Romani people

The Romani people (also: Rromani, Roma or Rom) are an oppressed ethnic minority in Europe. They’re a traditionally nomadic people whose ancestors seem to have migrated from Rajasthan about 1,000 years ago. Romani languages are Indic languages, albeit with significant Greek and Balkan influence.

There are a variety of names used to refer to Romani people, in English and in other languages. The word “gypsy” was historically used in English to refer to Romanies, but it’s now considered an offensive slur. That word itself derives from “Egyptian”, because in mediaeval times Europeans believed that Romanies came from Egypt. There are words in other European languages, like gitano in Spanish and gitan in French, which have the same etymology. The word is not considered offensive in every language; for example in Spain, Romani groups themselves use gitano as a self-description. Another group of European languages use names derived from the Greek τσιγγάνοι (tsinganoi), originally meaning “untouchables”. These words are used commonly in Slavic and Germanic languages, as well as in some Romance languages (e.g. țigani in Romanian, zingari/zigari in Italian, ciganos in Portuguese and Galician). But just scrolling through Wikipedia, a number of these languages have their articles at some variant of “Rom”/“Roma”/“Romani” instead, so that still seems like a safer word cross-linguistically! Those words, in turn, have an etymology unrelated to “Rome” (so are not related to “Romania” or “Romance” or “Roman”), but instead stem from the Romani word for “husband”, rom.

There are also names for specific groups of Romani people, reflecting the history of their migration across Europe, I suppose. For example, there are the Calé of Spain and Portugal (who’ve immigrated also to Latin America, particularly Brazil; and there are also Kale people in Wales, Sweden and Finland), the Sinti of German-speaking countries, and the Romanichal of the UK (who’ve also migrated to former British colonies, like the US and Aus­tra­lia) and Norway. Use of these names seems often preferred if you are talking about the Romanies of a specific country (or couple of neighbouring countries).

Romanies have long faced discrimination and worse in Europe. The broader societies of the places they’ve lived have often refused to integrate them, and forced them to live on the margins. Nazi Germany took the horrific step of waging a genocide against them, known as the Porajmos, in which a million Romanies were killed. It took decades for the Porajmos to be officially acknowledged at all, and to this day, it is far less well-known than the Holo­caust, which took place at the same time, in the same death camps. Racism against Romani people remains extremely high in Europe, with persistent negative stereotypes about them being thieves or criminals, etc.. There are still many Romani people in Europe who struggle to be recognised as citizens of their home country (e.g. several years ago, France notoriously deported numerous French Romani people to Romania, a country they had no ties to) and to access the public services any other citizen would take for granted (e.g. I’ve read reports about Romani children in Czechia being denied access to public schooling).

There is a Romani flag, designed in the 1970s, consisting of a blue-green bicolor with a red dharmachakra superimposed on top. The dharmachakra is said to represent both the Romanies’ nomadic traditions (via its resemblance to a cartwheel) and their ancestral origins in India (being an Indian sym­bol). Use of the flag is not uncontroversial among Romani self-advocacy groups, though: some see symbols like this flag as an imposition of Euro­pean-style nationalism on an ethnic group that has never been nationalistic, and also as a distraction from more important issues like the crushing poverty and over-criminalisation faced by many Romani people.

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