The Roma are a distinct ethnic minority whose origins began on the Indian subcontinent over one thousand years ago. Why the Roma left India is clouded in uncertainty, yet they entered southeastern Europe in the last quarter of the 13th Century. Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought by the first Europeans to be from Turkey, Nubia or Egypt, or any number of non-European places. They were called, among other things, Egyptians or ‘Gyptians, which is where the word "Gypsy" comes from. In some places, this Egyptian identity was taken entirely seriously, and was no doubt borrowed by the early Roma themselves.
In Europe, Roma were either kept in slavery in the Balkans from the 14th century (officially abolished in 1864), or else moved into the rest of the European continent, reaching every northern and western country by about 1500. The fragmentation of the Romani population occurred on a major scale after their arrival into Europe in the 14th century. Once in Europe, their particular ability to adjust to outside groups continued, and in some places, the Romani element was dominant enough to assimilate outsiders. In other places, the Romani element was too small to maintain its discrete identity and it was lost, while contributing to the group into which they were absorbed. The Romani population has grown differently in different places, to the point that one group may deny the legitimacy of another group. But all groups maintain to a greater or lesser degree the barrier between who is Roma and who is not. Thus there are populations of Romani who have incorporated a substantial foreign genetic element from outside of India, but who remain in terms of their own self-perception Roma, and who speak Romanes. In the course of time, as a result of having interacted with various European populations, and being fragmented into widely-separated groups, Roma have emerged as a collection of distinct ethnic groups within the larger whole. There are many groups of Roma, including (but not limited to) the Kalderash, Machavaya, Lovari, Churari, Romanichal, Gitanoes, Kalo, Sinti, Rudari, Manush, Boyash, Ungaritza, Luri, Bashaldé, Romungro, and Xoraxai.
Romani culture is diverse with many traditions and customs, and all groups around the world have their own individual beliefs and tenets. There is no universal culture per se, but there are attributes common to all Roma, including: loyalty to family (extended and clan); Romaniya, standards and norms, varying in degree from tribe to tribe; and adaptability to changing conditions. Integration of many Roma into gajikané (non-Roma, or foreign) culture due to settlement has diluted many Romani cultural values and beliefs. Not all groups have the same definition of who and what is "Roma." What may be accepted as "true-Roma" by one group may be gadjé to another. It would be invalid to generalize and oversimplify by giving concrete rules to all Roma. Despite what some groups may believe, there is no one group that can call themselves the one, "true" Roma.
Today, the following characteristics apply to the many Roma groups and communities around the world:
- Roma may be nomadic, semi-sedentary, or sedentary;
- Roma speak many dialects of Romanes, and some Roma may not speak Romanes at all;
- Roma may live in rural or urban areas;
- Some Roma groups are predominately illiterate, while other groups stress at least a minimum of literacy in their host country's language for its community members.
The Romani people have been known by many names, including Gypsies (or Gipsies), Tsigani, Tzigane, Cigano, Zigeuner, and others. Most Roma have always referred to themselves by their tribal names, or as Rom or Roma, meaning "Man" or "People." (Rom, Roma, Romani, and Romaniya should not be confused with the country of Romania, or the city of Rome. These names have separate, distinct etymological origins and are not related.) The use of Rom, Roma, Romani, or the double "r" spelling (Rrom, Rroma, Rromani), is preferred in all official communications and legal documents. The trend is to eliminate the use of derogatory, pejorative and offensive names, such as Gypsies, and to be given proper respect by the use of the self-appelation of Roma, or Rroma. Gypsies, although offensive to most Roma, is still a proper name, and as such, must always be capitalized.
The Romani language is of Indo-Aryan origin and has many spoken dialects, some of which are not mutually intelligible. The root language of Romani is ancient Punjabi with loan words borrowed from the many countries the migrations of the Roma have taken them. The spoken Romani language is varied, but all dialects contain some common words in use by all Roma.
Integration and assimilation into gajikane society have always threatened the preservation of Romani customs, traditions and language. The Roma ability to adapt to new environments in order to survive has been responsible for the loss of many customs forgotten with time. Understanding these threats can prevent the further loss of a unique and ancient culture.
There have been many large-scale, state-sponsored persecutions, or pogroms, against the Roma throughout European history. The Nazi terror of World War II is the most infamous and is responsible for the deaths of up to 1.5 million Roma in the Porrajmos (in Romani meaning the Devouring). The recent collapse of the communist governments of Eastern Europe have rekindled anti-Roma sentiment in Eastern and Western Europe. Violent attacks against Romani immigrants and refugees have been permitted to occur with little or no restraint from government authorities.
The Romani people remain the least integrated and the most persecuted people of Europe. Almost everywhere, their fundamental civil rights are threatened. Although the Roma originated from India, they have no homeland they can call their own; therefore they have no government that will speak for them and protect them.
The wheel-shaped, sixteen-spoked chakra, was adopted at the First World Romani Congress in London in 1971 as the international Romani symbol. The green and blue flag with a red chakra in the center was adopted as the Romani flag, as well as the motto "Opré Roma" (Roma Arise). The song "Gelem, gelem" was selected as the Romani anthem; and April 8 was proclaimed International Romani Day. There have been four World Romani Congresses to date.
Today, Roma are using the Internet to display pride in culture, language and solidarity with other Roma worldwide. The affordability and immediacy of the Internet provides a voice for the Roma, a voice that attempts to educate the public about a misunderstood and much maligned culture.
By Harold Joseph Fontenot, 20 June 1999. Thanks go to Marko Courbet and Ian Hancock for their contributions to this category description.