Romani: the secret tongue of the North

“They preserve a Romani ethnic identity, but they lost the language, in some cases already centuries ago.”

-EU-funded Working Paper on the political status of the Romani language, 2001

 In 1926, an Irish linguist- one of the greatest linguists ever to come out of Ireland- was working on a language that he called “perhaps the strangest of all the mother-tongues spoken in these Islands”. He was referring to a language of Britain, but not one that most people would associate with this northern archipelago with its grey skies, rocky coastline and constant mist of rain. This language was not Gaelic or Welsh; it was not Cornish (a sister language to Welsh, and probably once the same language) or Manx (a sister language to Gaelic, spoken on the Isle of Man between mainland Britain and Ireland): languages of Britain we might imagine being shouted out by bearded Britons on medieval battlefields. It has a very different sound, a different history, and a different community of speakers.

The linguist’s name was John Sampson, and the strange mother-tongue “the ancient Romani tongue”, the Indian language of Romani Gypsies spoken in Britain since early modern times. As Sampson found, it was “miraculously preserved” by the Wood and Jones families of north Wales, who still spoke it fluently until at least the 1960s.

Since that time, the inflected language has declined in use among British Romanies- in England this may have occurred even early, during the last years of the 19th century- but nevertheless, in modern times we proudly preserve its vocabulary in the form of an anglicized dialect- a dialect heavily reliant on forms of English for its grammar and some of its vocabulary.

Of course, the story is not simply one of decline. In recent years, Romanies arriving from Eastern Europe, many of them the survivors of Nazi genocide, have refreshed the numbers of fluent speakers across the United Kingdom. Significant communities of Czech, Slovakian, Polish and Romanian Roma, most of whom are Romani speakers, are now living across the UK, reinvigorating the tradition of the language here which goes back to the 1500s.

It is possible that 2013 marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Romani people in Britain: they first arrived in Scotland, and at that time were welcomed by the country’s Catholic king, James IV. Over half a millennium, the Romani language and people have survived deportation and execution under Henry VIII and Mary I, enslavement under Oliver Cromwell, and successive waves of modern anti-Gypsy legislation. Yet the only Indic language spoken in Britain since early modern times has no official status in the UK, and Romani children have no proper access to learning materials in their ancestral tongue.

The British government could help to change this situation, of course, by recognising Romani as a minority language of the United Kingdom, and allowing its inclusion on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The counter argument is that British Romani is actually dead language: it hasn’t been spoken fluently for at least four decades, and all that is spoken today is a slang version which consists of occasional Romani words used in an English framework (as the Calo dialect of the Gitanos uses Romani words in Spanish). This dialect is called by several names: Angloromani, to denote the blending of English and Romani; “Poggadi Jib”, a Romani language term probably invented by non-Romani scholars, meaning “the broken language”; or, worst of all, “Romani English”, a term coined by the academic Donald Kenrick, to emphasise that this is really just a form of English with a few differences brought by the Romanies who speak it. The subtitle of Yaron Matras’s 2010 book Romani in Britain says it all: “the afterlife of a language”.

To be sure, our dialect does cause problems for linguists with their constant need to classify modes of human speech into language families, languages, pidgins, creoles, mixed languages, dialects, “family-lects” and idiolects- a need which sometimes comes across as verging on a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. English Romani irritates professional linguists because of the difficulties it poses the classifier.

In an English Romani conversation, you might hear a sentence like “The work ain’t no kushti round here, chavvi”: it contains only two Romani words, and would seem to justify the suggestion that this dialect is really no more than a slang. But you might also hear a phrase like “Dordi, kakka rokker nixes chavvy, muskros akai mush”, and that sentence consists only of Romani words, though it would confuse a Romani speaker from the continent, because there doesn’t seem to be much grammar. So what exactly is English Romani? A language, a dialect, or a slang? Or is it a semi-language: a pidgin, a creole, or a contact language?

I am going to make an awkward suggestion: English Romani is none of these things. It cannot be classified in this way, because this kind of classification is primarily interested in fixed states: in language as existing in stasis, without huge shifts in speech practice, feeling and use. I think it makes much more sense to see English Romani as a kind of situation: the way the English Romani people used to speak, and the different ways they speak now, and how these things interact.

The situation is incredibly complicated: there are people who may only know one or two Romani words, and there are people who use hundreds on a regular basis, and more complicating still is the influence of other Romani dialects: there are English Romani people in the Pentecostal church who have learned Kalderash or an “internationalised” form of Romani. I speak basic Kalderash myself, and it has influenced the way I speak my own dialect, although I do my best to keep them separate.

What I do notice is that Romani people themselves rarely see this as a problem: it’s natural for it to be complicated. They also place less emphasis on dialects. If someone speaks Romanes, then they speak Romanes: the core is the same, it’s still “our” language, and the differences are less important than the fact that we, as Romani people, speak it.

Over the centuries, we have been reliant on the work of non-Gypsy scholars to preserve forms of our language as it has been spoken at specific points in time: we sometimes call such people Gorji jinnamengroes (“knowledgeable Gadzhe”) or Gorji Romany-Rais (“Wealthy gadzhe who have learned to speak Romani”). Yet while appreciating the work they did- always working in conjunction with Romani people themselves- we can also lament how keen they have tended to be to paint a sad, romantic picture of the language as a flame being slowly extinguished.

Hear the story of Damian Le Bas

The erosion of grammar does not mean the death of the language, either: take the eight word Romani sentence above: if someone said the same thing in a slightly strange sounding form of French, for instance, “Sacre bleu, ne parle rien gars, keufs ici mec”, I might observe that this is not standard, grammatical French; but it is obviously still a form of French, and it would be ridiculous to deny this. For some reason, though, the same rules are not applied to Romani dialects. If we do not speak with fully fledged grammatical accuracy, verbal inflection and adjectival agreement, the trigger happy linguists will just say “See? They have lost the language.”

Even if the language were actually “dead” (I do not believe that it has, by any reasonable definition of “dead”), precedent suggests that should not be a barrier to its official recognition. Ned Maddrell was the last fluent, native speaker of the Manx language and he died in 1974. Dolly Pentreath, the last native Cornish speaker, died in 1777. That’s 236 years ago. Yet Cornish is recognised, and Romani is not.

Of course, this is partly explained by the effectiveness of lobbying for recognition of languages like Cornish, but surely there is also something else at play. The fact is that, in origin, Romani is not a language of white Europeans, and is therefore not so easily seen as part of the heritage of a northern European country, and until we are able to have an honest debate about that, the status of the language in Britain is unlikely to change for the better.

By Damian Le Bas