Names of the Romani People
The ethnic names used by the contemporary branches of the Romani people are Rom/Chhavo, Kalo, Manush, Sinto. The common roots of all these branches are proved by the similarities of their culture and language. The fact that groups using one of these names live in remote geographical areas and employ in subsidiary also some of the other names indicates that initially the ancestors used concomitantly all these ethnic names, they did not employ an unique denomination. This situation lasted during the crystallization of the Romani ethnic group along the 12th century and probably some other centuries onwards. Then, after emigrating in all Europe and parts of Middle East, every local group began to use only one of the names as the main one, the others remaining secondary.
Rom is the singular masculine grammatical gender (the plural is Roma, but there are dialects that use Rom also for plural), while Romni is the singular feminine (Romnya is the plural). They mean “married man, husband”, respectively “married woman, wife”. The unmarried are named Chhavo (boy) / Chhey (girl) / Chhave (plural common for both genders). The proper way to address a heterogeneous group is Romale thay Chhavale! ("Roma and Chhave!"). This internal separation between married and unmarried is employed because in the Romani culture the marriage is the most important event in life. This view extends also to the name given for the non-Roma: Gaj/o, -i, -e for married ones and Rakl/o, -i, -e for the unmarried (some groups employ also for the others words like Goro/Gero, Das, Payo).
Many groups choose also this word for self-identification among the non-Romani populations. They use the word to designate the culture and its elements (like the language). Also in Hungarian-speaking areas of the Carpathian Basin a group has the name Romungre ("Hungarian Roma"), while those from the Great Britain name themselves Romnichal (with the first probable meaning of "Romano son").
In English, the adjective Romani is employed in contexts like “Romani language”, “Romani custom”. Usually it stands for all the declension in the original language: Roman/o, -i, -e, but sometimes they appear utilizations of the original declension in the Romani language. There is also the spelling Romany but the first one is preferred since it is the way the other Indo-Aryan languages are spelled: Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Kashmiri etc. The Romani dialects are spelled also like this: Lovari, Jambashi, Erli, etc. and even the dialects of other languages spoken by Roma (with only Romani vocabulary) like Pogadi. The word Romanes, which sometimes appears in English, is the adverb, meaning “in the Romani way, manner”.
In some groups the sound "r" from Rom is pronounced stressed and it is sometimes written Rrom. This spelling tends to be employed more in Romania, with the scope of not being confused with the prevailing Latin population, the Romanians. This resemblance of the ethnic names sometimes leads to confusion, but they don’t have a common etymology. Romanian comes from Romanus (“citizen of Rome” in Latin), as they are the descendants of the settlers from the Italian city of Rome, mixed with the local population. The same is for the Swiss speakers of Romansh, also originally from Rome. After the emergence of democracy in Romania in 1990 and the end of the state policy of assimilation, it became possible also in this country to be used in public the ethnic name Rom. The subsequent reaction of an important part of the Romanian majority was to deny the historical existence of such an ethnic name, supporting the idea that it was inspired from their own ethnic name, Romanian, that both ethnic names have a single origin. However, in this case it should be reminded that, while all the Romanians are in a close relation with the Roma, on the other side, only a part of the Roma are in close relations with the Romanians. Many Roma, neither they nor their ancestors, never set foot on the territory inhabited by Romanians. The Romanians are a particular case from a Romani point of view and not otherwise. Following the logic of those who support a single origin for Romani and Romanian, one draws the conclusion that Romanian has Sanskrit origin (keeping in mind that this name was first recorded some centuries after the arrival of the Roma in contemporary Romania, with the meaning of “common people”).Moreover, until the 19th century, the endonym of the Romanian people was Rumîni. Români is a modern nationalist creation of the Romanian elite, to look more similar to the name of the Italian capital, Rome (Roma in Latin), in order to emphasize their Latin identity. This name, incidentally, came also closer to the name of the Romani people. They should be open minded and accept the different origin of these two ethnic names.
Those settled in the contemporary territory of France name themselves Manush, meaning “person, human being”. Those who arrived in Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century use to identify themselves as Kale (meaning “blacks”). The group from Northern Wales is named also Kale. The same self-denomination is employed also in Finland by another group and usually appears written with Finnish orthography: Kaale. The group that settled in the German-speaking areas has the name Sinti, probably a word of European origin, adopted by the end of the 18th century (the previous names recorded for this area were Kale and Manush).
These names have basic, fundamental social meanings, probably as the result of the circumstances of the Romani people's ethnogenesis in the 12th century. They express the consciousness of the basic South Asian identity as revealed while living among non-South Asians, the same as the name Desi, of the new South Asian diaspora emerging from the emigrations of the last two centuries. These names reflect also somehow the conditions of the two emigrations. While the word Desi indicates the continuity of the connections with the motherland and an ambiguity of the assertion of the South Asian identity in diaspora, the Romani names express a regrouping around the basic tenets of the South Asian identity and the desire to continue it (probably also because they considered themselves as the only survivors), in the context of the 11th century violence against the Northern Indian society.
The Romani people received a variety of names in the local languages of the areas they settled. Usually the etymology of these denominations expresses the first impressions the newly arrived made on the local people. In many languages the word naming them is a corruption of Egyptian, like the English Gypsy, Spanish Gitano, Greek Yieftos or French Gitan. It seems that they were mistaken for Egyptians because they arrived in Europe through an area named “Little Egypt” (in Southern Balkans) or maybe because they fit the local imagery of Egyptians as exotic dark-skinned people performing witchcraft (since the times of the Roman Empire, Egypt was in Europe the symbol of exoticism par excellence). Another series of local names comes from the Greek word athinganoi (intangible): Ţigan (Romanian), Çingene (Turkish), Cigány (Hungarian), Zigeuner (German), Zingaro (Italian), Cigano (Portuguese). This naming could be due to a perceived resemblance to a heretic contemporary Christian sect performing witchcraft, or, other opinion, simply because Roma didn’t like to be touched by Gaje. Other names like Heiden ("Heathens") in Dutch or Tattare ("Tatar") in Swedish give also hints about the beginning of some strenuous interethnic relations. The common denominator of these names is that the image expressed by them strays from the reality, creating parallel notions used only by non-Roma. In many cases, these names designate also non-Romani persons who are perceived as fitting this image.
Why for some decades persons belonging to the Romani people are striving for the replacement in the public use of the word Gypsy (and the other localized names) with Romani? First of all this is not something isolate, it is a contemporary phenomenon that some ethnic groups reject the foreign ethnic names (exonyms) and promote the ethnic name used by themselves (the endonym). Usually it is a matter of image in the contemporary context of the global society's organization according to the ideology of nationalism. These people are minorities in every state they live (in most cases they are scattered in more states) and for various reasons (like geographical isolation or cultural differences) the nationalism did not became popular among them. Thus they tend to have a low participation in the administration, a low influence in the centers of power of those states and in the selection of the notions and ideologies conveyed among the broad society. As a consequence they do not participate in the construction of the ethnic images that circulate in the society and thus the ethnic images about themselves stray from the reality; lacking the communication, they are attachments to the self image of the majority. The names these people are known by the majority are perceived as full-part of the alien images and their etymologies remind the status of strange, awkward people, like Eskimo (from " raw meat eater" in Algonquin), Lapp ("wild", “backward” in Scandinavian languages), Berber (from "barbarian" in Latin), Hottentot (from "stutterer" in Afrikaans), also these many names the Roma are known in the countries they live. There is a common contemporary attitude (without any direct connection between these people) to reject the foreign names and to employ instead, at the state level if possible, their own names which always mean "man", "human being": Inuit, Saami, Amazigh, Khoi, Romani.
A sovereign entity is seldom attempting to uphold the use of its native name among the rest of the world. Such a rare case occurred in 1935, when the ruler of then named Persia, Reza Shah Pahlavi, decided that the foreigners should name his country as Iran, the native name, not Persia, the way it was known abroad. Usually, people living in countries of their own, with their own public life, even if they are named with other words by the foreigners, tend not to be bothered by them. They are not affected by the inherent stereotypes to a level that would trigger the promotion of the self-denominations, because they don’t live in the same “household” with the rest of the World, they don’t share their daily life with the others. At most, some local problems with the neighbors.
As a conclusion, this assertion of the endonym is a product of the modernity, employed by some ethnic groups who become vulnerable, for various reasons, to the ideology of nationalism. In history, the responses of such ethnic groups varied according to the evolution of the identity ideologies employed by the broad society. For example, in the case of the population known in English as Jews, in the first part of their history, they were known by two names: Israelites and Hebrews. The former name appears to be an endonym, while the latter an exonym. The use of the word Hebrew by the non-Jews of those times (written in their languages as Habiru/Apiru) indicates the circulation among them of a caricatured and malevolent image about the Jews. They are described as thieves, outlaws, inferior to the non-Jews. The same as in the case of the Gypsy word, Habiru designated also non-Jewish persons, but who probably were perceived as fitting in that specific image. In Torah, the name Hebrew appears when Jews communicate with non-Jews or when the author wants to make a distinction between the Jews who support the Jewish side and those who support the non-Jewish side. The name Israelite appears in the other contexts, regarding the life in the community (2). However, since there was no conscious separation between the specific items of the ethnic groups, like in the modern nationalism, it did not appear the need to assert the endonym among the non-Jews.
Later, the malevolent nature of the word Hebrew lessened, because the non-Jewish populations who used it with that specific meaning disappeared from history. In the meantime, it appeared also a third name, Judaeean (which produced in modern English the word Jew), from the name of Judaeea, the geographical area of the surviving two Jewish tribes from the initial twelve. As the ideology of nationalism began to spread in the society, the Jewish population preferred to use the name Israelite in the relations with the non-Jews. This name being appropriated by the new state of Israel, in 1947, the Jews who remained citizens of other countries switched to one of the words Jew or Hebrew in the local languages, depending on which expressed better the Jewish identity.
Regarding the modern public use of the Romani endonyms, until now it focused mostly on the word Rom/Romani. It gained some acceptance also among the branches that use it only with the meaning of a married person or as an adjective. The Sinti, who are not especially different among the Romani groups (3), were encouraged by the German and Austrian authorities to stick to their name and to consider them a different ethnic group. The reason is that, after most of them were killed during the Holocaust, few live in this countries and it is easier to label the other newly arrived Roma as foreigners, as opposed to the local Sinti, who live there for centuries. This is presented as a reason for the speedy expulsions of the Roma that are immigrating, especially since the Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1990 (already dozen of thousands were expulsed) (4). This led to the appearance of the awkward term “Roma and Sinti” when it is about the Romani people, with statements like “Romani language is the language spoken by Roma and Sinti”.
To solve this issue that could bring undesired separations, it appeared the idea to use the adjective Romani as the common denominator for all the branches and castes. Some use the word Rom only with the first meaning of “husband”, but the adjective Romani is employed by all the groups to describe themselves in contexts like “Romani language”, “Romani culture” or “Romani person”. It is promoted by some Romani personalities, like the scholar Ian Hancock (5). The word should be used as a noun, singular: Romani, plural: Romanies. It gained some acceptance also in the Spanish language: romaní (singular), romaníes (plural).
(1) Matras, Yaron, 1999, Johann Rüdiger and the study of Romani in 18th century Germany. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, fifth series 9, 89-116 (here in PDF)
(3) They use the word Romani as an adjective. Also it is notable that a Romani group living in contemporary Poland (that includes territories which until the end of the Secod World War were German-speaking), having similarities of dialect with them, are named Polska Roma.
(4) Cahn, Claude, 1996, Divide and deport (Roma & Sinti in Austria), European Roma Rights Center, (here in PDF)
(5) Hancock, Ian, 2001, Ame sam e rromane džene / We are the Romani People, The Open Society Institute, New York
Names of the Romani People
- » Published on December 24, 2007
- » Type: Opinion
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