to me as Klingon; he also claimed that Esperanto is far easier to learn, even for East Asians – but even if that’s true, isn’t there a language that’s somehow closer to the middle (i.e., between European / Indo-European / Indo-Aryan languages and East Asian ones)?

As one looks on the world map, the answer may appear in the form of Hindi, because India is the largest country in-between the two extremes and also the “mother-culture” for most European languages. That, however, could never work for me – I found it even more difficult to distinguish between some vowels and semi-vowels than the tonalities of Chinese. So for me that’s a hard NO. Then again, rromani is a language based on Sanskrit (the root of Hindi as well); much like Romanian is Latin with Slavic additions and influences, it seems to me (before study) that the former is Sanskrit 2.0 with pan-European influences, new, improved and updated to modern times, while retaining more in common with its mothership than the newer European progeny.

I wondered if misto is indeed a Romani word (I typed it before as michteaux and michteau) as, at least when I was growing up, this was the first "Gypsy" word that would come to mind when asked and indeed it is shown as such. The only other word I used to know was "Mucles", a nickname for a frail looking dude from primary school - it turns out it means "shut up" - but in my childhood we called him that without knowing what it means (at least I didn't). Finally, I looked up Scarlat's meaning (whom I mentioned in Poc-Rrom IV) and learned that it's an archaism meaning "roscovan" or scarlet in English, a word borrowed from Italian via Turkish according to dexonline. Needless to say, my knowledge of Roma or Gypsy language is very limited and I suspect the same goes for most non-native speakers in the world.

I looked for groups on Facebook since I previously found a couple for ASL, and discovered fb-rmchb. On Tik-Tok, there’s Flitar81’s channel providing bite-sized lessons. But the host with the most has got to be YouTube (yt-lr, yt-intro, yt-elez, yt-jromanes, yt-sejo, yt-jezik); it’s also best for ASL. For a cute intro, try the “Gypsy Princess” lessons 1 and 2 – also, with a nice compendium of superstitions, which compensates in freshness what it lacks in professionalism.

It might also be possible to learn through a Language Exchange such as mle-ry, where the language is also referred to as “Danubian” with users who joined in the past year or so: Sam (3472744), Malcolm (4282149), Coty (4165748), dana (4159141), Alexandra (3945798). Remarkably, some users who claim Romanian as their maternal language in their intro, list Romany as their “maternal language” in the user database – yet another sign that everybody (even those writing for the Economist), including native Romanians, are no longer able to differentiate between Romanian and Romani.

Keep in mind that this is a paid service and you cannot contact users unless you pay; it wouldn't be impossible for this to be click bait for outraged Romanians to pay to save their language (a treasure, as we all know).

In terms of more authoritative resources, the first resource I discovered and assumed it would be most accessible (to me, at least) is the “Learn Romani” book by Ronald Lee (Amazon: CA-lr, US-lr), published in 2005 and available at the local library (tpl-lr). LE: It's actually the only such resource I was able to identify so far.

An enlightening explanation for the discrepancy between the purported number of speakers and resources is provided on Quora (qor-gyp) about 3 years ago, with one user claiming that “Roma won’t like the fact that you can speak it”.

You can learn the Vlach (meaning Vlax) dialect from a book by Ronald Lee, but many Roma won’t like the fact that you can speak it. Excluding behaviour has been the thing at the core of the survival of the Romany identity since ancient times, despite huge pressures to assimilate and therefore be culturally wiped out. It is also the core issue behind Romany persecution, since people are lousy at dealing with even small cultural differences or nuances of rejection. The exclusion has always worked both ways.

Many ‘progressive’ Roma will be okay with it so long as you come across as genuine, not as a fake, but you may still be regarded as unclean, or as some kind of spy for the authorities. There are many dialects, so if you learn you may only be able to communicate with one group, with a mixed emotional responses to boot.

You may have the most success with individual Romanies who are less beholden to peer pressure or groupthink.

I hope I didn’t put you off. Study can be amazingly rewarding.

Referred on Quora as “Vlach” dialect, we learn that Vlax, spoken in most of SE Europe and supposedly listed by SIL International with 500K speakers, is only the second dialect after Balkani, spoken by 600K (further South). To figure out dialects and the differences in-between, one would have to look at history. A quick one is Plans to Create a Country for the Romani | King of the Gypsies, WW2, Roma People, a quasi podcast by Jabzy, published Jun 1, 2021 – much more centred on the subject than my Romanistan series – but certainly less detailed than the History of the Romani people.

In conjunction with the link above, I discovered that in the Romanian Wikipedia there is a distinction between the Romi article and Tigani (Gypsy) and a heated discussion on unifying the two articles. The article on “tigani” links to “romi”, which it calls the most important group, then categorizes them in ursari, caldarari, fierari, crastari etc and states that there are “very important linguistic differences between the groups” with the linked footnote being dead; nonetheless, it links to a dead link (a Timisoara Institute) to support that assertion, but nonetheless, elsewhere in the article there is a link to a 2008 bibliography by (?) Foszto Laszlo at ISPMN (PDF). The Institute map suggests that the Roma population is concentrated in Mures, Bihor-Salaj-Satu Mare, Giurgiu-Calarasi and Dolj.

The article on “Romi” mentions that initially the word meant “slave” and not ethnicity: “cuvântul țigan a fost preluat în Țările Române din 1385 și desemna o stare socială, aceea de rob, nicidecum etnia”.

Romania appears with a significant minority population, estimated at 10% or more.

Alas, the subject of Roma history is long and cantankerous, and quite a few resources seem more apocryphal than historic, given the seeming lack of authoritative resources. You might as well check out the Romi Category in my old blog.

Sources / More info: CA-lr, US-lr, tpl-lr, mle-ry, qr-gyp, fb-rmchb, yt-lr, yt-intro, yt-elez, yt-jromanes, yt-sejo, yt-jezik, tt-flitar81, yt-rz


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