The Romani Language, Preserved on Paper

No 54

CLIQUEZ ICI POUR LA VERSION FRANÇAISE.

The so-called Gypsies can lay claim to what might be the most well traveled oral tradition on the planet—and possibly the most vibrant, too. Their music, like their pungent slang, is a song of the fringes. Tracing its roots to northern India, this itinerant group has occupied the margins of many a settled society throughout the ages; indeed, the stubborn flow and viscosity of Gypsy culture—and the fear and loathing this resistance to the mainstream has so often engendered in more anchored neighbors—must be considered one of its best-known traits.

Those Gypsies who headed west from the Indian subcontinent—a thousand or so years ago, most scholars reckon—became the Roma people now scattered throughout Europe, often in impoverished circumstances. Romani, the Roma language, claims approximately three million speakers and some 60 dialects. Precise knowledge of the culture and its language is hard to come by, especially for outsiders. The proud Gypsy insularity, which may well have ensured the culture's survival to date, has also contributed its share of mysteries and frustrations, chief among them a striking absence of written records.

Enter Roma poet Muzafer Bislim, whose exhaustive attempt to document the language is without precedent. It is an ongoing 35-year project, one that began during his travels through Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslav republic in the seventies as a singer-songwriter. Bislim's handwritten compilation (of every Romani word he has collected, with a Serbian and Macedonian translation for each) fills sheaves of notebooks and loose-leaf paper, which he keeps stored in the living room of his home in Shutka, Macedonia. It is an idiosyncratic collection. Roma specialists point out that the language can only be said to contain 5,000 non-loanwords, and argue that many of the archaisms in Bislim's 25,000-word lexicon are in fact a product of his poet's imagination.

While it may stamp Bislim's project (not fatally, one hopes) as a creative work, this apparent contradiction might also be its badge of authenticity. “The Gypsies have the art of words, as the poor previously had the art of cooking leftovers," the linguist Alice Becker-Ho declares in The Princes of Jargon. Becker-Ho argued that Roma—itself informed by Persian, Byzantine Greek, a mix of forgotten Indian tongues, and so much else—has colored the unofficial languages of Europe since the 15th-century. Verlan, the inverted-syllable slang popular among French youths today, and the English cleaners known as “charwomen" (from charuvav, to scratch or scrape) are just two among many very plausible examples.

For more than most cultures, it seems, the Roma identity lives in words. “In short, their history, memory and 'writing' are entirely contained in their language, which is a language of struggle, as is all argot," Becker-Ho writes. Nor, of course, would the disappearance of Romani from the modern world mean the struggle had ended.

This short film has been edited by Meshakai Wolf for Jungles in Paris, using footage shot for his feature documentary Flames of God.

Credits

  • Director & editor - Meshakai Wolf
  • Cinematographer - Kosta Asmanis
  • Producers - Meshakai Wolf, Pierre Chopinaud, and Gregory Scarborough
  • Translators - Denis Durmish and Nevsija Durmish
  • Music - Juksil Kamil, Muzafer Bislim, and Aamcho
  • Text - Darrell Hartman

Stay connected

To people & the planet