In the Awareness series of the United Nations, April 8 is declared as International Romani Day, to celebrate their culture as well as elicit awareness regarding the issues that the Romani people face today.
This special day for the Romani people was declared at Serock, Poland in 1990.
Romani is the largest ethnic minority in Europe, with 6 million located in different parts of the European Union and about 10 million residing in Europe. Total population around the world is estimated to reach 20 million.
Social and political issues
For several decades, the Roma people have suffered from social exclusion and discrimination. Many of them do not have access to good housing facilities, health care and education. They become subjects of physical aggression. They are often bashed online and even political discussions are not often favorable to them.
Thousands became victims of genocide on April 2, 1944. There is talk about declaring April 2 as remembrance day for the 200,000 (or more) who perished in Auschwitz and the thousands more who died all over Europe from the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis about 80 years ago.
Remembering the first-ever congress
The International Romani Day commemorates the first global congress in 1979. It was held in London and attended by representatives of the International Romani Union. Mateo Maximoff representing the Manouche group from France, Jarko Jovanović from Serbia and Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia), and Grattan Puxon and Donald Kenrick from Great Britain, spearheaded the first congress together with several Romani studies scholars.
The first congress achieved many things to unite the Roma people. During the congress the Romani flag design was adopted. They also established the music and lyrics of the Romani anthem that was to be used internationally. The congress also founded the International Romani Union.
The Roma people used to be called the Gypsy people. In the first congress, it was officially decided that the new term for the group would be "Roma.'' It took four international congresses before April 8 was finally recognized in 1990 as a holiday that could be celebrated by the international community. The celebration encompasses the origins, culture, language, work, unity and the Romani-ness (romipen) of the ethnic group.
Dr. W. R. Rishi, Romani studies scholar and linguist, designed the Romani flag. Dr. Rishi hailed from Chandigarh, India where he was able to set up the Indian Institute of Romani Studies before he died in 2002.
The flag consists of two equal-sized horizontal panels. The upper panel in blue represents spirituality, philosophy and the heavens. The lower panel in green symbolizes the ties of the Roma people to nature.
At the center of the flag, placed over the two colored panels is a wheel with 16 spokes. It was based on the wheel of fate according to ancient Indian beliefs. The wheel is a symbol of traveling and pilgrimage while the red color of the wheel represents the Earth element, which is the first chakra (one of the centers of spiritual power).
Origin of the Roma people
The Roma people traditionally travel around in search of work. Their ancestors came from the Sindh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan regions of what are known today as Pakistan and India. Their DNA test revealed that their ancestors (Sinti and Romani people) were from the Dalit community, an outside-the-caste-system group in India. Previously they were called Untouchables but since the term is derogatory, it was replaced by Dalit. The official term used today is Scheduled Caste.
In previous decades, people used to call Roma as Gypsies. Their population is widely dispersed but large communities are found in Southern, Eastern and Central Europe, including Southern France, Spain and Turkey.
From northern India they arrived 1,000 years ago in Europe and Midwest Asia. They are associated with the Dom people, which also belong to the Indo-Aryan ethnic group, many of whom are located in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
During the 19th century, Roma people migrated to the United States where about a million trace their roots to the ancient Roma people. About 800,000 are found in Brazil while some went to Canada and South America. Overall, Roma people are located in about 30 countries.
Universally, they are called the Roma people today, but in the countries where they are found, they are called by other names. In Spain, they are called gitanos and the French call them gitan. In Eastern and Central Europe, they are known as Tsingani. They refer to themselves by other names such as ''Sinti'' (Eastern Europe/Germany), ''Manouche''/''Manush'' (France) and ''Kale'' (Portugal and Finland).
The language of Romani consists of a number of dialects which is spoken by about six million people. The small number is not surprising because many of them use the language of the country where they reside, such as Romanian, Spanish and Turkish. In some cases, they combine Romani and another language. According to some linguistic analysis, the Romani language shares some rules of grammar and vocabulary with Hindi.
Generally, Romani is a spoken language but it also has a written form. The written form is varied. Typically, they use the Latin alphabet, but they also incorporate Devanagari, Arabic, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. The first Romani text consisted of a list of words that were compiled in the 16th century by Andrew Borde and other scholars who were not Romani people. A standard spelling system was not completed.
Speakers of Romani hardly had access to education throughout history since they have been regarded as outcasts. Others consciously chose to be functionally illiterate to protect their culture. Despite not having a written language, its oral language is very rich.
The Roma people often used their language as a secret language, which in some way helped in preserving it.
Indo-Aryan language family
The Romani languages (also spelled as Romany), which are sometimes referred to as řomanes or řomani čhib (Romani tongue) consist of about 60 dialects related to the Indic or Indo-Aryan languages.
The separate analyses done by linguistic scholars presented different linguistic relations.
According to Franz von Miklosich, a 19th century scholar from Slovenia, Modern Romany consisted of 13 dialects, differentiated by the contact languages where the Romani language borrowed phonology, grammar and vocabulary. According to him, here are the languages that influenced Modern Romany: Greek, Romanian, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, German, Scandinavian, Finnish, Spanish, Welsh, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, and Czecho-Slovak (Czech and Slovak languages were considered as one in the 19th century)
But around 1914 and 1915, another analysis was put forward by Bernard Gilliat-Smith, who was a scholar from Britain. He said the Romani dialects have a primary group called Vlax (also Wallachian or Vlach) and a secondary group that was made up of non-Vlax dialects that were subdivided into Iberian, Balkan, Central and Northern.
When the 21st century started, the categorization put forth by Bernard Gilliat-Smith was fine-tuned by other historical linguists and scholars, such as Yaron Matras, a specialist on Romani and Ian Hancock, a linguist of British-Roma ancestry. The two concluded that five dialect groups, ranked equally, exist in the Romani languages. These are Vlax, which is the largest and most widespread group, the Balkan group, the Northwest or German-Scandinavian group, the Northeast or the Baltic-North Russian group and the Central group.
Systems of the language
The vowels and consonants of all of the dialects of Romani significantly came from Sanskrit, which is an ancient language in South Asia. Obviously there were changes following the more recent Indian languages although some ancient clusters of consonants such as tr-, dr- and st were retained.
Likewise, the grammatical system of the Romani is similar to the modern languages in India. It has five tenses, three persons, three cases, three moods, two genders and two numbers.
What are unique about Romani are its two grammatical standards. Each one is associated with a group of terms that came from similar sources.
One is the ikeoclitic or thematic vocabulary that consists of terms that originate from northwestern and central Indic languages as well as terms adopted from Byzantine Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Ossetic, Kurdish and Persian.
The other one is the xenoclitic or athematic vocabulary that has terms derived from German, Hungarian, Romanian, Slavic, Greek and other European languages.
To illustrate, the phrase ''I love'' is vol-iv in the athematic lexicon and kam-av in the thematic dictionary.
The culture of the Romani is as fascinating and rich as its people. Their musical heritage is quite exceptional. Romani music had influenced several composers such as Franz Liszt and had influenced flamenco, bolero and jazz music.
They have strong family ties, which become the solid support for their larger communities. They are also able to identify or be associated with other ethnic groups that have the same types of occupations, dress styles and variations in the language.
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