Romani

Romani or Romany (both: rŏmˈənē, rōˈ–) [key], people known historically in English as Gypsies and their language.

1 A traditionally nomadic people with particular folkways and a unique language, found on every continent; they are sometimes also called Roma, from the name of a major subgroup. Historically known in English as Gypsies or Gipsies because of an inaccurate idea that the Romani came from a so-called Little Egypt, they are in fact descended from people who emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. Their language is closely related to the languages of NW India; their blood groupings have been found to coincide with those of S Himalayan tribes, and genetic mutations they possess are otherwise found only among Indians and Pakistanis. The Romani worldwide are estimated to number between 10 and 12 million.

In the course of their wanderings, Romanies have occasionally mixed with non-Romani neighbors and have sometimes settled down, but they have clung tenaciously to their identity and customs. Their physical type has remained largely unaltered; most Romanies are dark-complexioned, short, and lightly built. Their bands are still ruled by elders. The Romani have usually adopted the religion of their country of residence; probably the greater number are Roman Catholic or Orthodox Eastern Christian. Historically, the Romani typically traveled in small caravans and made their living as metalworkers, singers, dancers, musicians, horse dealers, and, later, auto mechanics.

It is believed that they came originally from NW India, which they left for Persia around the 11th cent. A.D. Later they moved northward and westward, and are recorded as first appearing in Western Europe in the 15th cent. Alternately welcomed and persecuted by civil and religious authorities, they moved from country to country until they had spread to every part of Europe by the beginning of the 16th cent. They arrived in North America in the late 1800s.

In modern times, and especially since the beginning of the 20th cent., various nations have attempted to end their nomadic lifestyle by requiring them to register and to go to school and learn trades. Some 500,000 perished in gas chambers and concentration camps during World War II. In 1956 the Soviet Union decreed that the last wandering Romani bands in that country be gradually settled in places of their choice. The countries of E Europe, where the great majority of the Romani live, adopted similar measures under Communist rule, and most eventually found some degree of economic and social protection, if not full acceptance. However, following the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, persecution of the Romani arose once more in E Europe, and by the early 21st cent. most faced increased discrimination and lived in poverty. In 2005 eight E European countries and the World Bank backed a ten-year program intended to improve socioeconomic status of the Romani.

See G. Borrow, The Romany Rye (1857, new ed. 1949, repr. 1959); I. H. Brown, Gypsy Fires in America (1924); Gipsy Petulengro's autobiography, A Romany Life (1935); J. Yoors, The Gypsies (1967); D. Kenrick and G. Puxon, The Destiny of Europe's Gypsies (1972); D. Mayall, Gypsie-Travellers in Nineteenth Century Society (1988); I. Fonseca, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (1995).

2 A language belonging to the Dardic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Indo-Iranian languages). The mother tongue of the Romani people, Romani has some 3 million speakers, mainly in Europe. In grammar it can be traced back to Sanskrit. It has borrowed considerable vocabulary from the languages of the various peoples among whom its speakers have lived and roamed. There is no important literature in Romani, but some biblical translations into Romani exist, for which both the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets were used.

See J. Sampson, The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales (1925); R. L. Turner, Position of Romani in Indo-Aryan (1927); J. Kochanowski, Gypsy Studies (1963).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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