An introduction to the Romani language

Who are the Romani?

The Romani people (commonly referred to as gypsies) are an ethnocultural, largely nomadic, group of Indo-European origins.
DNA suggests that they most likely originated in what is now northwest India and eastern Pakistan around 1000 years ago. DNA and linguistic evidence both suggest that they left South Asia through Iran, staying for a period in Armenia, and from there they continued on west. Some went to the Middle East, others to North Africa, but the vast majority went to Europe. Today, there are over six million Roma living worldwide.
Notable people of Romani descent include Michael Caine, Yul Brynner, Pola Negri, Adam Ant, Ronnie Wood, Eric Cantona and Cameron Diaz.

What about the Romani language?

Romani is a member of the Indo-European family. Intriguingly for the peoples' origins in northwest India, it appears to have its roots in Old Central Indic.
Over time, the Roma absorbed influences of surrounding languages, and today several dialects are mutually unintelligible to other Roma speakers. Intelligibility is usually on a geographic continnum, ie. it is less difficult for speakers of Sinti and Manouche to understand each other than it would be for an Calo speaker to understand a Vlax speaker. Several dialects, especially in Western and Northern Europe, have significant influence from surrounding languages to the point that these could more properly be referred to as mixed languages or creoles. Despite this, these mixed (Para-Romani) dialects are generally mutually untelligible not only to other Romani speakers but speakers of the surrounding language.
In recent years, there has been an effort to standardise Romani for use in pan-Romani contexts. Romani linguist Ronald Lee has proposed the use of the Kalderash dialect as the standard as it is the most widely spoken. However, other linguists believe that privileging one dialect as the standard will lead to yet more Romani dialects dying out.

How is the Romani language written?

As a result of this reluctance of Romani linguists to standardise the language, only standardised scripts have been created thus far. These are mostly based on the Latin alphabet and include the IRU Standard Alphabet, the Pan-Vlax alphabet and the Macedonian Teaching Alphabet. Prior to the existence of these standardised scripts, the local dialects were variously transcribed with little uniformity.
Traditionally, the Roma did not write. Oral tradition was the preferred method of recording things, although some adopted a system of "hobo" or "gypsy" pictographs to alert fellow travellers of particular issues. In 2019-20, I set about creating a non-Latin Romani script influenced by those of their original contact languages. I did not initially seek to replace the Latin-based systems, but rather wanted to create an indigenous writing system for a language that did not have one. The script, an abugida like most other Indo-Iranian ones, is designed to be simple enough for anyone to learn and use. It is also designed to look as aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Do most Romani speak a Romani dialect?

No. It is believed 1.5 million out of the over six million Roma speak a Romani dialect as a first language. Almost all of these are bilingual in the surrounding language, and there is extensive code switching especially amongst younger speakers. Some dialects are either seriously endangered or extinct due to speakers switching to speaking the surrounding language(s) exclusively. These include Welsh Kale and Romanichal, both Para-Romani dialects which were heavily mixed with English and Welsh.

Are there any Romani words in English? What about in other languages?

Yes, especially in British English. Terms like kushti, lollipop, chav, gaffer and gibberish are spoken daily by English speakers unaware of their Romani roots.
As I am a native English speaker, I am largely unaware of any Romani terms that have leaked into other languages. I do know that Shelta, a dialect of Irish spoken by the Irish Travellers, has absorbed some Romani words due to contact between the two travelling groups. However, the Irish Travellers are ethnically a distinct group from the Romani and the similarities begin and end with their nomadic lifestyles.