The manipulation by societies in power of the
identities of subordinate groups is achieved in many ways. One such way
is through discriminatory legislation, such as that enacted against the
Romani people in almost every land, including the United States. Another
is through media representation, both factual and fictional. This last
category, the portrayal of Gypsies in poetry, film and novels, is the most
effective in establishing such negative feelings because they are absorbed
subliminally by children, at a time when they are most susceptible to acquiring
society's attitudes. Apart from descriptions of Romani people and their
life, which are legion, the Romani language has also been the target of
comment, always worded as fact rather than supposition. In his Tales
of the Real Gypsy, Paul Kester gives his readers those "real" facts
about it (1897:305):
The Gypsies, like the birds and all wild things, have a language of
their own, which is apart from the language of those among whom they dwell...
the Gypsy['s]... language is deep and warm and full of the charm of the
out-of-doors world, the scent of the clover and the ripple of streams and
the rush of the wind and the storm. For the Rommany speech is full of all
this, and though the Gypsy has few traditions, his rich mother tongue must
enbalm in each word a thousand associations that thrill in the soul.
Kesler was not a linguist, and it is easy to see how he was able
to allow his fantasies about the Romani people to shape his preconceptions
of the language. Doris Duncan, however, presumably is, and can claim no
such excuse. Writing seventy years later in a journal of popular linguistics,
she made the following observations (1969:42):
All authentic gypsy [sic] communication is, and must be, oral.
As they settle for a time in a new country, they acquire some of that country's
words and incorporate them into Roum, more popularly called Romany.
It is believed that the Roum language began as a very small one,
concerned with the family, the tribe, the horses and herd, words required
for a simple existence. It must be very old, for Roum is highly
idiomatic, and the complication of verbs and genders is endless. There
is no way to write it except phonetically, and some sounds of the gypsy
tongue simply defy our twenty-six letter alphabet. . . Roum is a
disorderly language, and must be learned phrase by phrase. Even the syntax
ditters from one occasion to another. Verbs are very difficult . . . no
one can explain why the verb changes so radically. A major problem is that
no gypsy really knows what a verb is, and it wouldn't matter anyway if
he did, because this is the way it must be said. The idiom is paramount
in Roum and cannot be changed.
Duncan is right in maintaining that Romani has adopted words from
those with whom its speakers have come in contact - this is a natural process
affecting all languages, and one which has caused English, for example,
to lose nearly three-quarters of its original Anglo-Saxon lexicon by dictionary
count. But Bayle St.John couldn't simply discuss this phenomenon as lexical
adoption when referring to Romani (1853: 141), which, he said,
...contains traces of an original character, [but which] is encrusted,
as it were, with words borrowed - it might be more appropriate to say stolen
- from a dozen different dialects.
A number of authors have claimed that, because of our character
as a people, Roma lack certain virtues, and that this is reflected in the
Romani language which cannot even express them. Those which have been discussed
by different writers include duty, possession, truth,
quiet. How negatively must the non-Gypsy world regard our people,
to think that we cannot even express such basic human concepts and skills!(1)
Over a century ago, Adriano Colocci first introduced
a notion which has since become a part of gypsilorist folk wisdom. In his
extensive discussion of the Romani people in his 421-page book The Gypsies,
he maintained that Roma
... have no more conception of property than of duty; "I have" is as
foreign to them as "I ought." (Colocci, 1889:156).
Citing Colocci as his source, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso
elaborated upon the statement in his widely-used book on Gypsies as a criminal
race, and made the jump from concept to actual language, by saying that
The word ought does not exist in the Gypsy language. The verb
have is almost forgotten by the European Gypsies, and is unknown to
the Gypsies of Asia (Lombroso, 1918:41).
In 1928, Konrad Bercovici, probably also using Colocci but not acknowledging
any source, repeated this notion on the first page (and again on the third
page) of his book The Story of the Gypsies, and also interpreted
the original observation linguistically, saying
I am attempting to unravel the story of a people whose vocabulary lacks
two words - "duty" and "possession". (Bercovici, 1928:1, 3).
He goes on to rationalize this by explaining that "what we own possesses
us, jails us." This was then picked up from Bercovici shortly afterwards
by Erich von Stroheim who, in his racist Gypsy novel Paprika, told
his readers that
The Gypsy mind is timeless. The Gypsy tongue has no words to signify
duty or possession, qualities that are like roots, holding civilized people
fast in the soil (von Stroheim, 1935:12).
Fifteen years later, the anonymous author of an article in Coronet
Magazine plagiarized and reworded the same statement:
Even today, there are two important English words for which the Gypsy
vocabulary has no known equivalent, and for which the Gypsy people have
never exhibited any desire or need. One of them is the word 'duty,' the
other is 'possession.' (Anon., 1950:126).
In a 1962 reissue of Leland's Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling,
Margery Silver wrote in her introduction to that edition
[In Germany], where they had been chronically subjected to the most
relentless and brutal oppression of their European experience since their
first appearance in 1417, five hundred thousand "sons of Egypt" - whose
vocabulary a recent writer has described as "lacking two words: 'duty and
'possession' - died in the Nazi ovens beside six million sons of Jacob,
whose history was founded on just those concepts, duty to God and possession
of his law (Leland, 1962:xx).
Five years after that, in perhaps the most invidious way of all,
since the plagiarism has been recast in such a way as to suggest an actual
verbatim interview, the statement turns up again in an article by Marie
Wynn Clarke, predictably entitled "Vanishing vagabonds":
A young Gypsy wife said "there is no word in our language for 'duty'
or 'possession,' but I'm afraid there will be soon." (Clarke, 1967:210).
In her introduction to the 1983 edition of Bercovici's Gypsies:
Their life, lore and legends, Elizabeth Congdon Kovanen repeats this
yet again, though adding the suggestion that because of this, Gypsies themselves
are responsible for the discrimination against them:
The Gypsy vocabulary lacks the words "duty" and "possession." This
reflects their unwillingness to settle down, live in houses, obey the law,
educate their children, be employed by others - and helps to explain their
almost universal persecution (Bercovici, 1983:viij).
The eighth repetition of this strange idea is found in a novel by
Piers Anthony, Being a Green Mother. The fact that the words "Gypsies!
...Beware - they steal children!" appear at the very first mention of the
Romani characters when they are introduced on page 18 is an indication
of the depiction of Roma throughout the rest of the book. The author describes
someone's attempt to learn Romani, but who
...discovered that the Gypsy language had no words for what in her
own were rendered as "duty" and "possession." This was because these concepts
were foreign to the Gypsy nature (Anthony, 1988:39).
The most recent, though no doubt not the last, is found in Roger
One thing the Romani chib never acquired, though, was a future
tense. Maybe this was a reflection of their attitude to life?... Neither
is there the verb "to have" or a word for "possession" in Romanes, which
I suppose makes sense it you don't happen to own anything (Moreau, 1995-.127-128).
Other words which Romani has been said not to have include "truth,"
"beautiful," "read," "write," "time," "danger," "warmth" and "quiet." The
first was maintained by Jim Phelan, author of many books about Romanichals
in which he describes his intimate life with British Travellers, and in
which he claims to have been "long ago admitted to the brotherhood." In
his book Wagon-Wheels he says
There is no word for "truth" in the romani (sic) language. There
is the crux of the matter (1951:81).
The concept "beautiful," is denied in the language in Virginia Woolf's
One evening, when they were all sitting around the camp fire and the
sunset was blazing over the Thessalian hills, Orlando exclaimed "how good
to eat!." The gipsies have no word for 'beautiful.' This is the nearest
The latest claim to a lack of certain basic human responses or skills
is found in Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their
Journey, where she maintains that there are no words in Romani for
"read" and "write." Elsewhere in the same book she states that there are
no words for "time," "danger," "warmth" and "quiet" either, because these
are foreign concepts for Roma (1995-.98). Even before the book reached
the bookstores, reviewers were accepting and repeating these false assumptions:
"[the Gypsy's] is a world...where there are no words for "time" (or
for "danger," "warmth" or "quiet")...where no day is different from any
other (Kobak, 1995:14).
The assumption that the Romani way of life is evidence of some kind
of evolutionary arrested development, which accounts for an inherent disregard
for ownership - and by implication a "license to steal" as Marlock &
Dowling (1994) call it - has found its way into at least one standard textbook
on anthropology. In words recalling those of Charles Davenport half a century
before him (1915:10-11), Cyril Dean Darlington wrote that
the gipsy communities which eventually wandered into Europe . . . still
betray the evidence of their paleolithic ancestry . . . the lack of interest
in property or understanding of ownership. For this reason, many of them
are regarded by settled societies as criminal tribes or castes (1969:364).
Like Bayle St.John, who saw lexical thefts
as a more appropriate label than lexical adoptions in his discussion
of the non-native element in the Romani vocabulary, none of the above writers
sufficiently overcame their stereotypical preconceptions of Gypsies or
of what they expected of the language, to ask a Gypsy himself whether
these words existed, or even to consult a Romani dictionary, of which dozens
exist. For a people who were enslaved in the Rumanian principalities for
five and a half centuries, a people whose lives were an interminable succession
of duties and obligations, and for whom possessions were a precious thing,
it should not be surprising that there are in tact many words for these
two concepts. For "duty" there are, in the various dialects, the words
vudzhlipé; for "possession" there are májtko,
trjábo, butjí, aparáti,
and theripé. The words for "truth" include tachipén,
and others, while "beautiful" is šukár,
etc., in the various dialects, while "read" is dzhin- or gin-
chit- or giláb- or drab-, "write" is ram-
or jazd- or lekh- or pišú- or pisát-
or chet- or škur- or skrij- or chin-; "time"
is variously translated by vaxt, vákti, vrjámja
or chéros, "danger" by strázhno, "warmth" by
or táblipen and "quiet" by míro or mirnimós,
although in truth, the fallacy of such a belief, i.e. that such words don't
exist in the language, should scarcely need refuting. Many of these words
come from the ancient Sanskrit stock of the language, while others, like
or míro, have been adopted from Greek and Slavic. Isabel
Fonseca concedes in her book that Romani had to adopt the words for "read"
and "write" from other languages, but apparently doesn't recognize that
English, too, has had to borrow most of its lexicon from other languages
(incidentally, the word for "read" is of native Sanskrit origin in Romani).
Indeed, a dictionary count of English word origins indicates that only
28% of that language is traceable to its original Anglo-Saxon stock; should
we assume from that, therefore, that the concepts of "duty," "possession,"
"beauty," "quiet," "danger," etc., were foreign to the English, since all
of these words have been "stolen" from French? Furthermore, English also
"lacks" a future tense, in the sense meant by Moreau, but constructs it,
just as Romani does, with a word which expresses the intention or desire
to undertake the action ("will" or "shall;" in Romani, ka(m)). There
is clearly a double standard operating for these writers.
The blind repetition of someone's statement without checking the original
source is a mark of shoddy scholarship- perhaps it is felt that less rigor
is needed in Romani Studies than in other areas of research. A list of
writers who, one after the other, have quoted the Romani proverb about
not being able to sit on two horses with one backside, could also be assembled
- all traceable without acknowledgement to Jan Yoors' book The Gypsies,
or the story about the Gypsy in jail who weeps for his jailer who must
stay there, or the story of the nails used to crucify Jesus. Victorian
writers unashamedly lifted material from each other too. These descriptions
of the Gypsy children on the Romanian slave estates are far too similar
to be coincidental, and appeared in the British and American press at the
time that the fictionalized image of the Gypsy was taking shape, though
its inspiration seems to be traceable to a German source dating from 1841:
(1) The same kind of prejudice that leads people to
claim that these words don't exist in Romani is responsible for the reference
in the August, 1996 issue of Disney Adventures: The Magazine for Kids
on page 24 to a condition called "gypsyitis." The symptoms of this affliction
include "an urge to run away from it all and dance among the dandelions,"
and being "footloose and fancy-free," instead of being a normal "buckle-down,
rules-and- regulations kinda person," which is to say one for whom "duty"
means something. The objection to this kind of stereotyping seems to have
escaped the magazine's editor Phyllis Ehdich, who defended it in a letter
to the International Roma Federation as being "on the contrary, a positive
portrayal of the Gypsy spirit."
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