The sociolinguistic situation of Romani

Romani is a language that until recently has not existed in a written form and has exclusively been passed on orally. It has not developed a codified standard and, as a consequence, no prescriptive norms. This linguistic situation reflects the socio-political situation of the Roma: politically, economically and culturally marginalised, ethnically stigmatised, discriminated against and persecuted, the Roma could only survive in small groups, that led to the geographical and social heterogeneity that still exists today. [ Origins of Roma]

Consequently, the people concerned have been in no position to build large political-economic structures or to get their share of political and economic power. Considering that the development of standard varieties generally follows the development of political and economic power structures, it becomes clear why Romani does not have a codified standard and also that it will not be able to develop a generally accepted standard in the near future. This has to be seen in connection with the status of Romani as a non-territorial language. As Roma were denied large estate throughout centuries and were only able to live in small groups – extended families or groups of interest, the so called kumpanias – there was no chance to develop larger social units which are a. o. the basis for self-contained socio-economic structures. On account of this the Roma were always dependent on the socio-economic structures of the respective majority population and – as a consequence – Romani was and is limited to intra-group-communication. This consequently inhibited the development of a standard and the development into a territorial language.

Till this day for most Roma their respective Romani variety is reduced to intra-group-communication and thus limited to certain domains. Romani primarily functions as intimate variety. Nearly all Romani speakers are bi- or multilingual and use the language of the respective majority population(s) for inter-group-communication in public and most often also in informal or partly public domains. As a result, no social stratification can be found within the individual Romani varieties. The dominance in the use of the respective majority language becomes apparent in the abstracted collective repertoire:

acrolect MAJORITY LANGUAGE(S) Public diatypes that are used in public formal domains when dealing with authorities, at school, in the media etc.
mesolect MAJORITY LANGUAGE(S) Romani Diatypes of the social macrocosm that are used in partly public informal domains with acquaintances, at work, etc.
basilect MAJORITY LANGUAGE(S) ROMANI Diatypes of the social microcosm that are used in private informal domains in the family and when in contact with friends, etc.

This repertoire displays the full range of functions as, for example, among some Kalderaš groups where Romani dominates the internal communication and is also used when in contact with speakers of other Vlach varieties. More frequently, however, Romani does not function in the social macrocosm but is only used as intimate variety:

basilect MAJORITY LANGUAGE(S) Romani

These limitations in the functional dimensions together with the lack of a standard and a written language are the major reasons for the fact that Romani has not only very little prestige with the majority population, but also that many Roma consider it inferior as compared to the language of the respective majority population.

The low prestige of the language, reduced domains, multilingualism and the pressure to assimilate on the part of the majority culture make Romani a dominated language whose relationship to the contact languages has always been asymmetric and never bilateral. As a result various phenomena of language contact and language shift occur ranging from lexical borrowings from the majority language to monolingualism in the majority language. In this way some Roma groups have given up Romani without, however, losing their ethnic awareness. Of course, there are also groups whose ethnic awareness was also lost when language shift occurred.

The little prestige of the language, reduced domains, bilingualism and the pressure to assimilate on the part of the majority culture make Romani a "dominated language" whose "relationship to the contact languages has never been bilateral but always asymmetric" (Igla 1997: 1967). As a result various phenomena of language contact and language loss occur ranging from lexical loans from the majority language to monolingualism, that is losing Romani or giving it up in favour of the majority language. Various examples of Romani usage from fully competent speakers over marginal use of Romani and language attrition to only relics in varieties of the respective majority language are given in the text illustration to this entry.

The final step of language disintegration is language loss. In this way, many Roma groups have undergone language shift without, however, losing their ethnic awareness. Today, Roma living in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia have Romanian as their mother tongue but still feel as Roma. In Hungary the mother tongue of about 10% – the so-called Beaš – is Romanian, roughly 70% speak Hungarian and only about 20% Romani. Of course, there are also groups whose ethnic awareness was also lost when language loss occurred. Furthermore, there are Romani varieties which have died out due to language loss among their speakers. Generally speaking, language loss can only be equated with language death when the entire group of speakers gives up on their Romani variety or suffers language loss.

Considering to what extreme extent the Roma groups and, consequently, also Romani are pressured into assimilating, the various varieties still display an astonishing vitality – especially if the marginalisation of their speakers is taken into consideration. This vitality raises hopes that Romani will continue to contribute to the linguistic and, consequently, also to the cultural diversity of Europe. For this goal to be achieved, it is absolutely necessary that its speakers will finally be granted equal rights and treatment, which they have been denied for centuries.


Boretzky, Norbert / Igla, Birgit (1994) Romani Mixed Dialects. In: Bakker, Peter / Mous, Marten (eds.) Mixed Languages. 15 case studies in language intertwining (= Studies in Language and Language Use 13), Amsterdam, pp. 35–68.
Halwachs, Dieter W. / Igla, Birgit (1993) Polysystem, Repertoire und Identität. In: GLS 39/40, pp. 71-90.
Igla, Birgit (1997) Romani. In: Goebl, Hans / Nelde, Peter H. / Zdeněk, Starý / Wölk, Wolfgang (eds.) Kontaktlinguistik. Ein internationales Handbuch zeitgenössischer Forschung. 2. Halbband, Berlin/New York, pp. 1961–1971.
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