This dialogue wants to draw attention to the current developments in the Roma community in relation to the Romani language. On the basis of reflection, a person realises that Romani is a self-sufficient language like any other, and that this language is the keeper of cultural values. If a person wants to understand the present, they must acquaint themselves with the practices which led to its degradation.

  • What is…?

Romani: an Indo-European language which is rarely used in its written form because of the impact of historical events. Roma people speak this language throughout the world.

Dialect: a form of language which is used by a certain segment of speakers and which displays certain common characteristics.

Roma ethnolect of Czech: Czech as influenced by several elements from Romani, which has gradually developed into a self-sufficient dialect.

Roma studies: a branch of study concerned with Roma history, culture and language from a historical, anthropological, ethnological and linguistic point of view.

  • Topic

Like every nationality, the Roma have their own language – Romani. It is based on Old Indic languages and shows clearly what part of the world the Roma come from. At present, many Roma people use a lot of Romani words which appear in the same form in Hindu and mean the same thing. However, Romani and its dialects are formed from words taken from the languages used in the countries which the Roma have come from and which they inhabited for different periods of time. Individual Romani dialects differ to a greater or lesser extent from each other, depending on how they are currently used by various sub-ethnic groups. They differ not only in respect of their form, but by the extent of the active use of the language, i.e. to what extent it is used as a regular means of communication.

Four main Romani dialects are to be found in the Czech Republic: Slovakian, Hungarian, Valasko and Sinto. The most widespread is Slovak Romani, which has two main variants: Eastern Slovak and Western Slovak. There are many Hungarian Roma, but many have been assimilated linguistically. The structure of this language is relatively close to Slovak Romani. There are fewer Valasko Roma than Slovak or Hungarian, but they have retained their language by virtue of the fact that the members of all generations regularly speak it. There are not many Sintos, since the majority were murdered in World War II. This tragic genocide at the hands of the Nazi regime has meant that the Sintos will not divulge details of their language to gadjos, i.e. non-Roma people. For instance, because of her knowledge of the Sintos language, Nazi anthropologist Eva Justin was accepted by the Sinta as one of theirs, a status she abused by condemning her “friends” to concentration camps in the name of her pseudo-research activities.

In the Czech Republic, the Roma often use Romani in communication amongst themselves. However, its quality has deteriorated over the last few decades. The Communist assimilation policy was responsible for this above all, and the communication language of Roma families has become a Romani ethnolect of Czech. This is a form of Czech whose deviations from the standard can for the most part be described by the in-depth pronunciation, grammar and idiomatic structure of Romani. The Roma ethnolect of Czech puts many Roma at a disadvantage in contact with the non-Roma community.

The various dialects of Romani which are spoken in different countries are transcribed in different ways. The language is usually written as the surrounding non-Roma populations write, which makes for difficulties on the written level amongst Roma in different countries. For this reason, delegates of Roma federated in the international organisation Internacionalno Romani Union decided at their 4th congress to accept a single alphabet and create a common form of spelling. At the same time, a post-modern, “poly-alternative” spelling is beginning to assert itself, which is based on the mutual understanding of a restricted number of local standards. Despite the fact that there are large differences between the dialects of Romani, the Roma can basically understand each other in the most important respects.

Romani was not used as a written language for a long time. It was a language passed on orally, which also passed on the social and cultural values of the Roma through speech and narrative, which is proof of an ability to utilise certain mental skills. The written word entered Roma society only when Roma went on obligatory school trips, speaking what for them was a foreign language. Until that time, the Roma were illiterate, with isolated exceptions, and this was clearly the case in other European countries. With the increased literacy of the Roma and undoubtedly the close contact with majority culture, attempts were made by educated Roma to find a written form of Romani and its own literature. In this respect, great credit must be given to the linguist Milena Hübschmannová in the former Czechoslovakia, who, at the start of the eighties of the last century, inspired many gifted Roma authors and storytellers to try to create their stories in Romani, or to recount stories which until that time had only been passed on orally. Names such as Elena Lacková, Margita Reiznerová, Andrej Giňa, František Demeter, Josef Horváth and Tera Fabiánová belong to the group of Roma who established the foundations of Roma literature in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The official policy of assimilation, which basically lasted until 1989, supported an ignorant approach to Romani. These days, the Roma people in this and other countries have the official possibility of developing their language and using it at various social functions. Naturally, this is a difficult and long-term task. To carry it out, a rich tradition of Romani full of wonderful words, traditional songs and fairytales, a Romani with an effective system of onomatopoeia able to enlarge the language regularly with new words, is not enough. Social will and social effort are also necessary, along with the courage to work on the basis of trial and error during the utilisation of Romani at functions at which it has not until now had a chance of being used, and specialists are necessary amongst the Roma themselves who will sensitively regulate the development of Romani. This will has so far manifested itself in Roma contributions to the pages of the Roma press, such as the monthly magazine Romano Voďi, published by the civic organisation Roma in Prague, the fortnightly magazine Romano Hangos, issued by the Collective of Roma in Brno, Moravia, and the only children’s magazine, the monthly Kereka, published by the Democratic Alliance of Roma in Valašském Meziříčí. Above all, however, in the magazine of Roma studies Romano Džaniben, published by the civic organisation Romano Džaniben in Prague and in several Roma literary publications. Last but not least, since 1991 Romani has been taught as a university subject at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague.

Similar diasporas to that undergone by Romani have been experienced by every language in the world, some in the distant past, others more recently, and there are languages which are still searching for a means of fulfilling new social functions and appearing in new forms today. It is mainly for the Roma to master this difficult period -- but not only for the Roma.

At an international conference of languages of ethnic minorities organised by the Lapland University in Rovaniemi (Finland) in 1991, the opinion was expressed at the end that language, be it created by a single ethnic group, as the storehouse of cultural values, is becoming part of global culture. And therefore, other nationalities have a cultural duty to contribute to the preservation of languages, if their speakers wish to retain them. However, this duty is highlighted by an ethnic imperative for majority communities, which have made a dignified human existence impossible for ethnic minorities, and have degraded and suppressed the culture and language of these minorities.

  • Stories and examples

Simona, 15 years old
Simona lives in a high-rise block in Prague 3. Her grandparents moved to Prague from Slovakia in the fifties. Their children attended a local school. Her parents were frequently told by the school not to speak Romani with the children, but Czech. Without Simona’s great-grandmother being aware of the severity of the sentence, she accepted the recommendation. However, nobody taught these parents written Czech. Simona’s parents never learned Romani, even though their parents spoke their maternal language to each other. However, in contrast to Simona, they were lucky in that they understood Romani passively. Simona does not know or even understand this language. In the company of older or other Roma who speak this language, she feels very insecure and embarrassed.

Roman, 10 years old
Roman lives with his brothers and sisters in Ostrava. When he was five years old, his parents put him in a nursery school so that he could learn Czech and be well-prepared to enter school. From the start, this was unpleasant for the young boy because he did not understand the other children. Only Romani had been spoken for generations within his family. Over time, the situation in the nursery school began to change. Suddenly, he caught up with his peers and had no problems making himself understood. When his parents learned of this, they began to admire and praise him. Roman made more efforts to develop his linguistic competence, in order to have more of these pleasant feelings which his parents had awakened within him. He now speaks two languages fluently.

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Internet and other media:


Vlachicka djila – Nejstarší nahrávky písní olašských Romů z České a Slovenské republiky CD, Academia, Praha 2001

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