Codification and Expansion

In the context of self-organisation of individual Roma groupsRomani plays a key role: (1) Self-organisation in most cases goes in line with the guidelines of the dominant culture and may be described as emancipation by means of organisational assimilation. It is via this development that the common definition criteria of "nation", "ethnic group", and other socio-cultural concepts of the respective majority population are taken over and adopted. In the course of this organisational assimilation the ideology of European national states becomes more and more important and consequently Romani becomes the primary identity factor of the respective Roma group. This process triggers the codification and expansion of Romani and the emblematic and mobilising functions of language use are gaining ground.


Codification is to be regarded as the emancipation of Romani from other European national languages. The single attempts of codification lie between the tensions of regional and global approaches resulting from the heterogeneity of Roma and Romani. The regional or group-specific approaches take into account the requirements of the single groups of speakers and therefore are primarily oriented on a communicative basis, whereas the global approaches are more or less politically motivated.

As the missing tradition of a written language is regarded as a major deficit the promotion of a written form is the first step of any codification initiative. According to Matras (1999) in this context there are two types of global codification approaches in contrast to the regional group-specific approaches. (see table illustration)

The "codification for the purpose of academic documentation of speech (Academic Codification)" and "codification in the service of unification and language engineering projects (Language Design)" are to be considered as global approaches. Whereas, the "codification for the purpose of transposing oral usage into texts directed at audiences (Text Production)" is determined by communicative aspects on a group-specific level.

In view of the academic level, a type of norm has developed in recent years: "Though never conventionalised among Romani linguists, a consensus seems to prevail on the use of wedge-accents, as employed in south-western Slavic alphabets, to indicate palato-alveolars (š, ž, č) and the use of -h to indicate distinctive aspiration on voiceless stops and affricates (ph, th, kh, čh)." The marking of the palatisation with postponed j or with accent is one of the few open points of this convention for the written language.

The Language Design Project presented here is classified by Djuric/Cortiade (1990) as polylectal and, as it has been declared to be the standard by the International Romani Union (IRU), is described as the Romani common alphabet. The single common factor with the academic convention is the marking of the aspiration with the postponed –h. For the palato-alveolars the acute accents are used instead of the wedge-accents. The palatisation is marked by the so-called čiriklo ("bird") on the vowel. One of the most apparent characteristics of this process to implement a written language is the so-called morphographs which are used to capture the morphophonological alternation of case suffixes in different phonological environments. The locative suffix in mande as well as in tute is written by the sign similar to the "theta""θ", for example, the dative suffix in mange and in tuke is written by the "q". This codification, which is to be understood as polylectal or as variety embracing, attempts to do justice to Romani in terms of structure but also attempts to emphasise the independent appearance of the written form. Considering that the development of standard varieties generally follows the development of political and economic power structures, it becomes clear why this codification approach has not become a generally accepted standard, although having been declared as such by the IRU. Besides IRU documents the writing system is in use in Romania where approx. 15.000 children are taught Romani in school. The Romanian implementation of this global approach strategy is on the one hand due to a centralised Romani teaching approach by the ministry of education, on the other hand it is made possible by the, compared to other countries, quite homogeneous linguistic situation of Romani in Romania.

The group-specific and communicatively oriented approaches which naturally gain higher, but regionally limited, acceptance lie in a position exposed to tensions between the approach of bringing it in line with global approaches and the taking over of the conventions of the written language of the respective majority language. Three strategies can be distinguished: in the case of the "no-compromise" strategy, global strategies for the regionally group-specific text production are adopted. Some publications in Kalderaš-Romani use the academic conventions without any consideration of the conventions of the written language of the respective country of publication (France, Sweden, USA).

The "elaborate adjustment" strategy adapts, to a certain extent, to the conventions of the respective majority language, on the other hand it stresses also the independence of Romani by adopting global conventions. That is why Hungarian Romani publications are characterised by the adoption of Hungarian conventions as well as by the use of elements of global strategies: in Hungarian the marking of the palatisation is by a postponed -y which is global or in this case international as taken over from the convention of written language on the basis of the ASCII-Code; this shows the written form of palato-alveolars. The possible "Hungarian way of writing is indicated below in brackets." As an example of the "moderate adjustment" strategy the written language of Burgenland Romani is mentioned. The marking of palatisation and aspiration correlate the scientific approach because also in German the multigraph and not the diacritica convention is applied. The palato-alveolars are also written according to the German pattern: "sch, tsch". The voiced-unvoiced dichotomy is neutralised in this variety.


The contrast between global and regional approaches characterises the lexical expansion of Romani too.

Up to a few decades ago Romani was primarily used as intimate variety. Only with the self-organisation according to the ideal of the majority culture was this limitation perceived as a shortcoming. At the same time the first attempts to use Romani as language in the media were launched, which nurture the necessity of expanding into formal domains. This expansion is most evident on the lexical level as an enormous amount of technolectal designations are missing in Romani. The lack of these definitions has not created a communicative problem until the attempt to change consciously the status of Romani. Romani disposes of a strong integration morphology which renders it possible to adopt each word from the respective majority language and to integrate it morphologically into Romani. This advantage of Romani is considered as a disadvantage in view of the attempts of emancipation of the language resulting in "purity demands".

At the beginning of the codification the representatives of the Burgenland-Roma, for example, requested to substitute all Slavonic, Hungarian and German elements of their Romani variety by Indian or best by Sanskrit lexemes. Only a laborious demonstration of the etymological heterogeneity of other European national languages could neutralise this demand.

A similar attempt was made in the course of the codification of a Macedonian variety of Romani. In this case neologisms from Hindi were adopted, which – among others - has resulted in the adoption of komando "command" to Romani as borrowed from Hindi, because the real origin was not clear. These attempts to purify Romani from European vocabulary aim to increase the prestige of Romani.

Similar intentions lie behind the strategy to take over missing lexemes from English. This way of proceeding is found in a newspaper published in Prizren in the Kosovo. If in this case the international value of English is meant to increase the prestige of Romani in the two examples mentioned above, it is hoped to achieve the same result by using Sanskrit or Hindi which sometimes is felt as the 'language of the mother country'. [ Origins of Roma]

Increasing the prestige of the language by the adoption of lexemes from high-prestige languages applying the integration morphology represents one of the global strategies for the expansion of Romani. Another strategy applies the derivation and composition morphology. See two examples from the design Romani by Courthiade:

Instead of using internacionalo"international" the word maškarthemutno is used. This lexeme consists of maškar"between" and the adjective themutno deriving from them"country, state" and as a consequence it is to be considered a loan translation. In the meantime this positive example for expansion from the substance of the language starts to assert itself on an international level – maškarthemutne.

Xurdelin"kindergarten, nursery school" which similarly has been created from the substance of the language, on the other hand, is an unfortunate neologism. The plural xurde used as a noun of the adjective xurdo"tiny" is often used for "small change, coins", sometimes for "children". The derivation suffix –lin makes fruit trees from fruits, such as phabalin"apple tree" from phaba"apple". The question whether "small change tree" or "children tree" has asserted itself is easily answered: Xurdelin in which meaning it might have, is only used, if at all, by real hardliners of this design-project.

The regional expansion strategies are also based on the integration morphology, but in contrast to the global integration strategy they use the respective primary contact language as the lexical source.

Burgenland-Romani does not use the internationalism organizacia"organisation", "association" but farajn taken over from German "Verein". In contrast to the international use, Romani organisation is not named romani organizacia but romano farajn. Corresponding to the German dialectal use for "hospital" the lexeme schpita taken from "Spital" is used. Instead of using schpita also the loan translation nasvalengero kher from the substance would be possible, whereas nasvale means "the sick (pl.)" and kher"house".

Whether in terms of the lexical expansion the regional strategy dominates the global strategy depends on a variety of factors. If the initiator of the codification is an international organisation, global strategies will prevail. The same is valid for groups with a strong international spread. Groups which have been settled for a longer period and which therefore are partly assimilated, on the other hand, generally apply regional strategies and mainly borrow from the primary contact language. This distinction does not establish a rule at all, but shows a general tendency.

1 Only in exceptional cases does the self-organisation extend beyond group borders. National and international Roma organisations are not to be considered as umbrella associations, but more or less as loose relations between Roma activists that try to extend the self-organisation based on the passed on small-group structure and to create national or international levels of representation in order to put more emphasis on the interests of the Roma. In view of the fact that up to now the Roma do not have any participation in political and economic power this situation regarding their representation is not at all to be valued in a negative sense but to be regarded as an interim step of a heterogeneous ethnic group towards self-organisaiton.


Djuric, Rajko / Cortiade, Marcel (1990) Konsultacia vaś-i Standardizacia e ćhibaquiri. Materiali. Working paper of the Romani Union, Warschau.
Matras, Yaron (1999) Writing Romani: The Pragmatics of Codification in a Stateless Language. In: Applied Linguistics 20/4, pp. 481–502.
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