Cécile Canut
Maison des sciences de l’homme | « Langage et société »
Volume 136, Issue 2, 2011 | from 55 to 80
ISSN 0181-4095
ISBN 9782735113217
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The Romani Language: A Historical Fiction
Cécile Canut
Université Paris René Descartes
For a long time, the various populations called, depending on their history and their travels, Bohemians, Egyptians, Tziganes, Romanis, Roma,
Sinti, etc., crisscrossed numerous continents without worrying about
the common origin of their language. The emergence of nation-states
and, as an indirect consequence, the exclusion of these populations led a
small number of intellectuals, anxious to claim a political role, to adopt a
particular stance. Without a territory, a particular religion, or cultural or
ethnic homogeneity, the new minority established itself in international
space by “inventing” a common language. This article traces the historical
process of linguistic essentialization through a study of the circulation of
discourses around Romani čib in order to analyze the current political
and economic uses that result from this process.
In recent years, the designation “Roma” has been established throughout Europe to encompass all of the populations that, in everyday life, are
called by various names (Gypsies, Manouches, Tziganes, Bohemians,
Sinti, etc.) depending upon the place, time, illocutionary authority, and
political, economic, and social issues. This process of categorization,
which aims at homogenizing a people that supposedly shares common
cultural values, in which nomadism is the most frequently imagined
similarity, is currently the founding principle of European policies toward
European populations threatened with discrimination. The external
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designations vary by country and according to the type of relation to these
populations, which are actually more sedentary than nomadic, but the
exclusion to which they are subject determines the actual type of proposed
solution. While they are stigmatized because they are “Roma,” political
activities against this stigmatization are no less a result of this categorization (anti-Tzigane racism/struggle against anti-Tzigane racism): they
are just two sides of the same coin. Whereas the diverse reality of social
practices and ways of life in the European Union demonstrates daily the
complex historicity of Tzigane, Gypsy, Sinti, Manouche, etc., families, the
ethnicization of the “Roma” is, on the contrary, reinforced at the expense
of a historical, social, and political approach. Instead of affirming the
contribution of these populations to the history of Europe throughout
the centuries, identifying them as being of foreign origin—India—tends
to exclude them from this socio-political space. Having become internal
foreigners, the Roma have taken on the imaginary appearance of the
non-national, the almost foreign that cannot be included.
Reduced to supposedly specific cultural traits (nomadism, language,
customs, etc.), the Roma have become part of the institutional classification of European minorities. They need to be defended and protected
from the xenophobia of nationalists ready to “make Gypsies into soap or
send them to Saturn”1
or “send them to a desert.”2
There is nothing very new in the essentialization of a population: this
process has always served numerous political causes, from the most odious
(genocide) to the most innocent (folklorization). The ethnicization of
the Roma by European institutions is, in the end, the continuation of a
long political development: multiculturalism as a principle for defining
The question remains, however: what makes such a process possible?
How have families established in European space in so many diverse
ways been institutionally grouped today under the name “Roma”? How,
in the name of this supposed membership, can European governments
undertake “community” expulsions?3
What political interests are at work
1. Slogan of Volen Siderov’s ATAKA Party (Bulgaria).
2. The Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adrian Cioroianu said he had considered
“buying a piece of land in the Egyptian desert to send there all the people who tarnish
the country’s image” (comment made in Italy on ethnic Roma Romanians who had
allegedly committed crimes, November 2007).
3. A circular of the Ministry of the Interior dated August 5, 2010 sent to French prefects
indicated that “300 illegal encampments or settlements must be cleared in the next
three months, starting with the Roma ones” (
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in the essentialization of peoples and, more broadly, in regularly assigning
an identity as a mode of existence?
Answering these questions entails undertaking a discourse analysis and
historicizing these discourses. I shall argue that the current ethnicization
of the Roma results from a historical process based on the re-invention
of a “Roma” people and the Romani language. I will then show how
discourses aimed at Roma ethnicization in the 20th century are completely dependent on a much broader group of discourses concerning
minorities and their international protection. In the conclusion, I will
measure the effects of the “marketization” (Boutet 2008) of language
and culture in the current public arena, in particular in Bulgaria, where
I am undertaking ethnographic work among the Roma of the Nadezhda
quarter of Sliven.
1. The Historical Process of an Ethnolinguistic Construction
1.1. The Birth of a Scholarly Discourse
We have to go back to the 18th century to witness the birth of knowledge on the Tzigane language and the birth of the homogenized category
“Tzigane.” While, at that time, the enchantment conjured up by artists
or enthusiasts for cosmopolitanism still revealed an aesthetic and political
interest in troops of “Bohemians,” the importance of the development
of research on the origins of Europe led to the inclusion of Roma into
the larger mythology of roots. Jakob Karl Christoph Rüdiger is generally
credited with discovering the Indian origin of the Tziganes in the late
seventeenth century (Asséo 2002, 95), while at the same time the thesis
of the Indian origin of the Romani language was developed in Britain.
In the 19th century, the German “neo-grammarians” August Friedrich
Pott and Franz von Miklosich, scholars of the Indo-European language,
concluded through the use of diachronic and comparative linguistic
methods that Romani comes from Prakrit (vernacularized Sanskrit), like
Hindi, Rajasthani, and other Indian languages. They thereby confirmed
the hypotheses put forward nearly a century earlier by other philologists
such as Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann, whose 1783 book Dissertation on the Gipsies: Being an Historical Enquiry, Concerning the Manner
of Life, Economy, Customs and Conditions of These People in Europe, and
Their Origin, confirms the idea of a connection between Romani and
Hindi. While many other scholars are cited as discoverers of this origin
(Bonaventura Vulkanius, Samuel Augustini ab Hortis, Albert Kranz,
Sebastian Münster, Jacobus Thomasius, etc.), Franz Bopp’s student provided the scientific proof of the Indian origin (as opposed to an Egyptian
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one) and thereby incorporated the Tziganes into the great union of a
shared Indo-European civilization.
This discovery was not specific to “Tziganology,” still almost non-existent in the 19th century, but it paradoxically crystallizes the obsession
with the filiation and origin of the West, whose regeneration required
both a return to the archaic Adamic language and translation between
dialects to assure world peace (Asséo 2008, 103). Mérimée gave concrete
expression to this romantic quest by favoring Romani-Sanskrit with the
label the “language of Eden,” pure and archaic (Al-Matary 2008, 131),
thereby making it into a means for regenerating peoples threatened by
European decline (Al-Matary 2008).
From these initial results, scholars hoped to reconstruct the migratory routes of the Tziganes from the “primitive home” in India A long
quest began, aimed precisely at locating the “place,” the original “land,”
from which the Roma made their departure. The results varied considerably: the locations of the departure and the route of the journeys
remained hypothetical (Clanet dit Lamanit 2010). Physical anthropology attempted to aid linguistics, but did not produce more convincing
results, thereby confirming the failure of the equation “language = race”
as Gobineau4
formulated it concerning the Jews and Tziganes.
Paradoxically, the slight interest shown in the Tzigane origin myth
gradually accompanied the weakening of Europe’s universalist and emancipatory ambition. While their belonging to Indo-European civilization
was recognized by the neo-grammarians, their stigmatized way of life
and, above all, their refusal to assimilate favored an “uncertain ethnogenesis” (Asséo 2008, 92). Very quickly, comparison became impossible: to
maintain the ambivalence of the discourse, it was postulated that they
belonged to a lower caste from India, thereby keeping them in the category of pariahs, disruptive of public order. Thus, the imputed unity of a
Tzigane people made possible every generalization and manipulation of
discourse. Gradually, the ambivalence of the latter faded. It became, then,
a question of substantiating a solely negative representation of the people
thus categorized and finding the means to deprive them of a common
origin with Europeans.
At the end of the 19th century, the development of the hierarchization of races and the move to classification in terms of presumed degrees
of purity of both languages and peoples made it possible to exclude the
Roma from the common origin. While Count Gobineau still confirmed
4. “The different languages are unequal, and correspond perfectly in relative merit to the
races that use them” (Gobineau 1853-1855, 188).
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the Asiatic origin of Indo-Europeans, which led Pott to support his
theories, his successors, the theoreticians of the “Nordic race,” dropped
that idea in favor of a Germanic European unity. According to these new
hierarchizations, the Tziganes became people of “mixed race” speaking
a vile argot (Asséo 1994, 69), responsible for the degeneration of Europeans and unworthy of belonging to the “superior race”: “The example
of the Tziganes illustrates the failure of the classic Indianist construction
as trans-European mythology since the possession of an Aryan language,
kept alive despite the vicissitudes of wandering, did not in any way guarantee being kept in the pantheon of the superior race” (Asséo 2002, 98).
The position of Tziganes in the nationalist discourse of the interwar
period became impossible: in face of the quickening pace of the principle
of territorialization, their mobility was a sign of decadence. In the grip
of the new productions of knowledge, governments turned exclusively
to coercion. In the name of arguments that previously underpinned the
valued uniqueness of Gypsy families (freedom, nomadism, music, family
solidarity, seasonal activities, character of the women, etc.), it became
a question of producing discourses of constant devaluation in order to
diminish any form of uniqueness in their life, prevent them from moving,
and even banish them from Europe. These complex measures, which
varied from place to place, would end in the widespread subjection of all
Tziganes (through the anthropometric identity passbook in France, for
example), the eugenic sterilization of women in Germany, and then, in
the 1930s, internment in Nazi camps.
1.2. The Romani Language, “Soul of the People”
In the context of the unstable European scene of the interwar period,
while European Tzigane families began to be forcefully marginalized and
assigned the status of foreigner (Asséo 2008, 102), local organizations
attempted to make their voices heard.5
The consolidation of the geo-political category “nomad,” the beginning of the era of control measures6
over Tziganes, and the extermination of a large portion of the Roma in
Nazi camps, form the background to the emergence of public statements
by some of their representatives.
5. Paradoxically, it was under the communist regimes of Central and Western Europe
that an increasingly wider awareness was forged that united local movements, many
of which first emerged in the 1930s. In Romania, for example, the General Union of
Roma in Romania published a journal, The Voice of the Roma, from 1934 to 1941.
6. The introduction of the anthropometric identity passbook in France dates from 1913
(Decree of February 16, 1913 implementing the law of July 16, 1912 on the exercise
of itinerant professions and the regulation of the mobility of nomads).
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While measures of forced settlement, particularly in the Balkans, led
to the schooling and integration of numerous individuals, the first “men
of letters” established an international network in the 1960s that gave
rise, in 1967, to the International Gypsy Committee, under the leadership of Vanko Rouda, which published La Voix Mondiale Tsigane. This
committee subsequently became an international federation in 1972
that included 23 organizations in 22 states. The Council of Europe and
UNESCO began to ask for information. For its part, the International
Romani Union (IRU) arose at the same time. During its first world congress organized in London (1971), a number of important decisions were
made: pejorative appellations (Tziganes, Zigeuner, Gitanos, Gypsies) were
rejected in favor of the term “Roma” as a common ethnonym, a flag was
adopted, a hymn was chosen (Gelem gelem), and an international day
of the Roma was established (April 8). These early organizations both
reflected a desire for political emancipation and strengthened the cultural
characteristics of a thereby homogenized Roma people.
National attributes (hymn, flag, ethnonym) aiming at the ethnic
standardization of the “Roma people” were, in the following years, supplemented by the choice of a language (the Romani čib) and the recognition of an origin. In 1978, during the second congress in Geneva, India
was recognized as the “mother country” and the committee was re-named
Romani Union. However, it was not until the fifth congress in Prague that
a transnational Roma nation was declared. As for the language, since so
many researchers come from different scientific and ideological traditions,
innumerable difficulties have arisen for the choice of a standard form,
thereby preventing consensual linguistic standardization. Even today,
the diversity of uses and types of codification reflect the serious conflicts
dividing educated Roma. The most well-known associations on the
international political stage hold leadership and this fluctuates according
to the power relations established with European organizations and the
centers for disseminating knowledge about the Roma.
The emergence, quickly recounted here, of an international Roma
elite has, however, not produced a new discursive field: the objective is
to fight against all forms of exclusion or assimilation (the political aspect)
on the basis of an ethnic revalorization (the cultural aspect), just like
other nations. The constitution of a Roma identity, then, is part of an
ethno-politics widely developed by the communist regimes of Eastern
Europe. By postulating a single space and a single language, on the model
of all nations, and by fabricating the components of a national myth, in
the image of all the national myths established in Europe, the discourses
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of the Romani elite continue ethnic homogenization to the detriment
of a social perspective.
The first Roma researchers focused on providing proof of their origin,
stabilizing it, and confirming it according to discursive processes belonging to earlier anthropological and linguistic research. For these scholars,
who occupied an ambiguous social position and were, thus, involved in
a symbolic struggle in a supposedly hostile environment, the revalorization of the Roma people was an essential task. The example of Vania de
Gila-Kochanowski, a survivor of the Nazi camps, is very interesting in
this regard since, beginning in the 1960s, he endeavored to demonstrate
the prestigious origin of the Roma people on the basis of language. Using
methods from linguistics, physical anthropology, and Indian history,
he refuted other hypotheses, particularly Grellman’s or the more recent
one of the Indianist Jules Bloch, who assumes a composite origin of the
Roma in India, establishing a connection between them and the Dom
and Lom. While there is a serious lack of arguments and evidence, even
among the most recent historians, it is not unusual to observe that data
from 19th century physical anthropology are still called on.
The question of multiplicity and diversity (geographic, linguistic,
social, ethnographic, etc.) is at the heart of the elite’s struggle to restore
an identity. To postulate multiple origins is immediately suspected of
flowing from a wish to discriminate.7
Yet, it would be difficult to deny
the strong linguistic variation, which extends from one end of Europe to
the other, at the center of conflicts among Roma researchers: “The only
way to destroy this Tower of Babel, which weighs so heavily on communication among Roma around the world, is to replace these ‘mobile
borrowings’ with the international vocabulary that all the peoples and
nations of Europe consider theirs” (Gila-Kochanowski 1994, 157).
Destroy the Tower of Babel? Such seems to be the aim of these linguistic entrepreneurs, who reproduce the processes of linguistic normalization invented several centuries earlier by the European nations
then taking shape. In this sense, to privilege a prestigious hypothesis
(Brahmin origin) of the Tzigane people is politically necessary in the field
of national mythology. Even more, it makes it possible to put an end
to a contemporary social situation that makes Tziganes eternal pariahs
(Gila-Kochanowski 1994, 16). However, such discourses do not break
7. “The essential task was to perpetuate the negation of any Rromani identity by
giving as an excuse its multiple nature” (Courthiade 2005, 6). Two spellings exist:
“Rromani” and “Romani.” For our part, we shall adopt the latter, but we strictly
preserve the form used by authors cited.
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with the production of knowledge based on establishing boundaries
around nomads considered unassimilable because they are culturally
different, something promoted by government authorities. By advocating an essentialist discourse, Roma intellectuals kindle a resistance
that is engendered by government measures themselves, a resistance
entangled in discourses of domination. Seeking to enhance the status of
origin, unity, pure language, authenticity, is to accept the terms of the
debate and ratify the categorizations and the system of hierarchization
of ethnicized peoples.
Yet, there was a pre-existing context for Roma elites joining in the
great chorus of nationalist ideologies. This process is part of a group of
culturalist discourses in circulation produced by the many discursive
bodies in which European scholars had earlier worked on creating the
Romani fiction.
1.3. From Race to Minority: Establishing Boundaries
The formation of essentialist discourses cannot be separated from the
tragic history of thousands of European families and groups rounded
up and then exterminated by the Nazis in the name of a racial principle.
The production of knowledge by ethnologists, linguists, anthropologists, historians, etc., in the 20th century is, in fact, inseparable from
the power relations that govern the relationships between Tziganes and
non-Tziganes, or rather from the imaginary vision that these relations
induce in non-Tziganes. In the absence of any contributions from those
concerned until the 1960s, it was always up to others to define their
identity, an obsession whose ramifications extend to any kind of discourse
on the Tziganes.
The boundary permanently erected between Roma and non-Roma
was long attributed to the Roma themselves. Going no further than a
nominalist approach that is based on the terms “Gadjé” or “Payos,” the
establishment of boundaries between the two worlds was set up as an
ontological foundation of Roma thought. Thus, the Roma were, in the
end, responsible for their non-integration, their discrimination, their
exclusion. The historical context and anthropological observations (Stewart 1994) show, on the contrary, that, on the one hand, Roma relations
with the outside world have always, wherever they were living, been
largely sought after, desired, and necessary. On the other hand, we know
that naming the other does not necessarily mean rejecting or stigmatizing
the other. It would thus be more prudent to recontextualize the course
of events, acts and discourses. It is more accurate to put forward the idea
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that the creation of impermeable boundaries is the work of non-Roma
more than the Roma themselves. In addition to their victim status in
many periods of history, the rejection of Roma by the majority of nonRoma is continual.
Scientific discourse on the Romani language is a clear example. The
Romani čib had barely been invented when it was immediately downgraded on the basis of the genealogical commonplace that makes languages living organisms, endowed with birth, longevity, degeneration,
and illness. The example of language is symptomatic of an essentially
comparative approach that forges a supposedly immutable opposition
between Tziganes and Gadjé.
The first epilinguistic trait, and by far the most important, is deficit: described as a “deficient language” without syntax, an argot with a
restricted vocabulary, the Romani language is discredited by a purist
hierarchy. Today still, journalists, writers, and specialists reproduce this
old essentialist conception (Canut 2008): language of expression, freedom, poetry, passion, the concrete, wildness, etc. The Roma don’t need
because they have no ideas to exchange:9
their need for communication is reduced to the phatic dimension!
1.4. The Roma Nation and the New World
Because of political changes in Europe, the 1990s were a decisive turning
point for the expansion of ethno-nationalist discourses with regard to the
Roma. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the beginning of rampant
liberalism in Eastern Europe, and European construction led little by
little to the political promotion of new political categorizations: ethnic
and/or national minorities. It was, however, in the United States, under
the effect of the multicultural politics of affirmative action, established to
integrate black, Indian, etc., minorities by means of quotas, that a new
academic discourse was developed, cultural studies, which led to cultural
fundamentalism (Stolcke 1996). While ethnology has supported this
approach for nearly a century, from the 1990s the alliance between the
two resulted in a considerable growth in works on minorities, the new
“domestic ethnic groups.”
8. “But among Romanophones, these grand concepts are hardly necessary. Deprived
of these general terms, their language flows like good poetry, rich in detail, concrete
images, and simple words used inventively” (Fonseca 1995, 80).
9. “A modern, ‘political,’ language is emerging, but Romani is mainly ‘phatic’, i.e., its
function is to express sociability more than exchange ideas (which these speakers
undoubtedly already share)” (Fonseca 1995, 80).
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In an effort to support Roma researchers in various ways, often relative
to internal conflicts, most of the “Tziganologists” took up the cause of
this powerless and excluded people. While not all have chosen revaluation
in ethnicist or essentialist terms, identity issues remain at the center of
their concerns. Beyond the general competition for a monopoly over a
Tzigane “truth” concerning their origin, history, or language (whether
that come from the Roma or non-Roma), separation of Roma knowledge
from Gadjo knowledge, on the model of the ontological opposition established previously, is exacerbated by some Roma specialists. Legitimacy
of speech “from the inside,” presupposing a culturalization of thought,
plays on the strong fascination still exercised by the Roma on the Gadjé.
A large number of scientific texts written by Roma are based on this gap
between Roma and Gadjé, reified into an immutable relation of victim
to executioner.
This phenomenon is inseparable from the recent European political
context in which new forms of power are emerging that are allocated to
intermediaries, the managers of minorities, those responsible for liaison between the populations they are supposed to represent and the
state or transnational institutions (NGOs, UN, UNESCO, European
Union, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe) for which they work.
As both researchers and privileged political representatives, these
intermediaries are given new social and political responsibilities. Some of
them, representatives of the IRU, go as far as allowed by the new political configuration resulting from the status of transnational minority by
calling for recognition of a Roma nation, as did the IRU’s president, Emil
Scuka, at the 2000 congress in Prague.
The text of the declaration10 reveals, in itself, all the aspects assumed
by the new approach, which aims to create a heritage for internal ethnic
groups. Cleverly connected to Martin Luther King’s speech,11 the objective is international recognition, the arguments for which fall into three
categories: victimization, reconfiguration of nations outside of states, and
globalization (Canut 2009). By refusing to seek a state and, thus, a territory, the drafters call not only for a reconfiguration of European national
structures, but also challenge, in the name of globalization (“global society”) and “new challenges,” the very idea of the necessity of states.
10. “Declaration of a Roma Nation” (IRU)
11. “I have a dream,” delivered at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.
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The goal, as we see, is not confined to the Roma question: readers are
urged to support a radical transformation of European political structures
in favor of an ethno-nationalist model. This dream, offered to “humanity,”12 meets the demand for guaranteeing respect for the human rights
of Roma, while hoping to inaugurate what other patrons of minorities
constantly call for: the end of nation-states.
These new “challenges” and this “new” world so desired by the drafters of the declaration confirm the third paradigm, play on liberalism.
Everything is “new” (“the new society and the new economy,” “new
world,” “new needs”) because everything is changing (“changing world,”
“the changing society,” “the changing economy”). The objective is to
transform societies so that they can be incorporated into this new world
economic order. This order implies submitting to “globalization” in order
to make the most of it.
The “concrete path” offered by the IRU deviates in no way from the
international consensus in appealing to democracy, freedom, human
rights, and respect for the individual. This text quite cleverly reinforces
a multicultural perspective, either by carrying it through to the utmost
degree or by putting it in the ultraliberal context that supports it. It allows
us to see a futuristic landscape in which the individual, determined by
his/her ethnic identity, will be subject to all the excesses of bio-power.
2. Political and Economic Exploitation of Romani čib
2.1. “Romitude,” an Added Value on the Identities Market
Before presenting the process of the linguistic instrumentalization of
Romani čib, which is foundational for the Roma nation, the discourses in
which researchers present and defend it should be examined. Generally,
such discourses are accompanied by a reflexivity that seeks to legitimize a
researcher’s position and statements. This is partly a matter of quite visibly
displaying the illocutionary authority (a scholarly and Roma discourse,
from the inside) in the text and partly of situating the discourse relative to
previous discourses, particularly stereotypes, in order to validate a position
of indisputable truth. With explanations, denials and corrections, the
remarks are completely interconnected with earlier discourses without
rejecting them. Thus, the numerous stigmas faced by the Roma (thieves,
delinquents, liars, fatalists, passivity, etc.) are discussed rather than purely
and simply rejected. Revaluation of the Roma is undertaken, not by a
12. “We have a dream, and we are engaged in the implementation of it: we offer to the
humanity [sic] a request, the one of having a representation as a Nation, the Nation
we are” (“Declaration of a Roma Nation”).
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refutation of the principles of categorization and hierarchization in favor
of an approach based on particularities, but through an inversion of these
principles in the name of an implacable determinism: the Roma are so
because they were expected to be so. “Accused in advance of all the world’s
misdeeds, [they] no longer have any ‘reason to be embarrassed,’ thereby
reinforcing the image forced on them” (Courthiade 1995 : 17).
This moral approach to social reality, which reproduces the essentialist
orthodoxy shaping the polymorphous reality of complex social practices,
is particularly active in relation to the Romani language and its appropriation. Justifying the standardization of Romani requires, first of all,
proving its quality as a “true” language, thus renewing a purist position.
Restoring its origin, its richness, its “truth,” entails taking a stand, as
Roma, against discourses of devaluation. Rather than refuting the categories, Romani čib should be brought into them.
Far from rejecting the imposed hierarchy that would explain “deficient
dialects” and “defective norms,”13 some Roma linguists justify it: its oral
character is the cause of its imprecision and its homophones; nomadism
and the appearance of new objects have led to borrowings and the forgetting of words; life in remote villages has entailed impoverishment and
socializing with persons of limited ideas. That is why this “no doubt very
elaborated” language has declined “over the centuries under the influence
of rudimentary local languages” (Courthiade 2005c : 36). Counteracting
the deterioration of Romani čib’s authenticity, under the impact of contact
with Gadjé words, requires separating everyday speech (those “deficient
dialects” with their “defective norms”) from the original language, the
quality and richness of which can rival European languages: “There is
indeed a rich stock of native Romani lexemes (to date already several
thousand roots, giving, in turn, thousands of derivatives—while some
European languages started with two thousand). This stock makes it
possible to produce a very large range of ideas and feelings with precision
and expressiveness. Admittedly, speakers do so with all the more difficulty
since they have forgotten a large part of the language, but this is only a
proof a contrario of the latter’s capacities” (Courthiade 2005c: 28).
While no one any longer speaks the original “elaborated language,” if
indeed it were ever spoken, researchers are working to make it an identity symbol of “Tziganitude” or an “essential ethnic trait” (Courthiade
1995: 13). This forcing of the linguistic imaginationsince most families
13. “Réunion de la commission de la langue et des droits linguistiques,” 6th Congress
of the IRU, Pietraferrazzana, Italy (2004), quoted in Revue d’études tsiganes, no. 22
(2005): 60.
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do not know or recognize any original languageis cleverly prescribed on
the basis of arguments from the inside: by speaking in the name of the
homogenized community of the Roma, of their imagination as well as
their unconscious, the authors assert that a sense of belonging common
to all Roma results from the practice of the language. In the name of
a supposed “affection of the Roma for their maternal language, as for
their Romani identity,” the authors legitimize the process of standardizing Romani by distinguishing two levels of ethnic identification: “the
Romani language as displaying Romani identity, the particular dialect as
displaying the group” (Courthiade 1995: 23).
At the 6th Congress of the IRU in 2004, the specter of the death of
languages was brandished,14 reiterating a genealogical approach to language (“language endangerment”), according to which mixing threatens
the life of languages. Reified and homogenized, the Romani language
becomes a new object of identification for an elite concerned to perpetuate its status as the guide of “Roma destiny.” The idea of s language
“massacred”15 by the “racist” Gadjo (Djuric 2005b, 82) is coupled with
the conspiracy rhetoric of “collaborator of the racist” (Courthiade 2005c,
38). In the competition over the monopoly of instrumentalization of the
language, the enemies are the educated Roma who prefer to standardize
the variants and are immediately suspected of treason, opportunism, and
incompetence. “The one who has restrained the Rromani” (Courthiade
2005c, 38), the Gadjo, named in his radical oneness, refuses to make
the Roma a free people so they can escape their enslaved condition. The
continual play on the divide established between Roma and Gadjé, which
gives rise to all possible perversions, produces a discourse haunted by its
own denial and its own loss. Yet it is essentially articulated to convince the
European authorities. This discursive strategy, then, validates statements
not by argument but by the speaker’s position of power. The strength of
the statements is related to the influence of their author. Debating the
propositions thus becomes impossible.
The vindictiveness of people like Rajko Djurić (former president of
the International Romani Union from 1990 to 2000) pushes the warlike
14. “Such a policy, even when it claims to be friendly, in reality creates artificial divisions
in the language; it is essentially racist and it can lead to the disintegration, destruction,
and death of Rromani” (“Réunion de la commission,” 60).
15. “There is in the world no language
that was massacred as much as the Romani language
hanged, burnt, strangled…
And it has risen from the grave!
Language above all languages.” (Rajko Djurić, 2005a, 58).
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rhetoric very far, particularly against Roma intellectuals who rebel against
the standardization advocated by the IRU. He describes some as henchmen of a xenophobia fueled by the Gadjé, while reproaching others for
not extolling their language to the latter (Djurić 2005, 84).
Reading these texts, we observe a real war for a monopoly of control
over Romani between various scholarly discourses on the language. The
stakes are high: the language, this unique heritage shared with other
ethnic groups, alone guarantees a place in the paradise of the minorities
“business.” For their part, most non-Roma researchers and, above all,
non-Roma media support linguistic homogenization, following the current logic of creating a heritage, since “the Romani language is the unique
historical monument of this people” (Auzias 2002, 29). The distinctive
feature of the standardization of Romani, however, lies in the supreme
value granted to it: the Roma nation essentially depends on the language,
the only point in common able to support all of the specific ethnicities.
Linguistic minority? For Djurić, it is the language that should avoid the
worst, saving the people from ostracism, because “the Rromani language
is an essential element of national identity” (Djurić 2005, 86). Socially,
this language must accompany schooling in order to “overcome the
ignorance to which centuries of history have consigned us” (Courthiade
2005c, 37).
2.2. The Preservation of Capital Through Ethnic Authenticity
The substitution of cultural and ethnic homogenization for a social and
political approach to the centuries-long history and situation of Tzigane
families results in its commodification in the minorities market. University or activist careers are today built on the Roma thanks to the benefits
accruing from a plethora of organizations, associations, consultancies,
etc., that all favor making the language and Roma culture a common
This process is based on an initial precondition. The recycling of old
dialectical paradigms (tradition/modernity, authenticity/inauthenticity)
goes back to a determinist apprehension of individuals and their identities.
Focusing the study of a people on the ancestral traditions that are
assumed to characterize it—in order continually to reaffirm its unity—is
a common practice in the processes of ethnicization and establishing
boundaries. Renewing the old opposition between tradition and modernity in connection with minorities, while cutting them off from any
contemporary reality, establishes a break between two types of society
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increasingly impermeable to one another. To say that the Roma live on
the margins of modern society and that they are incapable of adapting
to outside strategies reinforces a fixed and erroneous view of their way
of life. Assigned to an immutable history, whereas they have continually
interacted with new forms of time and space wherever they lived, families
are pushed aside and excluded from supposed “modernity.” Their unique
attachment to the essence of their “Tziganitude,” then, makes them
people who are unable to be integrated, which feeds the discourse of
exclusion aroused by the security paranoia of current government measures. Rather than contesting this essentialist understanding, researchers
confirm it by turning it into folklore.
The second precondition concerns the exclusive identification of
the category Roma in the name of “cultural authenticity”, and thus of
language-origin. The objective is clear: different peoples should not be
mixed; some are not Roma, so they should be excluded from the category. In the name of the origin, the creation of a closed inventory of
minorities is divested of all social and political considerations. Hence,
the Béas, Ashkali, Travelers, Yniches, Balkan Egyptians, Evgjits, etc., are
carefully set aside (Courthiade 2002, 2003) as “false Roma” despite the
attribution of the ethnonym “Tzigane” or the Romani terms that some
use. To each his origin.
Why such a need for identity closure? Quite simply because the political and economic stakes are determinant. This hunt for false Roma results
in a multitude of new labels (Acton 1989, 89), new minorities, which,
in turn, claim the right to establish their nation. These discourses of
categorization lead to hierarchizations in order to avoid any stigmatizing
amalgamations. The “true” Roma cannot be assimilated with all the
excluded populations of the earth; their noble Indian origin makes it possible to distinguish them from others. Founded on the idea of equivalence
between ethnicity, language, and culture, the recruitment of minorities
gives rise to every ethnic division possible, as has occurred in Europe. This
logic thus rejects the historical reality of how peoples are formed, with
the variation, blending, and complex particularities born from diverse
identities and positions in different times and places.16 We are witnessing
a real re-writing of history, even a straight-out ethnic invention.
This situation leads to an unprecedented discursive telescoping
within the context of current public policies: while most European (and
16. The article “uniformity” from the Romani Project reproduces this irreducible link
between language and ethnicity to define the origin of the Roma (http://romani.
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international) organizations have supported ethno-nationalist research
for several decades, the European Parliament adopted resolutions (July 9,
2008 and September 9, 2010) against ethnic census measures. The desire
to delimit populations discursively in the name of their ethnicity and their
minority status encounters its limits here.
2.3. The Struggle for Monopoly
The ethnic dogma, which underlies the discourses and work of all European authorities, depends on a general determinist and often purist
understanding of the human being. A distinctive feature of the establishment of boundaries, concomitant with cognitivist and innatist trends, is
that ethnographic and linguistic research are encouraged and financially
The Council of Europe has played a leading role in the process of
recognizing the Roma and the Romani language. In 1981, it recognized
the Roma as an ethnic minority and demanded for them the same rights,
advantages, and status as other minorities. Resolution 125 of 1981 stipulates that they must obtain “the same status and advantages as other
minorities may enjoy, in particular concerning respect and support for
their own culture and language.” Local and regional authorities are called
on to exercise their responsibilities in relation to the social and cultural
problems of nomad populations. In 1983, the Council for Cultural
Cooperation recommended that Romani language and culture be used
and respected like the regional cultures and languages of other minorities.
In 1989, the Conference of Ministers of Education declared that one of
their goals is to promote the teaching of methods and documents likely
to take into consideration the history, culture, and language of “Gypsies
and Travelers” and encourage research in these areas (Resolution 89/C,
153/025). In 1993, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly
called for the establishment of a European program for the study of
“Romani” and a special department for translation. It recommended that
the expectations concerning non-territorial languages, as well as other
minority languages, be applied to the Tzigane minority (Recommendation 1203/1993). In February 2000, the Committee of Ministers of the
Council of Europe recommended to member states that they undertake
to provide education for Roma children in the maternal language. It is
also desirable to encourage the development of instruction and pedagogic
material (history, language, culture) with the Roma community (Resolution 2000/4). The most important text for European policies in this area
is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992) which
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led to the recognition of the Roma language in some states (ten have
implemented it) as a language “without compact territory.” The 2008
events in Italy pushed the young coalition of Roma associations, the EU
Roma Policy Coalition, to demand that the EU hold a European summit
devoted to the Roma, which the European Commission organized on
September 16, 2008. More recently, the new expulsions of Roma by
France led the Council of Europe to take up this issue again in order to
accelerate the process of integrating Roma in Europe.17
In twenty years, the role of European institutions has radically altered
the field of Tzigane studies, partly through policy orientation and partly
because the financing of numerous research works that undertake the
development of “Tziganology” is encouraged. In line with a general
revision of language, the terminology used for “ethnonyms” changed
from “nomads” to “travelers”, from Tzigane to Roma, to the point that a
specific document, Glossary on Roma and Travellers (September 14, 2006),
was put together for internal standardization in the Council of Europe by
the Roma and Travellers Division and the “Education of Roma Children
in Europe” project.
It is impossible to detail all the actions and texts—decisions, recommendations, exhortations, plans of action, resolutions, forums, etc.—produced by multiple European organizations concerning the Roma. The
mass of documents is commensurate with the small effect on state policies. Repeatedly, these documents propose a series of wishes, exhortations,
or condemnations that are expressed in various ways, using the same
imperative rhetoric (“It is necessary to…”), through a succession of verbs
in the infinitive: envisage, adopt, prohibit, impose, guarantee, record,
investigate, monitor, facilitate, elaborate, create, evaluate, devote, etc.18
In the face of discrimination, the question of political representation,
access to the law, medical care, employment, etc., is always considered
in terms of the ethnic dogma. It is as if promoting the Romani language
and culture would to settle the great “Gypsy problem” by transforming
“attitudes” and opinions about the Roma, who are, moreover, encouraged
to “control their destiny.”19
17. See the “Strasbourg Declaration on Roma” and the “Strasbourg Initiatives by the
Secretary General of the Council of Europe” (, October 20, 2010.
18. Examples taken from one of the OSCE texts “Decision no. 566: Action Plan
on Improving the Situation of the Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area”
(November 27, 2003).
19. Statement by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary General of the Council
of Europe, in Strasbourg, April 8, 2003.
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All these measures have led, not to an improvement in the lives of
families, but to the formation of an international category of educated
Roma or non-Roma intermediaries experienced in bureaucratic rhetoric
who have grown richer on the backs of the Roma population. It should
be noted, however, that the European Union is not alone in opening up
this new market in identities., The Open Society Institute—a Soros foundation—and the World Bank were involved in launching the “Decade
of Roma Inclusion” (2005-2015), thereby strengthening the minorities
“business.”20 For those with apparently social objectives, the problem of
the unity of political representation and the emergence of Roma leaders
arises. However, the problem lies less in cultural divisions than in the
competition among these leaders, induced for economic reasons. The
race among projects, competition for subsidies created by international or
non-governmental organizations, the force of lobbying efforts carried out
by some groups, the involvement of liberal think tanks 21 in the market of
so-called social projects, etc., are all realities that give concrete expression
to the managerial dimension of studies on the Roma, whose results, often
without interest, are valid only for the communicational use they sustain.
The struggle for monopoly leads to numerous conflicts between some
researchers who, like the associations, are on the lookout for the smallest
subsidy from international organizations in order to occupy positions of
The “Roma ethno-business” or the “Gypsy industry” are expressions
that well identify the political-financial stakes behind the “management”
of the fight against discrimination against Roma. The “representatives of
interests” formed into “pressure groups” act openly and play a consultative
20. The long list of financial partners is itself suggestive (
21. “[…] no leftist think tank could enter the ‘market’ for projects financed by organizations like George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID), Freedom House, the National Endowment for
Democracy, and others. Even European programs (PHARE and ACCES, for example) have, above all, favored liberal think tanks, often co-financing projects already
supported by American foundations. […] How will think tanks called on to fight
against extremism and populism in both Eastern and Western Europe be able to
accomplish their mission if their messages are increasingly mixed up with a purely
managerial view of governance? We may, rather, fear the contrary: by making them
privileged interlocutors, European institutions risk both deepening the gap between
citizens and the Union’s political structures and compromising trust in actors from
civil society in general on a long-term basis” (Dostena Anguelova-Lavergne, “Contre
la dérive populiste, des ‘think tanks de gauche’?” La Vie des idées, (May 1, 2007),
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role in the European legislative process. For their part, a large proportion of non-Roma “Tziganologists”, particularly in the East, stress the
perverse effects of the “Gypsy industry” that emerged in the 1990s “with
the financial support and ‘expertise’ of the international community”
(Marusiakova and Popov 2007). In evaluating the “strategies of the Roma
political entrepreneurs,” these analyses hide the strategies of the nonRoma entrepreneur-researchers themselves who have no less interest in
international financial support. At no point have these researchers called
into question their own culturalist categorizations.
This position goes back to a debate initiated by Jean-Pierre Liégeois
(2007, 219) on the paradox of the legitimacy of Roma organizations in
relation to Roma populations that do not recognize these organizations
given their foundation in Gadjo society. Based on a culturalist approach
that contrasts tradition and modernity, this discourse reinforces the
establishment of boundaries between Roma and non-Roma. It appears
that a large number of Roma reject their “elites” more because of the
financial manipulations22 carried out by these elites than because of a
lack of “cultural” representation. On the contrary, the acute awareness of
the power relations that the much talked about international aid makes
possible is far from being an obstacle to “remaining one’s self”: the aid is
quite often subject to negotiations that can undermine discourses when
opportunities present themselves. In situations of great insecurity, survival strategies, whether Roma or non-Roma, all intensely fit into quite
“modern” relations to their environments.
Conclusion: The Effects of Ethnolinguistic Exploitation—
A Bulgarian Example
In contrast with the discourses and actions of “ethno-business” managers, the discourses of frequently unemployed and ostracized individuals
collected in working class areas23 are formed within new social configurations that lead to a blurring of reference points. While for some, Romani
identity and language are valuable on the economic market, for others
that identity and language are incitements to violence directed against
22. The example of Sebihana Skenderovska’s discourse is interesting. She is the
Coordinator of Women and Youth Issues of the RCC DROM Kumanovo
(Macedonia). ( id=2500&mdoc_id=1002629&npf_set_pos%5Bhits%5D=1).
23. I draw here on my fieldwork in the Nadejda quarter in Sliven (Bulgaria). See the
films Derrière le mur, episodes 1 and 2, 2008-2009 (Tutti Quanti Films), directed in
cooperation with Stefka Stefanova Nikolova and Ruska Guincheva.
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them. Thus, recently, a woman from the Nadejda quarter in Sliven asked
me: “Is it true that we came from India?”
In Bulgaria, the rise of nationalist, even ultra-nationalist, political
discourses does not involve the less educated working population as much
as the middle classes who have a certain level of education. The rise of
the extreme right party, ATAKA, is the result not only of a rejection of
communism, but also of the rapid entry of Bulgaria into Europe. Just
when the nation-state is barely (re-)constructed around patriotic values,
its “dissolution” in Europe comes to threaten its fragile homogeneity.
Even more, European multicultural expectations are opening the way to
the destruction of the nation, according to the ultra-nationalists. This discourse, as everywhere, assumes particular force in a context of economic
and social deregulation. Relatively spared up to then, the Roma, whose
relations with their Bulgarian neighbors were tolerable despite some clear
animosities, have today become responsible for all the ills of the Bulgarian nation. As television overwhelms citizens with folklore productions
(music, song, dance) with the aim of reinforcing nationalism while simultaneously playing on nostalgic sentiments, the media are setting out to
stigmatize and demonize the “new” foreigners: the Roma and the Turks.
“The situation is, then, somewhat schizophrenic. On the international
market, what sells best is the multicultural; for internal consumption, we
bank on patriotic homogenization. The people truly need this type of
culture—several colleagues have said to us—they turn on the radio and
want to know what country they are in” (Ditchev 2001, 333).
The “disaster” of this forced passage from nationalism to multiculturalism recalled by Ditchev, which focuses on the establishment of
ethnic boundaries to the detriment of citizenship, cannot be understood
without acknowledging the sudden emergence of unrestrained capitalism, which reigns supreme in Bulgaria under forms of mafia corruption
whose ramifications affect all strata of the population. In this general
“free-for-all”, the position of the Roma is not very different from that of
other marginalized sectors.
The deterioration in relations between Roma and non-Roma in Bulgaria
results from economic, political, and social changes in the country. However,
the ethnicizing orthodoxy inspired by Brussels in the name of defending
national minorities worsens the situation and widens the gap between populations: Roma who have been neighbors for centuries become foreigners
because of a discursive overvaluation of their place in European society.
As far as relations among the Roma are concerned, ethnolinguistic
marketing has effects on discourses and power arrangements on both local
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and international levels. While new categorizations (Indian origin, essentialist dogma, use of the term “Rom,” etc.) are taken up by some educated
or committed speakers in organizations, often for instrumental ends, the
consequences of the emergence of an intermediary class enriched by outside
sources transform the relations of power. What the majority of the “forgotten” deplore is not the enrichment as such, rather praised in other respects,
but the hypocrisy and the lies in that position of domination that allows
these intermediaries not only to go against the Gadjé, but also against their
brother Roma, sold (symbolically) to Europe for personal success.
In calling for a “change in attitudes,” the Council of Europe has also
given rise to the establishment of intercultural civic education within
schools, which aims at fostering an understanding of numerous “cultural identities.” The necessity of schooling children within the context
of newly laid out multicultural situations is clearly not separate from a
culturalist approach that encourages a large number of decision makers
to insist on an education in the mother language. The creation of separate classes and schools, as in some towns, corresponds to the project of
establishing boundaries at the local and international levels. There again,
the effects of political exploitation are immediate: in the name of culture,
a differentiation is established between peoples within education itself:
to each his culture, to each his school.
By refusing to consider these European families in relation to quite
diverse social and political contexts, by moving away from studying the
multiple causes that form their particular characteristics and found their
history(ies) within nation-states (trajectories, membership in multiple
networks, relations with the Gadjé, integration into political spaces,
configuration of forms of power/resistance, etc.), one ends up consecrating a fictional identity, the Roma or the Romani. Fabricated for the clear
conscience of the West and for ethnic marketing, this internal foreigner,
increasingly present in the media, is today erected into a dual figure: both
victim and executioner, discriminated against and threatening. In the
greatest hypocrisy, European policies are duty-bound to play, or at least
pretend to play, the role of savior, while giving a free hand to the particular discriminations in each state. Discontinuing the legal proceedings
against France24 is further evidence of this.
24. On October 19, Viviane Reding and Europe abandoned the proceedings against
France for its decision to modify its national law on the free circulation of European
citizens. For a recent analysis, see: “L’exemple des Roms, les Roms pour l’exemple,”
Lignes 34 (February 2011).
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Throughout this discursive journey, in other words, the language,
instead of the culture, is only one element in the process of identity
invention that makes possible the ethnicization of the most fragile populations. In the case of the Romani fiction, it appears as the constitutive
common denominator of an ethnicist construction in the absence of a
territory and a nation. It remains the case that this long-term undertaking
currently finds its success in what Ditchev (2010) calls “liberal essentialism”: labeling groups, combined with the instability and malleability
of its signifiers, has become a political necessity of current liberalism.
Affiliating individuals, families, and groups to cultural communities, to
a fixed membership, if possible outside of so-called national identities,
allows them to be used intentionally: exploit them in the fields of Spain
when there is a need for farm labor, then cast them back to distant origins
in Romania, in Bulgaria, and why not, in some more inaccessible desert,
or on Saturn….
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