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Roma people

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The Roma people (pronounced "rahma," singular Rom, sometimes Rroma, and Rrom) along with the closely related Sinti people are commonly known as Gypsies in English. They are a traditionally nomadic people who originated in northern India but currently live worldwide, chiefly in Europe. Most Roma speak some form of Romany, a language closely related to the modern Indo-European languages of northern India and Pakistan. Modern anthropology has related Romany language to Punjabi and Pothohari spoken in northern India & Pakistan.

Roma were widely believed to have psychic powers (see the popular stereotype of the Gypsy fortune-teller), and some romantics attribute the invention of the Tarot cards to them. This may reflect the belief that the Roma, being of alleged Egyptian origin, had knowledge of lost arts and sciences of the ancient Egyptians.


Name and language

The Rroma are popularly known in English as Gypsies or Gipsies, a word which is derived from Egypt, from a former belief among outsiders that they were natives of Egypt. The term was never used by the Roma to describe themselves. The term Gypsy has long been associated with persecution and has acquired pejorative connotations.

In much of Europe the Roma are known as Tsigane (French: Tsigane; Albanian: Cigan, Maxhup, Gabel; Bulgarian: Цигани (Tsigani); Czech: Cikáni; Dutch and German: Zigeuner; Lithuanian: Čigonai; Russian: Цыгане (Tsyganye); Hungarian: Cigány; Greek: Τσιγγάνοι (Tsingávoi); Italian: Zingari; Romanian: ţigani; Croatian and Serbian: Cigani; Polish: Cyganie; Portuguese: Cigano; Spanish: Gitano and in Turkish as Çingene). In Iran they are referred to as کولی (Kowli), in India as Lambani, Lambadi, or Rabari.

There is no relationship between the names Roma/Rroma (people) and Romany/Rromany/Romanes language, and the country of Romania, Romanians and Romanian language, or the city of Rome (Roma in Italian, Romanian and Latin).

Most Roma refer to themselves by one generic name, Rom (meaning "man" or "husband"). They have their own Romany language. Analysis of Romany has shown that it is related to languages spoken in northern India and Pakistan, such as Hindi and Punjabi. This is regarded as strong evidence for locating the geographical origin of the Roma, particularly in light of the fact that loanwords in Romany make it possible to trace the pattern of their migration west. Body habitus and ABO blood group distribution is also consistent with northern Indian warrior classes. However, a recent study in Nature Magazine implies Romany is related to Singhalese

Some Roma have developed creole languages and/or mixed languages, including:

In recent years there has been a movement towards use of the "double-R" spellings of "Rroma" for the people and "Rromanes" for the language, as in the Romani language, "r" and "rr" represent two different phonemes.


The Roma are believed to have left India about AD 1000 and to have passed through what is now Afghanistan, Persia, Armenia, and Turkey. People recognizable by other Roma as Roma still live as far east as Iran, including some who made the migration to Europe and returned. By the 14th century, the Roma had reached the Balkans and by the 16th century, Scotland and Sweden. Some Roma migrated south through Syria to North Africa, reaching Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar. Both currents met in today's France. Many peoples similar to the Roma still exist in India, seeming to have originated from the desert state of Rajasthan.

The reason for the diaspora of the Roma is one of the great mysteries of history. It has been proposed by some scholars that the Roma were originally low caste Hindus recruited into an army of mercenaries whereupon they were granted warrior caste status and sent westwards to resist Islamic military expansion. Another theory is that they were captives taken as slaves by Muslim conquerors of northern India and that they became a distinct community in their lands of captivity. It is reported that Mahmud of Ghazni took half a million prisoners during a Turk-Persian invasion of Sindh and Panjab in India. Why the Roma did not return to India, choosing instead to travel ever-further west into the lands of Europe, is an enigma but may relate to military service under the Muslims.

Roma immigration to the United States began in colonial times with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana. Larger scale immigration began in the 1860s with groups of Romnichal from Britain. The largest number of immigrants came over in the early 1900s, mainly from the Vlax group of Kalderash . The two groups do not often associate with each other. A large number also moved to Latin America.


The world population of Roma is difficult to establish with any certainty. Estimates suggest that there are between approximately 5 and 10 million Roma worldwide. As many as 6 to 8 million Roma live in Europe. The largest concentrations of Roma are found in the Balkan peninsula of southeastern Europe, in central Europe, the United States, and in Russia and the other successor republics of the USSR. Smaller numbers are scattered throughout western Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Countries where Roma populations exceed half a million are Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, and the United States. Slovakia, with its estimated 320,000 Roma out of a total population of 5.4 million, has the highest proportion of Roma in the world.

The Roma recognize divisions among themselves with some sense of territoriality emphasized by certain cultural and dialectal differences. Some authorities delineate four main confederations:

  1. the Kalderash (smiths who came from the Balkans and then went to central Europe and North America and are the most numerous),
  2. the Gitanos (also called Calé , mostly in the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and southern France; strong in the arts of entertainment),
  3. the Manush (also known as Sinti, mostly in Alsace and other regions of France and Germany; often travelling showmen and circus people), and
  4. the Romnichal (Rom'nies)(mainly in Britain and North America).

Each of these main divisions was further divided into two or more subgroups distinguished by occupational specialization or territorial origin or both. Some of these group names include Machvaya (Machwaya ), Lovari , Churari , Sinti, Rudari , Boyash , Ludar , Luri, Xoraxai , Ungaritza , Bashaldé , and Romungro .

According to The Guardian (January 8, 2003):

"In the Czech Republic, 75% of Roma children are educated in schools for people with learning difficulties, and 70% are unemployed (compared with a national rate of 9%). In Hungary, 44% of Roma children are in special schools, while 74% of men and 83% of women are unemployed. In Slovakia, Roma children are 28 times as likely to be sent to a special school than non-Roma; Roma unemployment stands at 80%."[1]


Studies of Bulgarian, Baltic and Vlax Roma genetics suggest that about 50% of observed Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA belong to haplogroup H and female haplogroup M, respectively; both of which are widespread across South and Central Asia. The male haplogroup R1a1 is rare amongst the Roma but accounts for 50% of male Y chromosome in NW India and Pakistan. The remaining genes of the Roma studied originate from Middle East or Europe. (Am. J. Hum. Genet. 69:1314–1331, 2001; "Origins and Divergence of the Roma (Gypsies)" and European Journal of Human Genetics (2001) 9, 97 - 104; "Patterns of inter- and intra-group genetic diversity in the Vlax Roma as revealed by Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA lineages".)


Because of their nomadic lifestyle, there has always been a great deal of mutual distrust between the Roma and their more settled neighbours. They were, and frequently still are, popularly believed to be beggars, thieves and kidnappers, unfit for sedentary labour, resulting in a great deal of persecution. This belief is often cited as the etymological source of the term gyp, meaning "cheat", as in "I got gypped by a con man." However, this etymology is difficult to verify; the Oxford English Dictionary lists this as simply a possible derivation. The German name Zigeuner is often derived through popular etymology from Ziehende Gauner, which means 'travelling thieves'. The Roma have sometimes accepted among themselves outsiders from mainstream society.

During the Enlightenment, Spain briefly sought to eliminate the Roma's outsider status by attempting to forbid the use of the word gitano and to assimilate the Roma into the mainstream population by forcing them to abandon their language and way of life. That effort proved unsuccessful.

Distrust of Roma reached a peak in World War II when the Nazis murdered large numbers of Roma. They were one of the major groups (along with Jews, communists, homosexuals and prostitutes) to be persecuted by the regime. Like Jews (and unlike the other groups), Roma were slated for extermination and were to be automatically sentenced to forced labour and/or imprisonment in a concentration camp or were to be killed on sight. It is believed that 400,000 Roma were killed. See Porajmos

Where possible, many Roma continue their nomadic lifestyle travelling in caravans (small trailer homes), but in many situations in Eastern Europe, they live in depressed squatter communities with very high unemployment. In some cases — notably the Kalderash clan in Romania who work as traditional coppersmiths — they have prospered.

To this day, there are still clashes between the Roma and the sedentary population around them. Common complaints are that Roma steal and live off social welfare and residents often reject Roma encampments. In the UK, "travellers", the politically-correct term, became a 2005 general election issue with the leader of the Conservative Party promising to review the Human Rights Act 1998. This law, which absorbs the European Convention on Human Rights into UK primary legislation, is seen by many to permit the granting of retrospective planning permission. Severe population pressures and the paucity of greenfield sites have led to travellers purchasing land and setting up residential settlements almost overnight thus subverting the planning restrictions imposed on other local members of the community.

Former communist countries

Many countries formerly part of the Eastern bloc and former Yugoslavia have substantial populations of Roma. The level of integration of Roma in society remains limited. They usually remain on the margins of society, living in isolated ghetto-like settlements. Only a small fraction of Roma children graduate from secondary schools. Usually they feel rejected by the state and main population, which creates another obstacle to their integration.

During Communism, Roma were subject to assimilation pressure (e.g. official use of Roma language was forbidden); however their social situation was relatively good. Usually, labour duty existed in planned economies, and work for Roma was organized by authorities. They were usually employed as an unqualified manual force — but because of communist ideology, such work was relatively well paid. The situation changed after the fall of communism. Roma have had problems finding jobs in standard labour market conditions. The main reasons are (generally): relatively lower education, low qualifications, and prejudice.

In some countries, dependance on social security systems are part of the problem. For some Roma families, it may be preferable to live on social security, compared to low-paid jobs. That creates many new problems: anger against Roma, conditions that produce crime, and extreme sensitivity to changes in social security. A good example of the last one is Slovakia, where reform of social security led to civil disorder in some Roma villages.

In most countries within or approaching the European Union, Roma people can find chances to lead normal lives. Some Roma families integrate better into the larger societies, avoid having unusually many children and don't depend on social security. Nevertheless, the Roma most visible to the rest of the community are those few that for various reasons still live in shacks (usually built ad hoc, near railroads) and beg on the streets, perpetuating the bad image of Roma overall. The local authorities tend to try to help such people by improving infrastructure in their settlements and subsidizing families further, but such aid is mostly superficial and insufficient.

In June 2004, Livia Jaroka became the first Roma Member of the European Parliament when she was elected as part of the list of the right-wing Fidesz Party in Hungary, following that country's accession to the European Union.

Most Roma abandoned their nomadic way of life long ago, and a good representation of way of life of Balkan Roma today can be seen in the films of the famous Bosnian director Emir Kusturica.

Seven former communist Central European and Southeastern European states launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion initiative in 2005 to improve the socio-economic conditions and status of the Roma minority.

Roma society

The traditional Roma place a high value on the extended family. Virginity is essential in unmarried women. Both men and women often marry young: the average bride can range from as young as 15 to 25.

There is some controversy, however, surrounding Roma arranged marriage practices, with parallels being drawn to slavery. In 2003, one of the many Roma tribal kings, Tortica, banned his subjects from entering their children into marriage until they have come of age. This is seen by some as being in direct conflict with traditional Roma family practices. A rival Roma patriarch, Florin Cioaba , ran afoul of Romanian authorities in late 2003 when he married off his youngest daughter, Ana-Maria, reported by some to be as young as 12 years old.

Roma music

In addition to their own Roma music, the Roma have had and still maintain a prominent role in the evolution of Flamenco music and dance.

Fictional representations of Roma

Notable representations of Roma in fiction include The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo, La Gitanilla by Miguel de Cervantes, Thinner by Stephen King, Carmen by Georges Bizet, and Montoyas y Tarantos by Saura . The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies strongly features characters who in modern Canada maintain Gypsy traditions including the care and repair of musical instruments. Fires in the Dark by Louise Doughty is a fictionalised account of Roma experience in Central Europe during the Second World War

Groups with similar lifestyles

In Germany and Switzerland, France and Austria there also exist so-called white gypsies which are known under the names of Jenische (German spelling), Yéniche (French spelling), and Yenish (English spelling). Their language seems to be grammatically identical with other (Swiss) German dialects; the origin of the lexicon however incorporates German, Romany, Yiddish and other words. See: Jenische (in German)

There is also a group of people in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States called Irish Gypsies or Irish Travellers. They are not genetically related to the Roma, but their nomadic culture has been influenced by them. Their language is mainly based on an Irish Gaelic lexicon and an English-based grammar, with influence from Romany.

The quinqui or mercheros of Spain are a minority group, formerly nomadic, that share a lot of the way of life of Spanish Roma. Their origin is unclear, maybe peasants who lost their land in the 16th century. In spite of sharing persecution and mores with the Roma, the quinqui have often set themselves apart from them.


Russell D. Gray and Quentin D. Atkinson, Nature, vol 426, 27 Nov 2003, "Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin," pp. 435-439 [2] See language distribution tree diagram.


  • Viorel Achim . The Roma in Romanian History. 2004. Budapest: Central European University Press. ISBN9639241849.
  • Gypsies, Wanderers of the World, Bart McDowell, Photographs by Bruce Dale, National Geographic Society, 1970, hardback illustrated by photographs, 215 pages. ISBN 0870440888
  • National Geographic, April, 2001, "Gypsies, The World's Outsiders", pp. 72-101.

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Last updated: 08-17-2005 06:06:45
Last updated: 08-24-2005 03:17:04