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The Language of the Roma

The Romani language, even though it is now comprised of a number of different dialects, belongs to the family of Indo-European languages in a group that includes other languages of Indian origin, such as Hindi and Bengali. The affinity of Indo-European languages is revealed in various terms, such as the Czech bratr, English brother, Sanskrit bhratr, Romany phral (an aspirated p, not an /f/ sound). Romany, however, is far from a unified language. Due to the diaspora of individual groups of Roma, there are a number of main dialects of the Romani language, although Roma from different parts of the world are able to understand one another.

The vocabulary of all dialects of Romany, just as in other languages, is made up of original words, loan-words, and newly-invented words.

Original words are old words of Indian origin and words borrowed long ago, from Iranian languages, from Armenian and a number from Greek as well, in other words, from the countries through which all groups of Roma travelled on their way from India to Europe. This part of the Romani language is universal, and these words still survive in modern usage and appear in every dialect of Romany.

Loan-words are those that were picked up by Romani groups as they spread out through Europe, from the tongues of the countries they travelled through after they left Asia Minor. In the case of the Slovakian Roma (who make up the majority of Roma in the Czech Republic), these loan-words come primarily from Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Slovak, Rumanian, Ukrainian, Polish, and German (from it's Swabian dialect). The words incorporated into Romany in this fashion are terms for what was unknown to them at the time. This vocabulary is unstable and is often replaced by words from a new contact language, in the case of Slovak Roma living in the Czech Republic, from the Czech language.

The newest words in Romany, neologisms, which every living language has, are created words or foreign words that are borrowed from the environment in which the Roma live. Like the Czechs' current fight against English, however, the Roma attempt to create their own words for new things.

In the lands of the former Czechoslovakia, there are three main dialects: Slovak, Hungarian, and Wallachian (from the southern part of Rumania). The Slovak dialect is the most common, spoken by 80% of Roma in the Czech and Slovak Republics, while the Hungarian and Wallachian dialects make up an additional 10% each. The Roma who speak the Wallachian dialect are able to communicate with other Roma around the world most easily.

A written grammar of the Romany spoken in the Czech Republic, along with a Romany-Czech, Czech-Romany dictionary, was written by Milena Hubschmanova, Hana Sebkova a Anna Zigova, and published in 1991 by Pedagogicke nakladatelstvi (Pedagogical Publishing).

The pronunciation of Romany is phonetic, that is, it more or less corresponds to the way it's written. Therefore, Czechs are able to read texts written in the dialect of Romany prevalent in the country as if they were written in Czech. This holds true for most Romany dialects, that they are written to correspond to the pronunciation of the given language of that country. For instance, the word for man in Romany is written manus (with an inverted circumflex over the s) in the dialect of Romany spoken in the Czech Republic, but in Romany texts published in English, it would be written manoush or manush.

Unlike Czech, Romany has aspirated consonants, or sounds pronounced with a light breath. The four sounds aspirated in Romany are: kh, ph, th and chh. The aspirated consonants give different meanings to the letters, so their omission or mispronunciation can lead to misunderstandings. For example, the word perel means to fall, while pherel means to gather.

There is also a sound used quite often in Romany that the Czechs don't use much, the 'dz', pronounced like the 'j' in English. Romany also uses the soft 'l', pronounced the same as it is in Slovak and Polish, as something between an 'l' and a 'w'. Romany also has soft consonants like Czech, pronounced like the first 'n' in onion, which are identified by accent-like marks. For example, in e dila (floor) the 'd' is hard, but in o d'ives (day), pronounced ody-ivess, the 'd' is soft.

Romany also uses articles, unlike Czech, and has eight declensions as well as an indirect declension. Seven of the declensions correspond more or less with those in Czech, with the extra being the ablative case. Words are also declined according to male and female gender, singular and plural.

To ilustrate with an example from The Patrin site, originally published by the UNESCO Courier, using the plural of phral (brother) to demonstrate the uses of the declensions:

Nominative: phrala (the brothers as a subject)
Genitive: phralengo (of the brothers)
Dative: phralenge (to the brothers)
Accusative: phralem (the brothers as an object)
Vocative: phralale (brothers!)
Locative: phralesta (in/on the brothers)
Instrumental: phralensta (with the brothers)
Ablative: phralendar (by the brothers)

Nouns are declined according to whether they are original or borrowed words. Nouns and adjectives in Romany are used in the diminutive very frequently.

Verbs are expressed the same as in Czech, in either the infinitive or by person (first, second, or third), in past, present or future tense, in the singular or plural, in the perfective or imperfective, in declarative, imperative or conditional mode, and as active or passive. The infinitive is introduced by the word te (te kerel - to do), the negative by the word na (kerav - I do, nakerav - I don't do), and the by word ma in the imperative (ma ker - don't do that!). Verbs are conjugated by modifying their endings with word stems.

The verb to have doesn't exist in Romany. Possession is expressed by word structure, in a similar fashion as in Russian.

Adjectives and adverbs are made comparative and superlative the same way as in Czech, and somewhat similarly to English: a suffix is added to form the comparative and then an additional prefix is added to form the superlative ( baro - velky - big, bareder - vetsi - bigger, jekhbareder - nejvetsi - biggest).

The usage of vy and ty (the formal and informal you, used in practically every European language but English) has adapted to the Czech surroundings: while many Roma until recently used the third person plural (them) when talking about a respected or deceased person and children addressed their parents and grandparents in the formal vy(you), this custom has died out in most cities and towns and the use of the formal and informal you is the same as in Czech.

Of course, it must be remembered that these rules may vary among the various dialects of Romany, and we are talking about the dialect presently spoken in the Czech Republic.

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