Origin and Denomination

General names for the the common language of the Roma, the Sinti, the Kale and other European population groups summarised by the pejorative denomination gypsies are Romanes and Romani:

  • Romanes: derived from an adverb: Džanes romanes? ("Do you speak (= know) "roma")." This definition is almost exclusively used in German speaking areas.
  • Romani: derived from an adjective: romani čhib ("Roma-tongue, Roma-language"), this definition is used in English and internationally. Moreover, most definitions for New-Indo-Aryan languages end in -i: Hindi, Panjabi, Maharathi, Bengali, etc. Romani thus simultaneously implies its affiliation to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. (see table)

Up until the end of the 18th century, there was nothing but wildest speculations about origin and language of the "gypsies". In his 1697 paper titled "De civitate Norimbergensis commentario" Johann Christoph Wagenseil thus characteristically describes Romani as a mixture of German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and fantastical words, claiming that:

"Die ersten Ziegeiner sind aus Teutschland gebürtige Juden gewesen." ["The first gypsies were German-born Jews."] (quoted in Ruch 1986: 77)

Even in 1781, the weekly journal "Neueste Mannigfaltigkeiten" published in Temesvar still read:

"Aus der Vermischung von Äthiopiern, Trogloditen und Ägyptern entstand ein eigenes irrendes Volk, welches von allen drei Nationen etwas hat und von dem man ... annehmen kann, daß die heutigen Zigeuner seine Abkömmlinge sind." ["Out of the mixing of Ethiopians, Troglodites and Egyptians, there evolved an individual, migrating people, which has retained something of all three nations and whose descendents can be assumed to be today’s gypsies."] (Griselini 1781, zitiert nach Ruch 1986: 92)

Thanks to the development of comparative methods in linguistics, the origins could be clarified. The beginning of serious discussions on this topic can be placed with Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger. In his study "Von der Sprache und Herkunft der Zigeuner aus Indien" published in 1782, he scientifically proves the relationship of Romani to Indian languages. Moreover, he criticises discrimination and romanticising prejudices, calling the miserable living conditions of the Gypsies

["... a political inconsistency, which to tolerate our enlightened century should be ashamed of" ] "... eine politische Ungereimtheit, welche unser erleuchtetes Jahrhundert weiter zu dulden sich schämen sollte". (Rüdiger 1782/1990: 49)

Sixtytwo years later, Pott’s study "Die Zigeuner in Europa und Asien" [The Gypsies in Europe and Asia] marks another milestone in the linguistic discussion of Romani. Pott identifies its origin and thus the descent of the "gypsies". Accordingly, Romani is to be attributed to the (northern) Indian languages and ["thus holds a blood relation to the proud Sanskrit"]. "steht somit mit dem stolzen Sanskrit in blutsverwandtem Verhältnis." (Pott 1844: XV)

Consequently, Romani is an Indo-Arian language spoken exclusively outside of India. Its premiere position within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indoeuropean languages is demonstrated by the table: (see illustration)

Worth mentioning as another milestone for the development of the linguistics of Romani, is the work of the Slawist Franz Miklosich. In his two series of articles published between 1872 und 1881, Romani is for the first time structured according to different dialects. This organisation into thirteen "dialects" is primarily based on influences of the host countries‘ languages, differentiating, among others, between the Greek, the Romanian, and the Hungarian dialects.

Another investigation with significance to this day is Turner's paper on "The Position of Romani in Indo-Aryan" of 1926. In this study, a comparison of Romani and Sanskrit and various New-Indian languages leads Ralph L. Turner to the conclusion that there must have existed early relationships of Romani to the Central-Indian group of Indo-Arian languages. Thus, the Roma’s antecedents must have lived in the central Indian area, from where they emigrated to the north-west of India (about 250 BC) to reside there for a longer period of time. Experts still disagree on the point of time of the "gypsies‘" emigration from the northwest of India. If we consider all the different statements, the resulting period of time is somewhere between the 5th and 10th century A.D. In the second half of the first millenium, emigration most probably did not happen all at once but took place in the course of various migration waves.

Below, some examples for sound changes from Sanskrit to New-Indo-Aryan, which at least slightly illustrate Turner‘s conclusions:

Innovations which Romani shares with central Indian languages such as Hindi. These regular sound changes suggest both the relation to Sanskrit and a longer residence of Romani speakers in central India:

Sanskrit Romani Hindi "English"
kṣa rukh ru:kh "tree"
rakta rat ra:ta: "blood"

Differences between Romani and central Indian languages, and repectively, conservative features of Romani as opposed to central Indian innovations, which support the assumption of an early emigration from central India:

Sanskrit Romani Hindi "English"
dra:kṣa: drakh da:kh "grape"
miṣṭa mišto mi:tha: "good"

Parallels to innovations in northwest Indian languages such as Sindhi, which are not found in the languages of central India and thus suggest that over a longer period of time Romani speakers resided in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent:

Sanskrit Romani Sindhi Hindi "English"
vaṅkuḥ bango wiṅgu bã:ka: "crooked"
dantaḥ dand ḍandu dã:t "tooth"


Miklosich, Franz (1872-1881) Über die Mundarten und Wanderungen der Zigeuner Europas. XII Teile. In: Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Wien. Wien.
Miklosich, Franz (1874-1878) Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Zigeunermundarten. IV Teile. In: Sitzungsberichte der philosophisch-historischen Klasse der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Wien. Wien.
Pott, August Friedrich (1845 / 1964) Die Zigeuner in Europa und Asien. Ethnographisch-linguistische Untersuchung, vornehmlich ihrer Herkunft und Sprache nach gedruckten und ungedruckten Quellen. Zweiter Teil: Einleitung über Gaunersprachen, Wörterbuch und Sprachproben, Halle.
Ruch, Martin (1986) Zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte der deutschsprachigen "Zigeunerforschung" von den Anfängen bis 1900. Freiburg i. Br.
Rüdiger, Johann Christian Christoph (1782 / 1990) Von der Sprache und Herkunft der Zigeuner aus Indien. Hamburg.
Turner, Ralph L. (1926) The Position of Romani in Indo-Aryan. In: Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 3rd Ser. 5/4, pp. 145–188.
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