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June 30, 2022



The Romanes language celebrates its international day today

Prague, 5.11.2013 22:53, (ROMEA)
Milena Hübschmannová, the founder of Romani Studies in the Czech Republic. (Photo: Lukáš Houdek)
Milena Hübschmannová, the founder of Romani Studies in the Czech Republic. (Photo: Lukáš Houdek)

Aspirated sounds and an eighth additional case - those are just some of the differences between the Czech and Romanes languages. As part of the International Day of the Romani Language, we reflect on these differences today.

Romanes is related to Indic languages like Bengali or Hindi. This is why it is far from easy for Czechs to learn it, but some are doing their best to do so nonetheless.

Romanes is being lost...

The number of Romanes speakers is not the same as the number of Romani people. Speaking this past February, Pavel Kubaník of the Romani Studies Seminar at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University in Prague said Romanes is dying out today in states on the periphery of Europe such as Britain, Finland and Spain, as well as in Central Europe, especially in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. 

Kubaník says the historical cause for this can be traced as far back as the days of Empress Maria Theresa and her assimilation policy, which pressured Romani people to stop actively using the Romanes language. In addition to state repression, Kubaník says a shift also occurred in usage of the language by Romani people themselves, a phenomenon called diglossia in linguistics whereby native speakers use two languages, each of which represents a different function, and one often replaces the other.   

"Another significant factor worldwide in the dying out of minority languages is also schooling, as minority members must often decide between their own language and the majority language, the use of which leads to a wide variety of advantages, particularly economic ones. It is naturally a question whether the choice must always be framed this way or whether the relevant cultural values and economic advantage of the majority language can be somehow combined [with minority language use]," Kubaník said. 

... but the gadje are learning it too

Czech Radio recently reported on those individuals currently studying the Romanes language in the Czech Republic. Kateřina Spičáková, for example, was captivated by the language and began studying it this fall. 

"This summer there were several attempted pogroms and all of my friends were against the racists. I was struck by the fact that I had never had any experience with Romani people in my entire life. I realized that everything I know about Romani people is either from television or from Cejl Street in Brno. I found a Romanes language course and signed up for it so I could get to know the culture more," she explains.  

The course is attended predominantly by people who volunteer their time to tutor Romani children. It is currently being led by instructor Jana Habrovcová. 

She points out that even in colloquial Czech we use several words originally from Romanes. "Everyone knows the expression for a dog, 'čokl', which is from the Romanes word 'odžukel', or we say something is 'žůžo' when we like it. That's an adjective meaning 'pure' in Romanes," Habrovcová explains. 

She notes that the dialect of Romanes spoken by the largest Romani group in the Czech Republic is also declining. Romani parents are doing their best to encourage their children to speak Czech instead, so they will fit in better in the Czech schools.

Milena Hübschmannová

The variety of Romanes used in Central Europe is inseparably connected with the figure of Milena Hübschmannová (1933 - 2005), who worked in many institutions, primarily promoting and researching Romani culture and the Romanes language. Hübschmannová completed her studies in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu at Charles University in Prague.    

As she herself used to say, during her study of Indology she noticed the striking similarity of Romani people to the nations whose languages she had learned. At first she was enchanted by them because of their exotic nature within the context of this part of Europe. 

For Hübschmannová, Romani people were a living connection with the continent she so admired. She gradually began informing herself about their culture and language and become involved in their emancipation struggle.  

In addition to working at Charles University, she also worked at the Oriental Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. For several years she also worked on the literary and theatrical editorial boards at Czechoslovak Radio, where she often did her best to sneak Romani folk poetry and rhetoric into the programming.  

From 1969-1973 she worked as the chair of the Socio-scientific Commission of the Union of Gypsies-Roma (Svaz Cikánů-Romů), the first Romani organization on Czechoslovak territory. In 1975 she was fired from the Institute for Philosophy and Sociology of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences because she disagreed with the government's policy of assimilation targeting Romani people, and as a result she remained without a full-time job until 1982, when she was hired by the Language School in Prague. 

In 1991 Hübschmannová implemented the creation of the Romani Studies Seminar at the Philosophy Department of Charles University in Prague. She taught there until her death on 8 September 2005. 

Emil Cina

Emil Cina (1947 - 2013), a famous Romani poet and journalist who was a tireless promoter of the Romanes language both to adults and in the schools recently passed away this year. Like many other Romani people in the Czech Republic, he was first led toward writing by Hübschmannová.

"Through my poems I do my best to inspire Romani people not to forget Romanes. This is our language. It's what keeps us together, and that is why I am trying to preserve it," Cina recently said in an interview for news server

Thanks to his active stance in relation to the Romanes language and to his oeuvre, Cina is one of the most popular and most recognized Romani figures in the area of culture. His longtime work in children's literature was both very beneficial and high-quality, including his educational outreach. 

Until recently Cina participated in chats and literary workshops with Romani children and youth in which he supported their relationship to their native language. He wrote poetry for adults and children, mythological fairy tales and stories in Romanes, and translated them himself into Czech. 

His poetry calls on Romani people not to abandon their identity and language. His stories about life demonstrate not only his talent for observation, but his capacity for self-irony, for humor based in that irony, and his wisdom, showing people, through his own example, what it means to live in accordance with Romanipen.

For more details about Emil Cina's work, please see (in Czech only) 

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Mezinárodní den romštiny, Romština, zprávy, etnicita, identita, Romové, Romská hrdost, romská kultura, romská literatura, Romská reprezentace, seminář, Culture, Czech Republic, History, news, Roma


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