Romani (Gypsies)

Romani Origins + Language

Romani, interchangeable with Gypsy, Roma, or Sinti, are distinguished from other groups of “travelers”, by having their own language, Romani. It is theorized that Romanies hold their origins in India, as the [[#|lowest]] caste members within India’s highly stratified caste system. In the 10th through 13th century, Romanies travelled into South-Eastern Europe, moving on to Central and Western Europe through the 14th century until present (Bakker & Ki︠u︡chukov 2000). Curiosity of Europeans was sparked by the exotic nature and dark skin of the Gypsies. They speculated that they were wondering as a method of their Christian sacrifice or penance for their sins. Gypsies being the minority group wherever they travel to, ascribe the term ‘Gadze’ to anyone not of the Romani culture. The Romani as a result of mistreatment by non Gypsies, developed a mentality that they had the right to steal from them without shame.
Romani language was never written or recorded, and was reserved for use within families, or during interaction with other clans. By altering some english words the Gypsies were able to keep their language incomprehensible to non-Gypsies. This kept their culture further segregated from the majorities in which they resided alongside. The imbued secrecy in Gypsy culture reinforces the mystery associated with the femme fatale character. This stereotype can be observed in the character of Carmen, depicted in Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, followed by a plethora of later adaptations.
Due to their nomadic nature, the of differing dialects is inevitable, however the consistent fundamentals of their language allow them to converse with bands whose language has diverged through traveling (Matras 2007). After moving into Britain, Romanies through assimilation and intercultural marriages, gradually adopted english, however some Romani words are still implemented, this mixture is referred to as Angloromani. Romani terms are common today in english slang, such as ‘pal’, Romani for brother (Bakker & Kucuhukov 2000).


Romani Language
The Romani language consists of numerous amounts of different dialects. In an article about the language of Roma, it was stated that “the vocabulary of all dialects of Romany, just as in other languages, is made up of original words, loan-words, and newly-invented words.” Long ago, while traveling from India to Europe, groups of Roma mainly spoke words of Indian origin that were originally adapted from Iranian, Greek, and Armenian languages, during the time of their journey. Those words were described as their original words. After visiting and leaving Asia Minor, Romani groups were all over Europe. Whenever they adapted words from new places they traveled to, they were called loan-words. They acquired many words from places such as: Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Germany, etc. Most of their loan-words came from the Serbo-Croatian dialect. The Roma [[#|continue]] to [[#|create]] new words that derive from their environment, and those are called their newly-invented words. A large percent of Roma speak the Slovak dialect because most of them reside in the Czech and Slovak Republic. An interesting thing about the Romani language that does not compare to Czech is that their consonants are aspirated. For example, Kh, ph, th, and chh are the four sounds in the Romani language that are articulated with a light breath ("The Language of the Roma").

Romani Gypsy Culture and Customs

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In Romani Gypsy culture, sexuality, procreation, and marriage are important factors that sustain their culture as authentic and true to their roots. Sexuality, procreation, and marriage are therefore perceived as “fundamental notions” essential to the human body as a Romani Gypsy (Weyrauch, Gypsy Law). Gypsy laws are based on common taboos relating to sexuality and procreation, which to a non Romani Gypsy these protection may seem quaint and difficult to fathom. Gender alone is a crucial and important factor in Romani Gypsy culture because while the job of the male figure is appearance in male dominance they also help conceal the important role of Gypsy women. Gypsy women are the only figures in Romani Gypsy culture that are allowed to “curse and pollute” whereas Gypsy men are not (Weyrauch). It is also a customary for Gypsy women to communicate the sexual and procreation taboos to their children during infancy. Also, they carry another important rule/law/belief that any Romani Gypsy lady in higher floors in a house “pollutes” the rest of the people in the house below her (Weyrauch). This abstract notion is looked as rather rational to them whereas, once again, to the outside observer the Romani Gypsy beliefs and culture may seem rather eccentric. Romani Gypsies also prohibited everyone to speak sexual matters at all times and especially in public around other Romani Gypsies or not. This rule was even more strengthen and emphasized around Romani women for if the were caught speaking of intimate sexual matters around others she would be instantly discredited and belittled as “trash” (Weyrauch). In terms of a typical Romani Gypsy family, it consists of a married couple (parents), their unmarried sons and daughters and even married sons and his family. However, once the daughter gets married she belongs to her husband’s family thereafter (Nikolai, The Romany Culture and Language).


The exotic gypsy character of Carmen originally created in Prosper Merimee’s novel Carmen, followed by Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, both portray the stereotype of a gypsy woman perceived by a non-gypsy audience. Carmen’s character is used to exhibit the gypsy norms pertaining to love, marriage, kinship, religion, freedom, and use of language. Carmen’s gypsy character traits are dramatized through her passionate but fleeting love affairs, resonating with the transient lifestyle of traveling gypsies. In Merimee’s novel, Carmen’s love interest migrates from Don Jose, to her Romi- Garcia the One-Eyed, to finally Lucas, reinforcing the notion of the unsettled and free gypsy lifestyle. In Merimee’s novel Carmen both smashes plates and plays the castanets in the same scene. This moment exemplifies her freedom from accountability as well as her freedom to enjoy being a performer, to simply enjoy life, carefree.

Carmen is also free from Christianity, as are other secular gypsies. Carmen’s implied demonic character is foiled in these regards against Christian, virgin Micaela, both in Merimee’s novel and Bizet’s Opera. Carmen is referred to often in both works as the devil, and as she marks another cigar worker’s face with an ‘X’, the mark of Lucifer, the idea of her resemblance to the devil is solidified. The gypsy nature of Carmen not only outcasts her with her dark skin, and brightly brightly colored clothes, but with her language as well. She uses her Basque and Romani languages to communicate incognito, as well as to form kinships among her clan and Don Jose. Kinship is observed in Carmen as she and her clan travel and work collectively to steal and manipulate those they are attempting to con.

Carmen in Relation to Romani Gypsy Culture

Between the historical facts about the Romani Gypsies and Prosper Merimee’s fictional character, Carmen, we find an interesting relationship between the two—especially in relation to Romani Gypsy women and their social constructs. Because of the fact that Prosper Merimee wanted to relate Romani Gypsy culture to his character we find many parallels between the two. Therefore, the adaptations following the original Carmen that Merimee portrays are all heavily inspired by these ideas of Romani Gypsy culture. Firstly, the importance of sexuality in Romani women is an important characteristic in Carmen as well. Sexual appeal is what makes Carmen who she is after all. She is designed to portray the sexual appeal that also breaks laws and taboos in a social construct just as in Romani Gypsy culture. For Romani women it is important for them to break the rules or rather as Weyrauch states, “curse and pollute.” Therefore, as we see in Merimee’s Carmen and thereafter, Carmen is almost seen as a highwaywoman because of the fact that she breaks all rules and doesn’t particularly follow one single law or rule. In Romani culture it is important for the women to behave in such a manner to force male dominance and conceal women’s beauty, which is another idea that Carmen plays along with. The fact that her beauty attracts men and is tougher than the men she meets, this forces men to break away from their civil manacles in their respective society and break the rules to obtain and put in place their one and only Carmen.

"The Language of the Roma."Roma in the Czech Republic. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 May 2011. __

Matras, Yaron, Prof. Romani Today & The History of Romani. BBC.CO
__ Last Updated: March, 2007

Bakker, Peter & Ki︠u︡chukov, Khristo. What is the Romani Language? University of Hertfordshire Press, 2000

Weyrauch, Walter O. "Romaniya: An Introduction to Gypsy Law." Google Books.University of California Press, 2001. Web. 26 May 2011.<__>.

Nikolai, Mathew. "The Romany Culture and Language." Westwood Fortunecity. 200.Web. 26 May 2011.<__>.

Bizet, Georges. Carmen. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. New York, New York, 1996.
Merimee, Prosper. Carmen and Other Stories. Oxford University Press Inc, New York, 2008.