The Evolution and Importance of Angloromani, a guest post by Sarah Sissum

Sarah Sissum is a member of the Honors College at Southern Oregon University, where she studies English and History.

Angloromani is one of the numerous Para-Romani languages existing in traveler communities today. Characterized by its usage of Romani terms, the language reveals many elements of Romani culture and history. The exclusivity of this community, though, has made studies of the language a challenge. Romani linguists such as Ian Hancock have synthesized the relationship between English and Romani. Much of what is currently known comes from studies of Angloromani’s phonology and grammar. Most importantly, these linguists stress the necessity of the Romani language in the preservation of their culture. This essay will look at the history of Angloromani, its composition, and the cultural ties between the Romani people and their language.

The first step in understanding Angloromani is being able to trace the Romani people to their point of origin. The Romani people, often referred to by the misnomer gypsy, are believed to have migrated from India sometime around 1000 A.D. (Fraser 18). This inference comes from the presence of similar words in both Romani and several Indian languages, such as the word pani, which means ‘water’ in over fifty Indian languages and in Romani (Hancock 9). In the same way that linguists have been able to establish an Indian origin for the Romani, they have also been able to use their language to infer the most likely route of these peoples into Europe. Hancock traces the movements of his people after their diaspora:

The presence of many words adopted from Persian (for example, baxt ‘luck’) and some Kurdish (vurdon ‘waggon’) show that the migration must have passed through Iran; Armenian and Greek words (such as kočak ‘button’ and zumi ‘soup’) show passage through what is now Turkey; Slavic and Romanian words (dosta ‘enough’ and raxuni ‘smock’) indicate a presence in the Balkans (Hancock 9).

After their arrival in the Balkan States, the Romani gradually spread to Western Europe beginning around the 1430s (Fraser 85). Almost immediately, these travelers were met with scorn and accusations of espionage, as seen in an account by German chronicler Aventinus (Johann Thurmaier) in the Bavarian Chronicle during 1439 (85-86). This marked the steady deterioration of public attitudes toward the Romani during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (86). These sentiments would set in place a tradition of prejudice towards the Romani that exists to this day.

Like any society, Romani culture has played a significant role in the formation and spread of their language. Since their initial diaspora from India, Romani travelers have tended to be an exclusive group. Non-Roma’s, known in Angloromani as ‘gåja’s,’ have traditionally not been admitted into traveler communities. Byzantine Greeks referred to the Roma as ‘Tsingani,’ which roughly translates to the ‘don’t touch’ people (Hancock 1). As a result, those limited few who have had contact with the Romani, such as George Borrow, a 19th century English novelist who wrote multiple pieces describing Romani vernacular, have been highly prized for their insight into traveler culture. Even those outsiders who have gained acceptance, though, are seldom exposed to Romani in its entirety.

In addition to the obstacle posed by limited contact with travelers, a lack of literature has made it even more of a challenge to study Romani culture and language. Romani has existed as a language written by Romanies since the early 1900s (Hancock 139). Consequentially, roughly nine hundred years of Romani culture has passed solely though an oral tradition. The most prolific studies of Rom culture have occurred sparsely throughout history, and have been recorded by non-travelers. The first known work on Romani culture was written by Andrew Borde and published in England in 1547 (Fraser 10). His Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge contained evidence of ‘Egipt speche,’ which showed borrowings from both Romanian and Greek (10,12). Borde’s work, which claimed that the Romani tongue was Egyptian, attempted to identify Romani as a unitary language. The next text on Romani, Études sur les Tchinghianés by Alexandre Paspati, would not be published until the 1850s, and would examine the presence of Rom travelers in Turkey. Following works on the Romani would place them in Wales and Sweden, with evidence of their movement through Norway, Finland, Russia, th Balkans, Germany, France, and Poland (13). If these texts demonstrated anything, it was that Romani was not a unitary language, and that it had undergone numerous changes by the time it had left India and migrated to Great Britain in the sixteenth century.

The genesis of Angloromani has been debated for nearly fifty years. At the beginning of the 1970s, linguists Donald Kenrick and Ian Hancock offered two very different explanations for the origins of Romani English (the preferred term of Kenrick for Angloromani). Kenrick argued that Romani gradually developed over the 500-year period that the Rom had been in contact with the British (Bakker 15). As a result, their language became progressively more and more anglicized, until it was predominantly English with a Romani lexicon. Evidence from older sources indicate that the language of British Rom travelers possessed more Romani features in its early days compared to where it is at today. Kenrick estimates that the last users of Romani morphology died at the beginning of the nineteenth century, leaving behind only their lexicon for later generations (15-16).

Hancock, however, refutes Kenrick’s theory of gradual transformation with his charge that Angloromani is a creole. His proposal places the origin of Angloromani in the 16th century – immediately after the Romanies’ arrival in England (Bakker 16). Hancock posits that Angloromani formed as a sort of pidgin between the Romani speakers and the Cant speakers (16). Rather than melting into the dominant language, Hancock’s Angloromani separates the travelers from the mainstream culture (Matras, et. al, 4). This variation of Para-Romani establishes a tie between the minority groups of England and the Rom (4-5). The transmitting of Angloromani over generations has, thus, led to the creolization of the tongue (4). Above all, Hancock’s theory gives credence to the British Romani as a self-sustained culture with a language that is not a bastardization of English.

Other theories concerning Anglo-Romani origins tend to fall into either camp. Judith Okely of Oxford University expands Hancock’s creole hypothesis to cover most Para-Romani languages, particularly in instances where different Romani groups are in contact with one another (Matras, et. al, 5). Peter Bakker of the Aarhus University in Denmark, on the other hand, argues in favor of Kenrick’s proposal. His initial argument is that Welsh Romani rapidly converted into Angloromani out of a desire of the people to preserve their traveler heritage. After this point, though, Bakker contends that Angloromani gradually lost its Romani characteristics and became more and more English-heavy (Bakker 28-29). These are only a few of the numerous theories concerning Angloromani – some focusing on the speech as a type of mixed-language, vocabulary retention, or a sort of code for travelers.

Regardless of its origin, Angloromani possesses characteristics from both English and Romani. The language is predominately English with occasional usage of Romani words. Early Angloromani first saw the usage of the indefinite article a, as seen in “av a kušku ýhav,” meaning “be a good boy” (Matras, et. al, 10, 13). By the 1830’s, Angloromani had adopted English function words including prepositions, interrogatives, and possessive pronouns (13). Though Angloromani initially retained much of its original Romani structure, it eventually gave way to a more English structure. This consistent usage of English grammar is referred to as the “new dialect,” while Romani grammar is considered to be the “old dialect” (13).

Angloromani’s phonology largely sets it apart from standard English. While it tends to reflect English phonology in most ways, its variations are often unpredictable and inconsistent. Words may have multiple spelling variations, depending on who is speaking. Take, for example, the Romani word for ‘dog’: džukel. Angloromani has seven recorded forms of the word in its language. These forms include: jakkel, jokkel, jonkul, juggal, juk, jukkel, and yakkal (Matras 99-101) The word for prison in Angloromani has thirteen recorded forms (101). While variations in vocabulary and pronunciation are by no means uncommon within a language, Angloromani exhibits extensive varieties with few discernible patterns. Yaron Matras posits that this variation “is in line with observations on language decline and the relaxation of normative control on the realisation of lexical items and their structural components” (100). This, along with the widespread distribution of traveler communities, has led to a loss of key defining characteristics in Para-Romani languages.

Angloromani phonology contains relatively frequent usage of lenition and fortition. The Angloromani word for ‘blood,’ rati, is often pronounced as radi, with the /t/ morphing into its voiced counterpart, /d/ (Matras 100). Fortition is even more widespread in Angloromani. Iv, the word for ‘snow,’ turns into eef in Angloromani speech. Linguists note that the Angloromani /v/ tends to be quite unstable in speech, taking on either /f/ or /b/ (100). This usage pattern is difficult to track, though, and varies among users. ‘Snow’ in Angloromani, therefore, can either sound like eef or gib (100). Another notable characteristic of Angloromani phonology is the addition of the /h/ at the start of words beginning with vowels. An example of this would be the pronunciation of ‘Irish’ as Hirish (101). This also occurs in Romani terms, as seen when ‘iv’ is pronounced as heef (101). Rather than trying to determine when the /h/ should be pronounced, as in history, or when it should not be pronounced, like honest, the Romani tendency is to always pronounce the /h/. The Rom’s hypercorrection indicates a degree of insecurity attributed to low levels of education and a lack of exposure to institutionalized English (100-101). As such, the Romani are less likely to acquire instruction on standardized forms of English pronunciation.

The last aspect of Angloromani grammar that this essay will focus on is word formation. Angloromani retains a particular suffix –(m)engr- that functions as a common nominalizer. Matras presents five functions of the suffix: instrumental, productive-objective, agentive, descriptive, and associative-figurative (Matras 104). The instrumental usage of –(m)engr- is seen in the word dikkamengri, which means ‘mirror’ in Angloromani. It derives from the word dik, meaning ‘to see,’ and demonstrates how a word can depict an activity coming from its word stem (104). Productive-objective usage creates an object from a depicted activity. For example, chinnamegra, or ‘letter,’ comes from the root word čin, which means to ‘write/carve’ (104). –(M)engr- is usually agentive in cases of professions/occupations born of a certain activity (104). A berramengra is a ‘sailor,’ and comes from the Angloromani word for sailing, which is bero (104). The associative-figurative form of the suffix occurs when there is a direct link between the created word and the term that it references. Kannegras are ‘hares,’ and are known for their large kans, or ‘ears’ (104). The last form of –(m)engr- involves the application of multiple descriptors to the referent. The word balval, meaning ‘wind,’ and phagger, meaning ‘break,’ come together to form windmill, “bavvalpoggermengri” (104).

Perhaps even more pertinent to understanding Angloromani is understanding its usage patterns. Speakers of Angloromani tend to employ the language circumstantially. It often functions as a sort of code for the Romani (Matras 134). Using the language can signal to another person that they are recognized as being part of the “in-group” (134). Angloromani also has a highly emotive quality. In a conversation between Matras and a Romani friend of his, the two discuss the friend’s impending move from a trailer into a house. When Matras asks his friend if they signed the contract for the house, the friend responds that no, they had not signed for the house because they got trashed. In Romani, this word mean ‘to fear.’ The friend’s usage of Romani in this instance is indicative of a much larger fear of moving away from the Romani culture, as the transition from a trailer to a house is often seen as a loss of culture in Romani tradition (135). Even pesky children have been known to employ Angloromani when trying to appease angry parents, knowing the emotional ties associated with Rom culture (136). As Angloromani has virtually no logistic function outside of the traveler community, its usage is an active call to Romani heritage.

Estimating the distribution of Angloromani speakers in the world today is tricky. As of 2007, there were an estimated forty thousand to sixty thousand travelers in Great Britain. This number is made unreliable, though, by its likely inclusion of Irish travelers and Scottish travelers (Matras, et. al, 17). In the select known Romani populations in the United Kingdom, it appears that Angloromani is in decline (18). This does not come as a surprise when one considers contemporary attitudes towards the Rom. To “gyp” an individual is to swindle them out of money. Media coverage of the Romani is rare and seldom positive. In BBC reports of a drug bust from 2011, linguistic analysts were brought in to explain the meaning of certain Romani words in relation to drug paraphernalia (Tarver). The association of Romani with drug crimes perpetuates the stereotype that travelers are untrustworthy by nature. As stated by Ian Hancock, “if Romanies are not held in high esteem, than our language cannot possibly be” (Hancock 140). The future of Angloromani, based on its current state, does not appear promising.

As a language in decline, Angloromani warrants attention in academic settings. The tie between English-speaking Romanies and their ancestral tongue is imperative in their sense of cultural security. The late Matéo Maximoff stated in a 1994 interview that “Wer kein Romanes mehr spricht, its ken Rom mehr” (“whoever no longer speaks Romani, is no longer a Romani”) (Hancock 139). While language is not the sole basis of Romani culture (victims of anti-traveler legislation have often been forced to give up their dialect), extinction of Angloromani contributes to the loss of a vast and elusive history. Recent studies, though, have demonstrated the possibility of preserving Angloromani by legitimizing it in academic spheres. Through a conscious effort, Angloromani may yet survive.

Works Cited

Bakker, Peter. “The Genesis of Anglo-Romani.” Scholarship and the Gypsy Struggle: Commitment in Romani studies, ed. by Thomas Acton, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2000, pp. 14-31.

Fraser, Angus. The Gypsies, Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

Hancock, Ian. We are the Romani people, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2002.

Matras, Yaron. Romani in Britain: The Afterlife of a Language, Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Matras, Yaron, et. al. “Angloromani: A Different Kind of Language?” Anthropological Linguistics, vol. 49, no. 2, 2007, pp. 142-184.

Tarver, Nick. “Gypsy dialect in the spotlight after Kent court case.” BBC News, 16 September 2011.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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