© Yaron Matras

Romani is the only Indo-Aryan language (related to Hindi, Bengali, Panjabi, and so on) that has been spoken exclusively in Europe since the middle ages. Speakers generally call their language řomani čhib 'the Romani language', or řomanes, 'in a Rom way'. There are no reliable figures about the number of speakers of Romani, either in Europe or in other continents (to which speakers have migrated primarily since the late nineteenth century). The most conservative estimate would suggest that there are upwards of 3.5 million speakers in Europe, and upwards of 500,000 in the rest of the world. The actual number may be much higher. This makes Romani one of the larger minority languages in the area represented by the Council of Europe, and probably the second-largest minority language (after Catalan) in the European Union since its enlargement in May 2004, with the prospect of becoming the largest minority language once Romania and Bulgaria join.

Dialect diversity within Romani is not fundamentally different from dialect diversity within any average European language. Taking into account the fact that there are no measurable criteria to distinguish between related 'languages' and 'dialects' - Dutch and Flemish are acknowledged as two mutually intelligible 'languages', while the German 'dialects' of the Lower Rhine area and of Bavaria are hardly mutually comprehensible - cross-dialect communication in Romani is impeded predominantly by the following factors:

  1. All Romani speakers are bilingual, and are accustomed to freely integrating words and phrases from their respective second languages; this creates potential difficulties when trying to communicate with Romani speakers from other countries.
  2. Romani was traditionally used primarily within the extended family and close community, and there is little experience in communicating with those who come from farther away and whose speech form is distinct. (It is this inexperience that often leads speakers of Romani to label the speech of other Roma as a different 'language').
  3. There is no tradition of a literary Standard to which speakers can turn as a compromise form of speech.

Several obstacles face language planning in Romani: The language is dispersed among many different regions and countries across Europe and beyond. There is no single, accepted authority or agency that is, or could be, entrusted with taking language-planning decisions for Romani as a whole, much less with implementing them in the various regions; the responsibility rests with individual governments, while codification activities are diverse and regionally based. Romani populations are all bilingual, and the respective state languages (and sometimes other minority languages) influence the individual dialects of Romani. This concerns both the internal shape of the language, especially the use of technical or institutional vocabulary, and its 'external' shape - the choice of writing system often being dependent, for reasons of convenience and accessibility, on the writing system of the respective state language.

In order to protect and promote Romani language rights as human rights, there is a need to develop educational materials and media in the language, and to train teachers and writers. In the absence of an existing Standard written language, this cannot be done without language planning. However, there is no uniform concept on which to base language planning, and no obvious accredited or authorised body that could draft and implement such a concept.

Nevertheless, Romani has established a firm presence in the public domain over the past decade. The bulk of Romani language publishing has a regional or local orientation, and lays no claim to becoming an international Standard. Rather, the landscape of Romani-language codification has been characterised over the past few decades by an organic, de-centralised network of activities, and by the acceptance of pluralism in both form and content. Authors tend to write in their own individual varieties of Romani, or those that are most common in their own regions. This has led to the prevalence of some varieties in certain countries - Lovari, for instance, in Hungary, and predominantly East Slovak Romani in the Czech and Slovak Republics - but in many countries, publications in various Romani dialects appear side by side; we mention Macedonia, where both Arli and Džambazi are in use in the public domain, and Bulgaria, where publications appear in Erli as well as other varieties.

Despite the absence of a centralised policy on vocabulary expansion, international encounters of intellectual Roma - both face-to-face and in writing, mainly electronic writing - have inspired a strategy of large-scale avoidance of country-specific loanwords (that is, loanwords originating from the immediate state or majority language of an individual Romani community), and the preference, instead, of either 'soft' paraphrasing into Romani (as in the use of a word like čačipen literally 'truth', for 'right' in the legal or political sense), or of resorting to internationalisms.

In finding concrete solutions to the writing system, a widespread consensus of options has emerged. It can be characterised as a set of individual compromises between the international scientific transliteration conventions common in Romani linguistics, and the individual alphabets of the respective state languages. The international orientation is seen most clearly in the choice of the Roman alphabet for Romani in countries where the state language uses the Cyrillic script (as in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia), and further in the choice of symbols that are incompatible with those of the respective state language to represent 'non-Latin' sounds (such as those represented by the English graphemes sh, ch, and j), as can be seen in the forms of written Romani commonly employed in Hungary, Poland, Finland, and Romania. The most favoured solutions are either based on English - sh, ch and by extension zh and dzh - or on Slavonic alphabets of central-southeastern European languages - š, č, ž and . These come in addition to another set of preferred solutions to Romani-specific sounds - such as ph, th, kh for aspirates, j or y for the palatal glide and x or h for the velar fricative. On the whole, these features do not guarantee uniformity of all writing conventions in Romani, but they do limit the set of possible solutions considerably, and make them quite predictable. Together with the tendency toward avoidance of country-specific loans, one can regard the systems of writing employed for Romani in the various regions as basically compatible and mutually accessible.

Read more about codification and the status of Romani, or download reports on the situation of Romani language in Europe.