Roma, The

views updated

Roma, The


The term Roma has come into common parlance to refer to all the populations in Europe (and indeed the rest of the world) that used to be referred to in their host societies as Gypsies, Cigány, Tsigani, and other terms. It thus covers a number of populations with particular histories but also certain distinctive commonalities. This article focuses on those who have a historical link to populations that have spoken Romani, an Indic language now in use on all the continents of the world. Speakers of an ancestral form of Romani were in all likelihood among a number of populations of service nomads who circulated in the southern ranges of the Eurasian landmass between northern India and the Middle East over the past thousand years or more. Other related ethnic-linguistic groups include the Dom (speakers of Domari), found across the Middle East, and the Lom (speakers of Lomavren, spoken in Armenia, Georgia, and eastern Turkey).

The reconstruction of the early history of Romani speaking populations is fraught with difficulties as archival records are scant. Moreover the procedure by which earlier historians attempted to reconstruct early modern Romani social life from philological materials is now widely discredited. Genetic evidence (mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA) unsurprisingly supports the linguistic link to North India, but founder effects and other sampling uncertainties mean detailed and datable population histories cannot as yet be reconstructed.

While all Romani speakers can be called Gypsy, not all Gypsies are Romani speakers. Nevertheless, there are some signs of a broader Roma ethnic awareness developing in some circles, at least across Europe, including people whose ancestors may never have spoken any Indic language.

On the basis of dialect differentiation it is possible to distinguish four large segments of the European Romani population. The four branches of Romani are Balkan, Vlax (centered in Romania but spreading westward), Central, and Northern. British or Welsh and Iberian Romani once constituted independent branches but survive only as special lexicons used as part of English or Spanish.

These linguistically determined regions of diffusion indicate zones of greater and more intense interaction among Romani speakers but cannot be used to determine the movements or settlement history of all Roma. Since the dialect groupings mentioned here are more or less territorially based (even if the boundaries between them are loose and alterable), dialect corresponds to some extent to history. It thus makes heuristic sense to talk, for instance, of Sinte (in Germany), of Gitanos (in Spain), or Vlax (in various parts of Europe and beyond) as loosely defined cultural groups within the Roma.

Roma speak Romani (often spelled Romany) or Romanes. This is an Indic language, probably originating in central India over one thousand years ago. Yaron Matras has estimated that in the early Romani inherited lexicon, of 1,000 lexical roots, 200 to 250 are from Greek, around 70 from Iranian, and 40 from Armenian, leaving about 650 to 700 roots of Indic origin. There are no monolingual speakers of Romani, and the language as spoken by Roma in different parts of Europe incorporates loan words reflecting the history of local contact with other languages. The fact that the term Gypsy and other exonyms such as the Hungarian Cigány or the German Zigeuner are found from the late Middle Ages in Europe indicates a likely time of arrival for Romani speakers. These exogenous terms are more or less abusive and have strongly negative connotations of deceit and laziness.

Roma make up approximately 3 to 5 percent of the population of most eastern European countries as well as of Spain. Exceptional cases (Poland and the Baltic States, for example, where Roma represent tiny minorities) are areas where Nazi-led persecution and killings were particularly intense. In the early industrialized west of the Continent, Roma or Gypsies constitute around.1 percent of the total population.

Scholarly dispute rages as to the reasons for the persistence and success of the Roma way of life. For some, this is simply a matter of the fall of the cultural dice. The ability of Roma groups to retain a distinctive set of values and then to remain relatively unnoticed and unknown has been stressed by one school of anthropologists. Another focuses on the particular ways Roma have resisted assimilation into sedentary societies and the ways they have constructed cultural values in an oppositional strategy to peasant and farming communities.

The traditional Roma economic orientation was strikingly differentiated from that of the surrounding agricultural population, known by Roma as gaźe or farmers. Though there are communities of Roma who own land, most tend not to rely directly on the natural environment for their livelihood. Rather, they depend on human environments. Thus Roma are found wherever the non-Roma environment provides them with the human resources they need to carry out their economic activities.

In early modern Europe, Roma were known as blacksmiths and musicians, both infamous professions that were construed as either polluting or socially dangerous. For much of the twentieth century successful Roma engaged, if possible, in various forms of trade, especially with antiques, horses or other animals, and (more recently) secondhand cars. Poorer Roma are often engaged in various forms of scavenging of industrial waste goods that are then sold back to the gaźos (non-Roma).

For most Roma, trade provides an insufficient income to support a family, and so wage labor in factories became the norm after World War II, at least in Spain and Eastern Europe. Under communist rule all citizens were obliged to have a registered workplace. The collapse of the planned economies and with them the heavily subsidized and profoundly inefficient and unmodernized industries of the region led to mass unemployment among Roma families across the region, especially elder Roma. Rates of unemployment are estimated at between 30 and 70 percent in many of the former communist countries.

Relations between Roma and the authorities do not always reflect directly the state of Romas economic position. The relationship between Roma and majority populations has by no means always been conflictual, though issues around sedentarization and resistance to proletarianization have recurrently led to periods of persecution.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century policy toward Gypsies was largely driven by police concerns that they represented a hard-to-identify, unsettled population, and the origin of extraterritorial police (such as Interpol) procedures in Europe lies in part in police work dealing with Roma in Germany and other areas of central Europe. The history of Roma in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia is of particular note, as many were enslaved to feudal lords and monasteries until the mid-nineteenth century. Slavery here refers to a form of unbreakable personal and domestic bond rather than the more familiar plantation slavery characteristic of the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

During the 1930s persecution of Roma across central and eastern Europe intensified, in particular inside the German Third Reich. Using anthropological and, more importantly, police procedures for identifying the unsettled, the Third Reich registered the entire German Romani population before deporting two-thirds to camps in the occupied east. Although the Nazis never formulated an explicit final solution for the Roma, the cumulative effect of sterilization programs in the Third Reich, mass deportations to Auschwitz, and systematic massacres on the eastern and southeastern fronts constituted a genocidal campaign in which well over 100,000 Roma died.

For forty years after the war the democratic German successor state failed to fully acknowledge the nature and extent of the Nazi persecution, and thousands of Roma died without receiving proper reparation or compensation for their suffering. This remains a potent symbol to young activists of the marginalization of Roma in European political and civic society.

Historical work has demonstrated the existence of a sharp sense of persecution and discrimination among Roma as early as the eighteenth century. But it was not until the second and third decades of the twentieth century that any serious attempts at local and international self-organization began. Communist nationality policy tended to blow alternately hot and cold on Romani self-organization, but the legacy in Bulgaria and Hungary of political movements in the 1950s can still be felt. The formation of the International Romany Union in 1971 counts as a formal landmark in the process of Romany self-organization, but perhaps more important has been the emergence of a broadly based Romani intelligentsia across eastern Europe since the early 1970s. In the early twenty-first century scores of young Romani intellectuals are shaping a new, Europe-wide Romani movement. The presence, in 2007, in the European Parliament of two young Romani members, Livia Jároka and Viktória Mohácsi (both from Hungary), is indicative of the dynamism of this new generation.

Government policies toward Roma vary widely across Europe. In the former communist countries a certain policy schizophrenia may be observed: encouraging an ethnicization of public policy (with programs targeted not at social problems but ethnic groups) and at the same time a tendency to represent the so-called Roma question as one of national security, playing on fears of demographic explosion among Roma and demographic collapse of the majority population. In reality Romani demographic trends mirror the decline in fertility witnessed across Europe.

Mass mobilization of Roma has been hampered by a number of factors. In most Romani communities social organization is kinship based, with no formal political structures existing over and above loose networks of related families. Romani communities tend to be extremely egalitarian in values, despite economic inequalities among households being marked. This militates against the emergence of stable political leadership. Occasionally kings or other forms of traditional leaders arise when non-Gypsy authorities collaborate with prominent Roma to control access to some limitable resource, but the authority of such people is largely contingent on their ability to serve up the non-Gypsies.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century the importation of a human and civic rights discourse through mainly U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has provided an oppositional language of self-representation to activists. With most of the former communist countries now inside the European Union (EU), the U.S.-backed NGOs tend to be withdrawing. At the same time EU structures tend to encourage a demand for participation and collaboration at a local level with community representatives. It remains to be seen whether the imported oppositional stance of civic rights can be adapted to the needs and opportunities of the new situation. It is in this complex context that the new, highly educated young Romani elite are trying to create a politics of Romani identity fit for the twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO Discrimination; Ethnicity; Holocaust, The; Identity; Kinship; Racism


Budrala, Dumitru. 2005. The Curse of the Hedgehog. Sibiu, Romania: Foundation for Visual Anthropology. Film.

Margalit, Gilad. 2002. Germany and Its Gypsies: A Post-Auschwitz Ordeal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Matras, Yaron. 2002. Romani: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Stewart, Michael. 2002. Deprivation, the Roma and the Underclass. In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Practices in Eurasia, ed. Chris Hann, 133155. London: Routledge.

Vermeersch, Peter. 2006. The Romani Movement: Minority Politics and Ethnic Mobilization in Contemporary Central Europe. New York: Berghahn Books.

Michael Stewart