Back to Main Category

D.Tong (ed.) Gypsies: A book of interdisciplinary readings.
Garland Publishers, New York, 1997, pp. 115-126


Ian Hancock

Language is essentially the control of thought. It becomes impossible for us to direct our future until we control our language. The sense of language is in precision of vocabulary and structure for a particular social context.

(Asante, 1988:31)

The manipulation by societies in power of the identities of subordinate groups is achieved in many ways.  One such way is through discriminatory legislation, such as that enacted against the Romani people in almost every land, including the United States.  Another is through media representation, both factual and fictional.  This last category, the portrayal of ‘Gypsies’ in poetry, film and novels, is the most effective in establishing such negative feelings because they are absorbed subliminally by children, at a time when they are most susceptible to acquiring the attitudes of mainstream society.  Apart from descriptions of Romani people and their life, which are legion, the Romani language has also been the target of comment, invariably worded as fact rather than supposition.  In his Tales of the Real Gypsy, Paul Kester gives his readers those “real” facts about it (1897:305):

The Gypsies, like the birds and all wild things, have a language of their own, which is apart from the language of those among whom they dwell. . . the Gypsy[’s]. . . language is deep and warm and full of the charm of the out-of-doors world, the scent of the clover and the ripple of streams and the rush of the wind and the storm. For the Rommany speech is full of all this, and though the Gypsy has few traditions, his rich mother tongue must embalm in each word a thousand associations that thrill in the soul.

Kester was not a linguist, and it is easy to see how he was able to allow his fantasies about the Romani people to shape his preconceptions of the language.  Doris Duncan, however, presumably is, and can claim no such excuse.  Writing seventy years later in a journal of popular linguistics, she made the following observations (1969:42):

All authentic gypsy [sic] communication is, and must be, oral.  As they settle for a time in a new country, they acquire some of that country’s words and incorporate them into Roum, more popularly called Romany.  It is believed that the Roum language began as a very small one, concerned with the family, the tribe, the horses and herd, words required for a simple existence.  It must be very old, for Roum is highly idiomatic, and the complication of verbs and genders is endless.  There is no way to write it except phonetically, and some sounds of the gypsy tongue simply defy our twenty-six letter alphabet. . . Roum is a disorderly language, and must be learned phrase by phrase.  Even the syntax differs from one occasion to another.  Verbs are very difficult . . . no one can explain why the verb changes so radically.  A major problem is that no gypsy really knows what a verb is, and it wouldn’t matter anyway if he did, because this is the way it must be said.  The idiom is paramount in Roum and cannot be changed.

Duncan is right in maintaining that Romani has adopted words from those with whom its speakers have come in contact—this is a natural process affecting all languages, and one which has caused English, for example, to lose nearly three-quarters of its original Anglo-Saxon lexicon by dictionary count.  But Bayle St. John couldn’t simply discuss this phenomenon as lexical adoption when referring to Romani (1853: 141), which, he said,

.  . . contains traces of an original character, [but which] is encrusted, as it were, with  words borrowed—it might be more appropriate to say stolen—from a dozen   different dialects.

A number of authors have claimed that because of our character as a people, we lack certain virtues, and that this is reflected in our Romani language which cannot even express them.  Those which have been discussed by different writers include duty, possession, truth, beautiful, read, write, time, danger, warmth and quiet.  How negatively must the non-Gypsy world regard our people, to think that we cannot express such basic human concepts and skills, or that we don’t even know the difference between good and evil!    Eleanor Smith (1943:59) wrote that “in the gypsy language the words ‘divine’ and ‘devilish’ are the same,” though these couldn’t be more different: devlikano and bengesko.  On a Geraldo Rivera Show which dealt with Gypsy confidence crimes broadcast on CBS Television in April 1990, one invited ‘Gypsy expert,’ Professor John Dowling of Marquette University in Wisconsin asserted in all seriousness that “Gypsies don’t know the difference between right and wrong, like the rest of us”—a man who has never met a Romani and whose qualifications originate with statements such as Eleanor Smith’s.

The same kind of prejudice that leads people to claim that certain words don’t exist in Romani is responsible for the reference in the August, 1996 issue of Disney Adventures: The Magazine for Kids on page 24 to a condition called “gypsyitis.”  The symptoms of this affliction include “an urge to run away from it all and dance among the dandelions,” and   being “footloose and fancy-free,” instead of being a normal “buckle-down, rules-and-regulations kinda person,” which is to say one for whom “duty” means something. The objection to this kind of stereotyping seems to have escaped the magazine’s editor Phyllis Ehrlich, who defended it in a letter to the International Roma Federation (New York) as being “on  the contrary, a positive portrayal of the Gypsy spirit.”  Even efforts on the part of Roma to stop the use of the word “Gypsy” (or more often “gypsy”) when it is used to characterize wildness or wandering or cheating are met with resistance.  The word was banned from use in any further official Roma-related documentation at our First World Congress in London in 1971 by Roma themselves, but many non-Roma have decided that they will continue to use it anyway.  The New York Times’ Will Shortz, for example, defended the inclusion of gyp for “cheat” in his crossword puzzle dictionary because “it is only part of the word gypsy” (letter received dated August 21st 1996)–but then so is Jap for a Japanese, a word he doesn’t include in his dictionary.  In response to a letter objecting to her stereotyped use of the phrase “professional gypsy” to refer to anyone having to leave and seek new employment at a moment’s notice, Deborah Morse-Kahn (2007: 1) defended her choice by stating that “the Romani peoples are well known” to her, and by referring to the definition of “gypsy” in three separate dictionaries.   If Roma had compiled those dictionaries, of course, the definitions would have been quite different.  Significantly she did not include the one found in the Encarta World English Dictionary, which lists Gypsy as “an offensive term for a member of the Romani people” (1999:800).

Over a century ago, Adriano Colocci—taking Grellmann as his cue—introduced a notion which has since become a part of gypsilorist folk wisdom.  In his extensive discussion of the Romani people in his 421-page book The Gypsies, he maintained that Romanies

. . . have no more conception of property than of duty; “I have” is as foreign to  them as “I ought.” (Colocci, 1889:156).

Citing Colocci as his source, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso elaborated upon the statement in his widely-used book on Gypsies as a criminal race, and made the jump from concept to actual language, by saying that

The word ought does not exist in the Gypsy language.  The verb to have is almost forgotten by the European Gypsies, and is unknown to the Gypsies of Asia   (Lombroso, 1918:41).

In 1928, Konrad Bercovici, probably also using Colocci but not acknowledging any source, repeated this notion on the first page (and again on the third page) of his book The Story of the Gypsies, and also interpreted the original observation linguistically, saying

I am attempting to unravel the story of a people whose vocabulary lacks the words for both ‘duty’ and ‘possession’ (1928:1, 3).

He goes on to rationalize this by explaining that “what we own possesses us, jails us.”  This was then picked up from Bercovici shortly afterwards by Erich von Stroheim who, in his racist Gypsy novel Paprika, told his readers that

The Gypsy mind is timeless.  The Gypsy tongue has no words to signify duty or possession, qualities that are like roots, holding civilized people fast in the soil (von Stroheim, 1935:12).

Fifteen years later, the anonymous author of an article in Coronet Magazine plagiarized and reworded the same statement:

Even today, there are two important English words for which the Gypsy vocabulary has no known equivalent, and for which the Gypsy people have never exhibited any desire or need.  One of them is the word ‘duty,’ the other is ‘possession.’ (Anon., 1950:126).

In a 1962 reissue of Leland’s Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, Margery Silver wrote in her introduction to that edition

[In Germany], where they had been chronically subjected to the most relentless and brutal oppression of their European experience since their first appearance in 1417, five hundred thousand “sons of Egypt”— whose vocabulary a recent writer has described as “lacking two words: ‘duty’ and ‘possession’—died in the Nazi ovens beside six million sons of Jacob, whose history was founded on just those concepts, duty to God and possession of his law (Leland, 1962:xx).

Five years after that, in perhaps the most invidious way of all, since the plagiarism has been recast in such a way as to suggest an actual verbatim interview, the statement turns up again in an article by Marie Wynn Clarke, predictably entitled “Vanishing vagabonds”:

A young Gypsy wife said “there is no word in our language for ‘duty’ or ‘possession,’ but I’m afraid there will be soon.” (Clarke, 1967:210).

In her introduction to the 1983 edition of Bercovici’s Gypsies: Their life, lore and legends, Elizabeth Congdon Kovanen repeats this yet again, though adding the suggestion that because of this, Gypsies themselves are responsible for the discrimination against them:

The Gypsy vocabulary lacks the words “duty” and “possession.” This reflects their unwillingness to settle down, live in houses, obey the law, educate their children, be employed by others—and helps to explain their almost universal persecution (Bercovici, 1983:viij).

The eighth repetition of this strange idea is found in a novel by Piers Anthony, Being a Green Mother.  The fact that the words “Gypsies! . . . Beware—they steal children!” appear at the very first mention of the Romani characters when they are introduced on page 18 is an indication of the depiction of Roma throughout the rest of the book.  The author describes someone’s attempt to learn Romani, but who

. . . discovered that the Gypsy language had no words for what in her own were rendered as “duty” and “possession.”  This was because these concepts were foreign to the Gypsy nature (Anthony, 1988:39).

Next we find the statement turning up in Roger Moreau’s The Rom:

One thing the Romani chib never acquired, though, was a future tense.  Maybe this was a reflection of their attitude to life?. . . Neither is there the verb “to have” or a word for “possession” in Romanes, which I suppose makes sense if you don’t happen to own anything (Moreau, 1995:127-128).

The tenth is found in Agnes Vranckx’ Declaration of a Lost People, where she states that

. . . the words “possession” and “submission” did not exist in Romani (Anisha, 1997:18-19).

The eleventh and most recent, though no doubt not the last, of these repetitions is in an online history of Roma by Ionas Aurelian Rus of Rutgers university posted in 2007 ( htm):

Europeans regard “private property” as sacrosanct, whereas gypsies do not have a word for “possess,” which gives rise to two incompatible ways of life and a continual problem of gypsies being regarded as “thieves” from the European’s view.

Other words which Romani has been said to lack include “truth,” “beautiful,” “tomorrow,” “read,” “write,” “time,” “danger,” “warmth” and “quiet.”  The first was maintained by Jim Phelan, author of many books about Romanichals in which he describes his intimate life with British Travellers, and in which he claims to have been “long ago admitted to the brotherhood”:  In his book Wagon-Wheels he says

There is no word for “truth” in the romani (sic) language.  There is the crux of the matter (1951:81).

The concept “beautiful,” is denied in the language in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando:

One evening, when they were all sitting around the camp fire and the sunset was blazing over the Thessalian hills, Orlando exclaimed “how good to eat!.” The gipsies have no word for ‘beautiful.’  This is the nearest (1956:142).

The latest claim to a lack of certain basic human responses or skills is found in Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, where she maintains that there are no words in Romani for “read” and “write.”  Elsewhere in the same book she states that there are no words for “time,” “danger,” “warmth” and “quiet” either, because these are foreign concepts for Roma (1995:98).  Even before the book reached the bookstores, reviewers were accepting and repeating these false assumptions:

 [the Gypsy’s] is a world . . . where there are no words for “time” (or for “danger,” “warmth” or “quiet”) . . . where no day is different from any other  (Kobak, 1995:14).

The assumption that the Romani way of life is evidence of some kind of evolutionary arrested development, which accounts for an inherent disregard for ownership—and by implication a “license to steal” as Marlock & Dowling (1994) call it—has found its way into at least one standard textbook on anthropology.  In words recalling those of Charles Davenport half a century before him (1915:10-11), Cyril Dean Darlington wrote that

the gipsy communities which eventually wandered into Europe . . . still betray the evidence of their paleolithic ancestry . . . the lack of interest in property or understanding of ownership.  For this reason, many of them are regarded by settled societies as criminal tribes or castes (1969:364).

One individual who actually presents himself as a Romani and as a Romani speaker is Eugene Hütz of the Gogol Bordello band. He told National Public Radio (in an interview on 15 August 2007) that our language has the same word for yesterday and tomorrow.

The notion that we live “only for today,” and that any other days mean nothing, to the extent that both “yesterday” and “tomorrow” are translated by the same word in our language is a fanciful stereotype often repeated in books by gadje about “Gypsies;” but it is not true.  In all dialects – including those spoken in Ukraine where Mr. Hütz is from – “yesterday,” “today” and “tomorrow” are three distinctly different words; some dialects even include separate words for “the day after tomorrow” and “the day before yesterday.”  It is foolish to imagine that any human group is unable to express the difference linguistically between yesterday and tomorrow, or that the inability to do so is in fact “important for the Gypsy psychology.”  No Romani would say such a thing. What has been misunderstood as meaning both “yesterday” and “tomorrow” is the word taisa (with variants) which means “morning” (from the Greek J "P 4 "“morning”).  The word is then modified with other words if necessary according to dialect in order to specify which. 

Like Bayle St. John, who saw lexical thefts as a more appropriate label than lexical adoptions in his discussion of the non-native element in the Romani vocabulary, none of the above writers sufficiently overcame their stereotypical preconceptions of Gypsies or of what they expected of the language, to ask a Gypsy himself whether these words existed, or even to consult a Romani dictionary, of which dozens exist.  For a people who were enslaved in the Romanian principalities for five and a half centuries, a people whose lives were an interminable succession of duties and obligations, and for whom possessions were a precious thing, it should not be surprising that there are in fact many words for these two concepts.  For “duty” there are, in the various dialects, the words musajipé, vója, vuzhulimós, udjilútno, udjilipé, kandipé, slúzhba, kandimós, thoximós and vudjlipé; for “possession” there are májtko, arachimáta, sersámo, trjábo, butjí, aparáti, kóla, prámi, djéla, djélica, joságo, istarimáta, icharimós, astarimós and theripé.  The words for “truth” include tachipén, chachimós, vortimó, siguripé and others, while “beautiful” is šukár, múndro, rínkeno, jakhaló, orchíri, pakváro, etc., in the various dialects, “tomorrow” is tehara, while “read” is djin- or gin- or chit- or giláb- or drab-, “write” is ram- or jazd- or lekh- or pišú- or pisát- or chet- or škur- or skrij- or čhin-; “time” is variously translated by vaxt, vákti, vrjámja or chéros, “danger” by strázhno, “warmth” by tatichosimós or táblipen and “quiet” by míro or mirnimós, although in truth, the fallacy of such a belief, i.e. that such words don’t exist in the language, should scarcely need refuting.  Many of these words come from the ancient Sanskrit stock of the language, while others, like prámi or míro, have been adopted from Greek and Slavic. Isabel Fonseca concedes in her book that Romani had to adopt the words for “read” and “write” from other languages, but apparently doesn’t recognize that English, too, has had to borrow most of its lexicon from other languages (incidentally, the word for “read” is of native Sanskrit origin in Romani).  Indeed, a dictionary count of English word origins indicates that only 28% of that language is traceable to its original Anglo-Saxon stock; should we assume from that, therefore, that the concepts of “duty,” “possession,” “beauty,” “quiet,” “danger,” etc., were foreign to the English, since all of these words have been “stolen” from French?  Furthermore, English also “lacks” a future tense, in the sense meant by Moreau, but constructs it, just as Romani does, with a word which expresses the intention or desire to undertake the action (“will” or “shall;” in Romani, ka(m)).  There is clearly a double standard operating for these writers.

The blind repetition of someone’s statement without checking the original source is a mark of shoddy scholarship; perhaps it is felt that less rigour is needed in Romani Studies than in other areas of research.  A list of writers who, one after the other, have quoted the Romani proverb about not being able to sit on two horses with one backside, could also be assembled—all traceable without acknowledgement to Jan Yoors’ book The Gypsies, or the story about the Gypsy in jail who weeps for his jailer who must stay there, or the story of the nails used to crucify Jesus.  Victorian writers unashamedly lifted material from each other too.  These descriptions of the Gypsy children on the Romanian slave estates are far too similar to be coincidental, and appeared in the British and American press at the time that the fictionalized image of the Gypsy was taking shape, though its inspiration seems to be traceable to a German source dating from 1841:

The children are seldom provided with clothing before they are ten years old. This is especially true of the wandering Gypsies . . . they find every kind of meat good: dogs, cats, rats, mice and even sick farm animals are eaten by them (Brockhaus, 1841:801).

In the same year, George Borrow too, described Gypsies as

a raging rabble of fierce and animal propensities, men and women and children, some of them of nearly negro blackness, most of them half naked; some, especially the children, entirely so (1841:)

Collie (1982: 250) commented that it was “difficult to determine” whether Borrow had merely copied this from a preexisting work, or whether he based it on something actually seen.  In British literature just a few years later, and more clearly attributable to Brockhaus, we find

The children wear no clothes until the age of ten or twelve years; and resemble imps rather than human beings as they run beside the carriage of the traveller shrieking for alms, with their long matted hair flying in the wind, and their black limbs shining in the light (Pardoe, 1848(i):168)
The children go naked up to the age of ten or twelve, and whole swarms of girls and boys may sometimes be seen rolling about together in the dust or mud in summer, in the water or snow in winter, like so many black worms (St. John, 1853:140).
The children to the age of ten or twelve, are in a complete state of nudity, but the men and women, the latter offering frequently the most symmetrical form and feminine beauty, have a rude clothing (Gardner, 1857:58).

In its January 8th, 1992, issue, the New York Times published the results of a public opinion poll surveying national negative attitudes to 58 different racial and ethnic populations in the United States over a 25-year period.  For the entire quarter-century, Gypsies were ranked at the very bottom of the list, the most discriminated-against minority in the eyes of the general population.  Since most gadjé have no personal or social contact with the Romani American community, such attitudes in this country can only be based upon how we are presented in literature.  The persistent, relentless portrayal of Romanies as rootless, lawless, immoral, childlike thieves, as a people for whom the basic human concepts of truth and beauty, obligation and ownership do not exist, who don’t know right from wrong and who are ignorant of danger and never seek warmth or peace or quiet, is attributable to such individuals as Colocci, Lombroso, Bercovici, von Stroheim, Silver, Clarke, Kovanen, Dowling, Smith, Anthony, Woolf, Phelan, Fonseca, Moreau, Ehrlich and others, whose investment in defining our character will ensure that anti-Gypsy prejudice will remain firmly a part of Euro-American racist attitudes.

Works Cited

Anisha, Bibi (Agnes Vranckx), 1997.  The Declaration of a Lost People. The Partnership Project: Wolverhampton.
Asante, Molefi, 1988.  Afrocentricity. Trenton: Africa World Press.
Anon., 1950.  “Caravans of mystery.”  Coronet, August, pp. 17-24.
Anthony, Piers, 1988.  Being a Green Mother.  Del Rey Books: New York.
Bercovici, Konrad, 1929.  The Story of the Gypsies.  Cape: London.
Bercovici, Konrad, 1983 [1929].  Gypsies: Their Life, Lore and Legends.  Crown Publrs: New York.
Borrow, George, 1841.  The Zincali: or, The Bible in Spain.  London: Murray.
Brockhaus, F.A., 1841.  Bilder-Conversations-Lexicon für das Deutsche Volk.  Brockhaus Verlag: Leipzig.
Collie, Michael, 1982.  George Borrow, Eccentric.  Cambridge: The University Press.
Darlington, Cyril D., 1969.  The evolution of man and society. Simon & Shuster: New York.
Davenport, Charles B., 1915.  The feebly inhibited: Nomadism, or the wandering impulse, with special reference to heredity.  The Carnegie Institution:  Washington.
Duncan, Doris, 1969.  “The Rocky Romany Road,” Quinto Lingo, December, 42-43.
Clarke, Marie Wynn, 1967.  “Vanishing vagabonds: The American Gypsies,” Texas Quarterly, 10(2):204-210.
Colocci, Adriano, 1889.  Gli Zingari.  Herman Loescher: Turin.
Fonseca, Isabel, 1995.  Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey. AlfredA. Knopf: New York.
Gardner, Samuel, 1857.  “Notes on the condition of the Gypsy population of Moldavia,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 1:37-39.
Grant, Anthony, 1995.  “Plagiarism and lexical orphans in the European Romani lexicon,” in Matras, 1995:53-68.
Grellmann, Heinrich, 1783.  Die Zigeuner.  Ein Historische Versuch über die Lebensart und Verfassung.  Dessau & Leipzig.
Kester, Paul, 1897.  Tales of the Real Gypsy.  Doubleday: New York.
Kobak, Annette, 1995.  “The Gypsy in our souls,” review of Fonseca (1995), The New York Times, Sunday, October 22nd. P. 14.
Kovanen, Elizabeth Congdon, 1983.  Introduction to Bercovici (1983), pp. i-xj.
Leland, Charles Godfrey, 1962 [1900].  Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling.  Citadel Press: New York. Reissued in 1995 by Castle Books.
Lombroso, Cesare, 1910.  Crime: Its Causes and Remedies. The Modern Criminal Science Series, Little, Brown & Co.: Boston.
Marlock, Dennis, & John Dowling, 1994.  License to Steal: Traveling Con Artists, their Games, their Rules, your Money.  Paladin Press: Boulder.
Matras, Yaron, (ed.), 1995.  Romani in Contact: The History, Structure and Sociology of a Language. Benjamins: Amsterdam & New York.
Moreau, Roger, 1995.  The Rom: Walking in the Paths of the Gypsies.  Toronto: Key Porter.
Morse-Kahn, Deborah, 2007.  “The plight of the professional gypsy,” The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, 3 June.
Pardoe, M., 1848. The City of the Magyar, or, Hungary and her Institutions.  Gill & Sons: London. Two vols.
Phelan, Jim, 1951.  Wagon Wheels.  Harrap: London.
Roberts, Samuel, 1836.  The Gypsies.  Longman: London.
St. John, Bayle, 1853.  “The Gypsy slaves of Wallachia,” Household Words, 185:139-142.
Smith, Eleanor, 1943.  Caravan.  Garden City: Doubleday.
Stroheim, Erich von, 1935.  Paprika, the Gypsy Trollop. Universal Publishing: New York.
Woolf, Virginia, 1956 [1928].  Orlando.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York & London.
Yoors, Jan, 1967.  The Gypsies.  George, Allen & Unwin: London.