Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Romani: A Language with No Nation

by Lilia Motley

Lilia Motley is a senior in Computer Science at the University of Illinois.  Lilia's future plans include taking a job at Microsoft in Seattle.  Lilia wrote this blog post in the 418 "Language and Minorities in Europe" course in Spring 2019.

Image Credit: Arnold Platon, via Wikimedia Commons.
License available here.

Out of all the minority languages in Europe, few are in a situation as unique and contradictory as Romani's: the language boasts an estimated 3.5 million speakers--possibly making it the largest minorized language in the European Union--yet it is only recognized as an official language in one region [i].  It is ratified under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 16 states--more than any other language--yet its promotion by these countries is often lackluster compared to others.  Romani speakers live in almost every country in Europe, and yet nowhere do they make up more than 10% of the population [ii].  Some groups of the Roma people have often been referred to as "Travelers", and this characterization is reflected in their language; spread across the map of Europe, every state is its home, and yet no state is its home.

Much like the speakers of Romani are fractured across dozens of states, so are the language policies dealing with them.  There have been several attempts at the international level of European politics to endorse the language: for example, the Council of Europe expressly stated in a recommendation on the Roma people in Europe that "guarantees for equal rights, equal chances, equal treatment, and measures to improve their situation will make a revival of Gypsy language and culture possible, this enriching the European cultural diversity.  The Committee of Ministers under the Council also expressed their support for Romani language education in a recommendation, saying that "in the countries where the Romani language is spoken, opportunities to learn in the mother tongue should be offered at school to Roma/Gypsy children."  As nice as these sentiments are, however, it is ultimately up to the individual sovereign states in which Romani speakers live to implement concrete measures in support of the language.

This brings us to an important question: what factors determine a state's level of investment in supporting the Romani language?   Are they primarily cultural, demographic, or legislative?  In order to answer this, let's examine a handful of European states as case studies.  I've broken each down into several variables that could possibly affect its policy support for Romani: the size of its Romani speaking population, region of Europe (Norther, Southern, Eastern, Western) within which it is located, whether or not it has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (hereafter ECRML) for Romani, and the percentage of the local Roma population that speaks Romani.  Maybe after taking a closer look we will gain some insight into what makes a state more likely to stand up for this non-territorial language.

Image Credit: Samotny Wędrowiec, via Wikimedia Commons.
License available here.

Eastern Europe

As the region home to the largest relative Roma and Romani-speaking population [iii], one would assume to find the most language policy support for Romani in Eastern Europe; in reality, this is only half true.  Below is a brief overview of a few Eastern European states and their attitudes towards Romani (note that all numerical estimates are very rough [iv]).
  • Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M)
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 2.25% (45,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: No
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 90%
    • Macedonia's constitution gives ethnic minorities within the state the right to official use of their own language; Roma are recognized as such a minority.  The country has also made steps (according to a report by Yaron Matras) to "sponsor a consultation on the codification of Romani...to adopt guidelines for a national written Standard, and to accept Romani as one of the languages of official government documents."
  • Hungary
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 2.9% (290,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: Yes
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 60%
    • Hungarian support of Romani exists in principle: its constitution gives minorities (including the Roma) the right to an education in their own language.  Yet, despite this and its ratification of the ECRML with regards to Romani, it admits in its related reports to the Council of Europe that not much has been done in terms of concrete action.
  • Croatia
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 0.65% (28,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: No
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 80%
    • Croatia has abdicated support for Romani due to the language's uncodified state.  The country claims that because Romani lacks a standard, schooling in it is unfeasible.
  • Romania
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 4.9% (1,030,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: Yes
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 90%
    • Romania is a special case, as it has the largest Roma population of any country in Europe, and the rate of Romani fluency among this population is very high (as seen above).  As such, it makes sense that Romania has what is likely the strongest educational support for Romani in Europe; the country developed a national Romani language curriculum in the late 1990s, which has been implemented in both primary and secondary schools.  This has resulted in "over 25,000 children [being] enrolled in Romani language classes at 300 different schools over the past few years", according to the report by Yaron Matras referenced earlier.  Paradoxically, it has not given Romani any constitutional recognition.
As you can see, policies towards Romani range from highly supportive to dismissive, even in the heartland of the language.  Often support is signaled through legislation, but not carried out in practice.

Western Europe

The relative population of Romani speakers in Western Europe is almost universally less than that of Eastern European countries.  It seems, however, that this has not necessarily translated into less support for policies backing Romani.
  • Austria
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 0.22% (18,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: Yes
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 80%
    • Austria is a country whose small (even comparatively) population of Romani speakers has not stopped it from taking steps in language promotion: its 1993 Ethnic Minority Law gave the Roma minority status, as well as the right to use Romani when speaking to officials and monetary support for Roma cultural activities.  In the Burgenland province of Austria, which is home to the majority of Austrian Roma, an amendment added to the Law on Protection of Minorities of the Burgenland Province gave Roma the right to receive additional school instruction in their language.
  • The Netherlands
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 0.043% (7,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: Yes
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 90%
    • Despite its ratifying of the ECRML regarding Romani, the Netherlands has not made any large-scale efforts to promote it.  Some Romani language classes exist in higher education institutions, but they are all the efforts of private individuals.
  • Germany
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 0.104% (85,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: Yes
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 70%
    • Many regional policies supporting the use of Romani in judicial and governmental proceedings, among other areas, existed even before the early 2000s in Germany.  Yet, despite having ratified the ECRML, many of the provisions granted by the Charter have not been put into practice on the national level.
Southern Europe

Southern Europe has probably the least total governmental support for Romani.  This is likely due to the almost nonexistent size of the population of speakers in some countries here (Portugal only has around 100).  Nevertheless, support of Romani has indeed been discussed by some of these governments, whether or not they ultimately chose to enact it.
  • Italy
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 0.139% (80,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: No
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 80%
    • Italy considered recognizing Romani as one of its minority languages in 1999, but ultimately did not; the reason its parliament gave was that they "did not consider it necessary to support the recognition, because no connection can be made between this culture and a specific territory," according to a report conducted by CIEMEN.  This comes in spite of appeals from Italian Romani speakers that their language be recognized and supported and brought criticism from some international language organizations.
  • Spain
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: negligible (100)
    • ECRML ratified from Romani: No
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 0.01%
    • Spain represents a very interesting situation for Romani: despite the almost nonexistent presence of "true" Romani dialect speakers in the country, it is in fact home to one of the largest Roma populations in Europe.  The country is also the birthplace of Caló, which is a sort of dialect of Spanish flavored with a few hundred Romani phrases.  Caló enjoys a good deal of popularity among local "gitanos", but it hasn't managed to secure any institutional support outside of NGOs.
Northern Europe

Northern Europe seems to flaunt expectations when it comes to its treatment of Romani: despite the Romani speakers of each Scandinavian country only making up a fraction of a percent of the general population, some of the most supportive countries when it comes to Romani language policy come from this region.

  • Finland
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 0.078% (4,000)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: Yes
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 40%
    • In regard to the Roma, the Finnish constitution states that "The Sami, as an indigenous people, as well as the Roma and other groups, have the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture."  Romani was also made a language of instruction in schools by an amendment to the Finnish Education Act.  In addition, Finland has its own Romani Language Board, which is in charge of developing language policies.
  • Sweden
    • Approx.% of the population who are Romani speakers: 0.108% (9,500)
    • ECRML ratified for Romani: Yes
    • Approx.% Roma population that speaks Romani: 90%
    • Like Finland, the Swedish government has also created its own body for drafting Romani language policy, the Romani Council.  Their laws also give students the right to instruction in Romani, and the government has backed measures to create teaching materials and radio programs in the language.  

It seems that Romani language policy defies expectations and norms just as often as the language itself does.  Countries with substantial Romani-speaking populations, ones who seem ripe for the possibility of community support, often implement only lukewarm measures or merely symbolic support; meanwhile, countries whose Romani-speaking populations are only a fraction of a percent have some of the most comprehensive language policy initiatives for the language in Europe.  Further investigation is certainly needed, but this examination of policy vs. statistics points to the idea that mere demographics or even charter ratification cannot explain the level of support a nation decides to invest in Romani; looking at the two Scandinavian examples, it may be that a country's cultural norms and attitudes towards its minorities are what matters most.

We have talked about this language in abstract terms so far, but it is certainly worth noting that the status of the Roma people in Europe is likely a factor in the way their language is treated.  Often they are stereotyped as dirty, backwards thieves whose culture is separate and undesirable compared to other minorities (despite many Romani having called their respective countries home for hundreds of years).  The battle for Romani language recognition and support will likely not be won without first ensuring the respect and dignity of the people who speak it.  Hopefully with time and the education of majority populations on the richness of the Roma culture, the Romani language will finally receive the respect and resources it sorely deserves. 
[i]  Kosovo is the only "nation" whose constitution explicilty lists Romani as an official (non-minority) language of the state (of course, Kosovo's status as an independent state is disputed).
[ii]  Romani is the country with the highest proportional Romani speaking population, according to research by Bakker and Rooker, at ~4.9%.
[iii]  According to Romaninet, an online project funded by the European Commission, the highest concentrations of speakers are found in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro
[iv]  Estimates for the proportion of the local Roma population that speaks Romani were taken from this paper.  Estimates for the proportion of the countries' populations which are Romani speakers were calculated by taking the number of Romani speakers in that country (estimated by the same paper) and dividing by the country's total population taken from http://www.worldometers.info/population/europe/ 



Bakker, Peter and Marcia Rooker.  The Political Status of the Romani Language in Europe.  Escarre International Centre for Ethnic Minorities and Nations, 2001, The Political Status of the Romani Language in Europehttps://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED479303.pdf.

Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo.  Ch.1, Art.5, Sec.2,

Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly, Recommendation No.R (2000) 4 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the education of Roma.Gypsy children in Europe, 3 February 2000, R (2000) 4, available at https://www.refworld.org/docid/469e04c02.html

Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly, Recommendation 1203 (1993) on Gypsies in Europe, 2 February 1993, available at http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-EN.asp?fileid=15237&lang=en 

Finland's Constitution of 1999 with Amendments through 2011.  Ch.2, Sec.17.

"Languages Covered by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages."  Council of Europe, 1 May 2015.

Matras, Yaron.  The Status of Romani in Europe.  2005.  Available at https://romani.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/downloads/1/statusofromani.pdf

Report of Romani Language.  European Commission.  Available at http://www.romaninet.com/ROMANINET_Linguistic_report.pdf


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