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Nicholas Saul & Susan Tebbutt (eds.)
The Role of the Romanies: Images and Self-Images of “Gypsies”/Romanies in European Cultures.
Liverpool: The University of Liverpool Press, 2004


Ian Hancock

To be fair, not all fake Romani culture has been faked deliberately.  More often it is simply the result of misguided or misinformed hypotheses finding their way into the conventional account, and being repeated by subsequent writers unchecked. A prime example of deliberately faked tradition, however, is found in Manfri Fred Woods’ much‑publicized In The Life of a Romany Gypsy which appeared in 1973. Here, on pages 65‑69, he summarized what was allegedly remembered of the original Romani religion. He begins “[n]ow, as to Romany religion, there is not much anybody remembers of it today. There was a prophet called Soster, and a lot of the stories had to do with him”. Wood then goes on to relate the story of the creation of the universe and the world out of a burst of fire, and of the two gods Moshto and Arivell, and Moshto’s three sons, and the ginkgo or maidenhair tree, and of the two clay figures into whose mouths Moshto blew its seeds to give them life.

What is curious is that six years later, Leon Petulengro (Leon Lloyd) repeated the story in his own book Romany Boy, where on pages 136‑137 the same account—of a void within a void, and the explosion of a ball of fire, and of the two gods, Moshto and Arivell, and Moshto’s three sons, and the two clay figures, and the ginkgo tree, is told. But this time the story is attributed to his paternal grandmother Anyeta who, he says on page 12, came from Romania.  He had already introduced her a decade earlier as “Anyeta, a Romanian Zingari, and a true Romany herbalist” in his The Roots of Health (1968:15), though that book makes no mention of Moshto or the old religion.  In Romany Boy (1979:24) her membership in a “tribe” in Romania is referred to, as well as her being the head of that tribe, presumably also in Romania since he states that after coming to England, she “did not live with us but with my father’s cousin and his tribe, the Lovells”.  Oddly, he has her speaking British Romani with native fluency on the same page. In 1936 his father, Gipsy (elsewhere Gypsy) Petulengro, “King of the Romanies” (1968:15) wrote a book of his own entitled A Romany Life, but his mother Anyeta does not appear in it by name even though she is featured throughout quite prominently. He seems to have first introduced the actual name Anyeta in a chain‑letter he circulated in 1940. 

On pages 2, 25 and 162 of A Romany Life she is referred to as a “Berber”, Petulengro Senior’s own peculiar notion of Romani origins which he’d already spelt out in The Listener (1935: 649) a year earlier. In an essay there, he wrote that

The Romanies are not Egyptians, nor descendants of Egyptians, as many people seem to think.  The Romanies are descendants of the Berbers, who trekked to practically every country in the world.

There is much else to question in A Romany Life—thus the spurious jargon presented as Romani (pages 33, 49 and passim), and the use of uniquely British forms presented as Romanian Vlax (boro‑roy, tarno, rokkered), contrasting with Continental Romani pronunciations presented as the dialect spoken in England (e.g. yag-kash for yog-koshter, ‘firewood’) in his Listener essays on British Romani life.  In The Roots of Health the slogan kooshti sante! appears more than once as Romani for “good health”, though sante (santé) is a French word.

The question arises: who was the original owner of the Moshto story? Evidently Wood, since his version predates Petulengro’s by six years. He linked it to general but fading community memory, while Petulengro on the other hand attributed it specifically to his grandmother from Romania, though in an account so similar to Woods’ as scarcely to be coincidence.

The most detailed study of Romani spiritual belief among Romanian (Vlax) Romanies is Chatard & Bernard (1959).  Here (pages 22‑26) some of this story appears, although there is no reference to Moshto or Arivell by name. Instead, there are O Pouro Del and O Bheng, which is to say “the old god” and “the devil” in Vlax Romani. The two clay figures are mentioned, and called Damo and Yehwah, clearly Adam and Eve. They are brought to life not by the seeds of the maidenhair tree, but by O Pouro Del’s touching each of them with his wand.  Wlislocki (1890) doesn’t include the story, nor is it found in the imaginative works of Jean‑Claude Frère (1973) or Françoise Cozannet (1973). The equally suspect Clébert (1961) relies on Chatard & Bernard, but does refer to a similarity with Zoroastrianism and Manichæanism, while Elysseeff (1890:169), summarizing Kounavine’s concocted work, wrote that

The essence of the primitive beliefs of the Gypsies [is] borrowed from the different religions encountered by the Gypsies on their journey, and particularly those borrowed from the religion of Zoroaster.

Kounavine was one of the boldest concocters of fake Romani culture, claiming that he found Brahma, Indra, Lakshmi, Ahriman and other deities being worshipped by name among Romanies in Russia, who (he said) had also retained a number of elaborate Hindu prayers. But we learn about his “immense store of [Romani] materials” only at second hand in the same article by Elysseeff, none of which can be examined at first hand since Kounavine says he lost it all in the snows of Siberia.  Sampson has already commented on Kounavine as “not to be taken too seriously” (1907:7), pointing out that one of the alternative names he gives for Brahma is Khakhava (XAXABA in the original, i.e. xoxavav) which in Romani means “I deceive”—the word itself has passed into Russian slang with a similar meaning.  Was this given him by a Romani interviewee who was having fun with the inquisitive gadjo, or was Kounavine himself having a private joke at the expense of his readers?

Correspondence within its inner circle during the early years of the Gypsy Lore Society contained a number of risqué exchanges, with “Romani words providing a coded language” (Sampson, 1997:111, where John Sampson’s verses composed for Dora Yates provide just one example).  These were not usually meant for its general membership but rather as in-group humour to be understood and appreciated only by the initiates.   Did this sometimes deliberately find its way into material for a wider, though unsuspecting, audience, perhaps like Kounavine’s Khakhava or Frank Elmény’s heroine Gali Minsh (i.e. kali mindž) in his novel Poor Janos, thereby compounding the fun?

Some wordlists reflect legitimate misunderstandings recorded in earnest, such as Sinclair’s (1915) brokla for “cabbage” (actually the English word “broccoli”) or karri, korri listed to mean “cock, domestic fowl” (the actual meaning is “penis”); Prince (1907), probably lifting from Smart (1863:7) where the same mistake occurs, has kovaskaruk “willow, laurel” when this is simply kova’s a ruk, i.e. “that’s a tree”.  Even Manfri Fred Wood, in the wordlist at the end of his book (op. cit., 122), lists becker as “fruit”, evidently a misreading of the entry in a lexicon he had of English Romani collected by a site worker called Alice Bartlett, where she had it correctly glossed, though poorly handwritten, as “frog”.  Wood’s mistake is now listed in Hayward’s Romany Dictionary (2003:38,108).  One may imagine Vasily Zuev pointing to a window in an attempt to collect the Romani word for ‘glass,’ for which word he entered xiv, ‘hole’ instead in his word-list (1789:124). This latter is also used for ‘window’ (cf. Angloromani dikin-hev).  Bryant (1785) lists bauro beval acochenos for “storm” (“big wind a-catchin’ us”) and porcherie for “brass” (actually posh hori, “halfpenny”); Harriot (1830) has charicklo “cage” when the word means “bird,” and vailgoro “fair (skinned)” when it means “fair, carnival.”  Roberts (1836) has chivya “tongs” when it means “tongues;” Smart (1863) has sorto-poov for “garden” when what he heard was “sort o’ phuv,” i.e. “sort of ground.”  Leland (1882) has gogemars for “swamps” (he heard the English word “quagmires”) and kris for “mustard” (deduced from “mustard and creese,” i.e. “cress” in the London dialect). 

Detective Dennis Marlock published a “law enforce-ment’s  guide to the secret language of the American Gypsy . . . needed because Romany is only a spoken language.  There are no Romany dictionaries or grammars in the city library, or in any library for that matter.”  It is billed in the introduction by Concordia University Criminal Justice Operations professor Joseph Andritzky as “a concise, accurate and handy translation guide of the Romany language . . . an outstanding example of original research that is contributing to our understanding of the Gypsy enterprise . . . a must for every professional investigator of organized crime.”  It is full of mistakes (e.g. et-a-la “female,” et-a-low “male,” when these mean “here she is” and “here he is,” properly eta la, eta lo, or got-tay “hear,” when it means “here”, properly kathe), though the words were “carefully checked with numerous Gypsies, none of whom were aware that a study of their language was being conducted” (1993: 6). Perhaps being straightforward with them would have helped.

But sometimes these collectors were the innocent dupes of their informants and such errors were deliberately provided; Otto Duhmberg’s 1870 wordlist of Siberian Romani for example has the entry kari glossed as “grandson”, chamrimintsch (i.e. xa miri mindž) as “granddaughter” and bremintsch (i.e. bari mindž) for “donkey”.   Bryant (op. cit., 390) records ming for “father;” Sampson (1891: 59) has written about the frequent offering of this particular word to lexicographers.

But to return to Moshto.  Given that Clébert’s very popular book became widely available in English in a Penguin paperback edition in 1967, the possibility must be considered that Manfri Wood, or else his ghost‑writer John Brune used this as a general source and subsequently sought out some literature on the Zoroastrian religion—and as a result, on the basis of the original Zoroaster, Ahriman and Mazda created the names Soster, Arivell and Moshto (this last perhaps also influenced by the Romani word mishto “well, good”).  Six years later, Leon Petulengro (or perhaps his ghost‑writer Betty Messenger) plagiarized it practically word for word.

Leon Petulengro’s father was Walter Lloyd, a herbalist from Rochdale, who wrote under the name Gipsy (or Gypsy, and also sometimes Xavier) Petulengro. By his own account (1935:80) his family name “Lloyd” was a re‑spelling of the Welsh word llwyd meaning “grey” but which, he maintained, was in their case really an anglicization of the Romani word for horse, grai.

For a while he also called himself Walter Smith. A smith is a petulengro in Borrovian Romani, more accurately petalengro (from petalo, “horseshoe”—his own ‘spelling pronunciation’ of the word as pet-yew-lengro is evidence enough that he was not familiar with it as actually spoken), and he claimed to be a direct descendant of Borrow’s Jasper Petulengro; the information that “Gypsy Petulengro is the grandson of Tinker Petulengro immortalised by George Borrow” appears under his name in the Listener series, and in his book (on the second page) he recounts that

[as a child in Romania] I could not speak English, although my father spoke English and Welsh being the son of Tinker Jasper Petulengro immortalized by George Borrow in his books.

One wonders how he ever communicated with his father if he didn’t speak English himself; his father, after all, revealed all of Anyeta’s herbal mysteries to him “when [he] was a boy” (1968:15).  Yet it could not have been in Angloromani, itself a register of English, and spoken very far away indeed from Romania.  Furthermore, since Jasper Petulengro (George Smith in real life) was in fact from East Anglia, why would his son, Leon’s father, necessarily have spoken Welsh?

Fred Wood’s story has been picked up and woven into at least one published work of fiction, Charles De Lint’s Mulengro: A Romany Tale (1985), where Moshto is mentioned on pages 87 and 277, as well as into several websites (Gypsy Phoenix Rising’s  “Gypsy” site at 7313/gyps.html and another at http:// are just two examples); it has also found its way into academic treatises and been retold as though it were fact.  Thus the late W.R. Rishi, in his book Roma wrote (1976:79), with his own additions, that

the supreme god is Moshto (from the Romani word mishto meaning good) symbol of goodness, and Arivell (from Sanskrit ari ‘enemy’), the symbol of evil.  Moshto’s three sons are the trinity of Hindu gods, Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the killer of all that is evil).

At the same section in his book, Rishi also paraphrased and quoted Kounavine extensively as fact.  Dennis Liggio dealt with it as real in an unpublished essay entitled The Influences of Zoroastrianism and Manichæanism on the Romani Creation Myth (1996), while John McLaughlin, a professor at The University of Illinois, recounts it in detail in his book Gypsy Lifestyles (1980:4‑7). Taking his cue, though maybe unwittingly, from Leon Petulengro, McLaughlin elaborated the story with embellishments of his own, stating (on pages 6-7) that

Moshto laid down strict rules of cleanliness to ward off disease, and many of these practices are still followed today by the gypsies . . . As will become clear later, the gypsies believe these stories, and they have a serious impact on gypsy life.

At any rate Professor McLaughlin evidently believes that Romanies believe them, and his widely‑consulted book has certainly helped to entrench this concocted folklore yet more firmly in the ubiquitous and alternative Romani historical identity that continues to misdirect and misinform the interested scholar.  I personally have not met nor heard of anyone, whether Romanichal or Vlax, who was acquainted with the Moshto story, and there is every indication that it originated with Wood, though likelier with the gadjo John Brune.

This is not the only spurious account of the original Romani religion.  More recently, Patrick Jasper Lee has begun offering courses on “Romany Gypsy Jal” through his Romani Life Foundation website (http://www., though curiously there is no mention of it in his earlier book (Lee, 2000).   This is a philosophy which, he says “originated in India and was carried into Europe by the Romany Gypsies 500 years ago,” and which he describes as “the religion that became lost . . the indigenous culture” of the Romani people.  Jal is said to be cognate with the English word “year” and the German “Jahr,” and to mean “to journey” or “to go;” one meditational practice intended for self-empowerment is the Nogo Jal Drom or “personal Jal road.”  Jal, however, is a word specific to the Romanichal dialect, and while it does mean “go,” it originates in the Common Romani inflected form that means “he goes”—Romani doesn’t have infinitive verbs—and so this can hardly be an ancient term in the language.  Still more specifically English Romani is the word nogo; it means “own” in that dialect, but it isn’t originally Romani at all, instead being a word adopted from German “(mei)n eige(n)” during the migration through northern Europe into the British Isles; several other German words have found their way into the Romanichal dialect as well, such as waffodi (“bad”), foshena (“fake”) and swegla (“tobacco pipe”).

The late Henry Sherriff claimed to “still speak the inflected puri chib, and thereby to be the last speaker in the country” and wrote extensive letters from prison in it to his lawyer friend Richard Wade, but upon investigation “it quickly became apparent that huge chunks of [his] puri chib Anglo Romani were actually lifted, often verbatim, from other books, especially Smart and Crofton” (Dawson, 1988:ix-x).

The fact that some of these invented “facts” originate with Romanies themselves—and we may add Ray Buckland, Lee Fuhler and Patronella Cooper to the list (see bibliography) is distressing, since it gives the stamp of legitimacy to such misinformation and, when exposed, only reinforces the image of untrustworthiness we must live with.  It also suggests that while these authors may indeed have one or more Romani forebears, that fact is only incidental to their real life, which clearly lacks any first-hand involvement with the day-to-day Romani world; they have accepted instead the ‘magical’ pop-culture stereotype created by non-Romanies.  If they are fully aware of what they are doing and are exploiting such misinformation solely for profit, then they do no credit to the people they claim to represent, and seriously hold back the Romani human rights effort.

Two more people who present themselves as Romanies and who provide details of Romani culture are Morrghan Savistr’i-Lovara, an “American born Rom woman in her Mid 20’s” and Allie Theiss, a “descendant of Rom gypsies of Transylvania.” On her website at http:// twilightofmymind. Ms. Savistr’i-Lovara says she is a

practicing Chaos Mage as well as Shuvani (think Romani Shaman) [who is] currently working to devise some Roma rituals for cleansing and purification that are newer and less complex thatn the traditional ones . . . most Rom do not do them because of the scarcity of materials as well as the amount of time they take to properly perform.  [She is] owned by two cats names Fuzzface and Mr. Pants.

Allie Theiss (2005a, 2005b) tells the reader

No matter their original origins, Gypsies, or Romas, are prized for their remarkable psychic abitilites and the gift to attract good fortune or upset a life with a curse.  All are born with such gifts, but what makes their powers so innate is their relationship with nature.  Their bond with the spirits of the outdoors allow[s] their gifts to evolve naturally . . . no longer do they wander the earth in a horse-drawn caravan, but are modernized and travel by car, bus and plane.  The very definition of “free spirits” . .

Since that author refers to the Porrajmos (the Romani Holocaust) and the Aresajipe (the arrival in Europe) she had evidently consulted Hancock (2002), the sole source in which both these words appear as chapter titles; yet she states that “No one knows where the Roma originated,” and that “Roma are divided into three sub-groups, the Domari of the Middle East and Eastern Europe (the Dom), the Lomavren of Central Europe (the Lom), and the Romani of Western Europe (the Rom).”  Like so many before her she mixes dialects, suggesting for example that all Romanies use dukkerin “fortune telling”—from British Romani and natsiya “nation” (she has “nations”)—from Vlax Romani, though the two words do not coexist in any dialect.

An example of the inaccurate, though probably not deliberate, presentation of Romani custom and belief is in Barbara Walker’s Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets which appeared in 1983, and which contains many Roma-related references throughout, all written in the past tense and all with a feminist (and often anti-male) bias.  One example of this reads

 “[t]he matriarch was the center of Gypsy tribal life; everything that went on around a tribal mother resembled the old pagan sex rites.  Her husband was a drone, whose function was to impregnate her . . . if he failed to beget perfect children, the tribe ‘accidentally’ killed him” (p. 361). 

Like other concocters, Walker based her statements not on first-hand acquaintance with Romanies, but on the writings of others, in this case Derlon (1977). An examination of that book reveals that Derlon’s already lurid descriptions had been very freely elaborated upon further by Walker who, like Rishi and McLaughlin, could not resist the urge to editorialize, pad and reinterpret.

Elsewhere she states that “together with ‘Smith’, ‘Faa’ is the most common gypsy surname’, and means ‘fay’ or ‘fairy’” (p. 361).  But this is in fact an old lowland Scottish surname and not Romani in origin at all, and was adopted only after Romanies arrived in Scotland in the late 1400s.  Again, “the popular gypsy surname Kaldera or Kalderas may have been derived from [the name of the Hindu goddess] Kali‑Devi” (p. 363). The reference given for this is Esty (1969:67) which, on being consulted, actually says that “ . . . the Kalderaš tribe, that huge group of Gypsies spread halfway around the world . . . governed in patriarchal fashion. There is no king or chief: all the men in the vitsa make all the decisions”.  No mention of Barbara Walker’s Kaldera, or of popularity, or of surnames, although Esty does state incorrectly that Kalderaš Romanies have no leaders. The word itself is Romanian for “coppersmith,” and cognate with the English word “cauldron.”

Romani Studies has lent itself easily to scholarly fabrication, and the literature is replete with it; Decourdemanche’s “Romani script” reproduced uncritically by Clébert is one well‑known example, as are the off-colour sentences that appear inserted into one version of Andrew Boorde’s 1542 text of early British Romani (“Mayde shew us yr tyttes” – Achae te sycke vesse meng itirrae berkes, “Mayde prythee doff thyn knyckeres” – Achae te lelle patouty tirrae drawers, “Allo darling give us one off ye wrysste then” – A pirani te des mai cabbe rancke), as sexist as they are mocking of Romani historiography.  For those who want to learn our language, Marc Vandekeere (2006) offers Subliminal Learn Romany, a CD containing nothing but the sound of ocean waves breaking upon the shore.

Other Romani “facts” which, once claimed, may get repeated ad infinitum have to do with the vocabulary of the language.  These have without exception been made by people who don’t speak Romani, but whose authority shows itself in their perceptions of what Romani should or should not be like.  Elsewhere I documented the repetition of the idea that Romani lacks words for “possession” and “duty” from ten different sources (Hancock, 1998), each copying from its predecessor over a period of more than a century, and seemingly having originated with statements first found in Grellmann (1807).  Eleanor Smith writes that “in the gypsy language the words ‘divine’ and ‘devilish’ are the same” (1943:59) – a novelist, incidentally, whom Angus Fraser called “desperately fond of inventing fantasies about herself, [and who] liked to claim Gypsy blood” (1994:29). These two words, both native to the language, could not be more different, viz. devlikano and bengesko.  Similar statements from other writers maintain that Romani does not have words for “truth”, “beautiful”, “read”, “write”, “time”, “danger”, “warmth” and “quiet”.

Examples of the mystical Gypsy may be found at Another site, “The Gypsy” (at http:// informs the visitor that “Gypsies are normally dark skinned with bold flashing eyes; however it is not unusual to find golden or crimson haired Gypsies . . . most Gypsies live in traveling wagons called vardos . . . the campfire is the center of Gypsy family life; the three distinct nations of the Gypsy are the Lowara, the Ursari and the Kalderasha.”

The pervasiveness of this new-age crystals-and-candles image is nowhere more in evidence than on the E-bay Internet auction site, where “sexy gypsy-wicca blouses” and the like account for almost all of the over two thousand “gypsy” offerings posted there daily.

Another example of what is probably a deliberate concoction is found in John Geipel’s book The Europeans (1969).  A serious historical and linguistic study it includes Romani, stating in a footnote

A gipsy street seller of lucky charms recently told the author in the Portobello Road, ‘Well, if you putches me, baw, cheeros is vassavo just now.  We on’y bickins about desh cawlie matchkers in a sawler.  Gi’s a coupla tringerooshies for a cuppa mooter an’ a packet o’ tooves, wontcher?’ (“Well, if you asks me, mate, times is hard just now.  We only sells about ten black cats in a morning.  Give us a couple of bob for a cup of tea and some cigarettes, won’t you?” – a fantastic mixture of English, cant, Sanskrit, Turkish, Slavic and possibly German!—op. cit., p. 90).

While it’s conceivable that this could have happened, it is most unlikely that it in fact did.  Why would a Romanichal use his ethnolect with a total stranger, and a non-Romani person at that, and expect him to understand it? The sentences appear to be a Borromani concoction, but they misinterpret cheeros as a plural noun, and Prof. Geipel has the man asking for a cup of urine.  Like Winifred Lehmann, whose Romani sample in his linguistics textbook contains not a word of Romani (1983: 214), academic rigour can get less attention when it comes to Romanies and the Romani language.

In 1973, Dodgson drew attention to what he hoped might have been the very first documented sample of written Romani: a rhyme apparently published in 1517, a full quarter-century earlier than Boorde’s sentences referred to above.  He had come across the following bawdy incantation while thumbing through a (then) recently-published book on witchcraft by Peter Haining (1972):

Dui rika hin mire mine
Dui yara hin leskro kor
Avnas dui yek jelo
Keren akana yek jeles

As his source for this, Haining listed a work of esoterica entitled the Grimorium Verum, for which he gave a publication date of 1517.  Hodgson was unable to locate the Grimorium and so wrote to Peter Haining in care of his publisher.  Haining replied that he had also been unable to find the book, but had been given the verses and that reference by an (unidentified) colleague.  He also failed to provide a return address. Hodgson then passed the task along to the late Angus Fraser, who ascertained that the book is generally believed by scholars to be an eighteenth, rather than a sixteenth, century work, but who was himself also unable to locate a copy.

The rhyme is in a remarkably standardized spelling for a 16th (or even an 18th) century Romani text, although it contains the misreading mine for minč in its first line. The dialect is a Central one, probably from the Hungarian-Slovak or the Transylvanian lands, and the orthographic conventions are English, not Continental, to judge from the evident values of the ‘j’ and the ‘y’.  Given its form, and that it is an incantation to ensure fertility in women, a few readily available sources from which it might have been lifted come at once to mind.  The only one aimed at a popular market, however, is Leland (1891), and sure enough, the verse is to be found on page 100 of that book, with the following form:

Dui riká hin mire minč
         Dui yārá hin leskro kor
Avnás dūi yek jelo
         Keren akána yek jeles

Leland made no secret of the fact that many of the rhymes and incantations throughout his book, as well as their orthography, were taken from Wlislocki’s various works.  Consulting these, the original source for the rhyme in question is revealed in an article by him written in 1887 concerning birth, life and death beliefs among tent-dwelling Romanies in Transylvania.

While Leland is known for his creativity where Romani language and culture are concerned, the culprit this time would appear to be Peter Haining, whose lack of familiarity with Romani orthography, and whose failure to identify his source or to provide his own return address, make him another prime candidate for Concocter of Fake Gypsy History.

Leland himself was probably guiltier of sloppy investigative techniques and an active imagination than of intentionally creating academic hoaxes.  He elicited some of his ‘Romani’ vocabulary from his informants by reading words from a Hindi dictionary to them and asking whether they sounded familiar.   Being paid or treated to food and drink for their time, they clearly didn’t want to disappoint their interrogator. 

His contemporary George Borrow is also responsible for creating non-existent Romani words, which have been picked up from his books and reproduced elsewhere (for example by Pott, 1844, and by Miklosich, 1872) and he may well qualify for the category of deliberate concocter (Hancock, 1997); well over half of the unsubstantiated words in Smart & Crofton’s dictionary of English Romani (1875:157-163) originate with Borrow, which they diplomatically say he “procured from various and widespread sources” (op. cit., p. xij).  These include words from other Romani dialects which he inserted into English Romani, such as covantza ‘anvil’ or pishota ‘bellows’, as well as words with Continental Romani forms distinct from their English Romani equivalents such as pindro ‘hoof’ and gulo ‘sweet’ (Angloromani piro, gudlo), and even words from Spanish such as mosco ‘a fly’ and vol ‘to fly’.  In addition he created words of his own, such as bolli-mengreskonæs ‘after the manner of a Christian’ and yeckly ‘only’ while at the same time calling such fabrications “genuine Gypsy . . . clear-sounding and melodious” (1874:11).  An excellent extended discussion of manipulating Romani lexicon is found in Grant (1994).

Borrow’s inventiveness is betrayed by his poor knowledge of Romani grammar in his discussion of a verse he calls “the oldest specimen of English Gypsy at present extant, and perhaps the purest . . . at least as old as the time of Elizabeth” (1923:11). The lines in question, with his own translation, are

Coin si deya, coin si dado?
         (“who’s your mother, who’s yourfather”)
Pukker mande drey Romanes
         (“do thou answer me in Romany”)
Ta mande pukkeravava tute
         (“and I will answer thee.”)

Coin is the form of Common Romani kon (“who”)which he imported into the Romanichal dialect from his vocabulary of Spanish Romani, though it is not attested in any other dialect; deya and dado are both vocatives and cannot follow the verb si, the former taken from his Lovari wordlist, and not found in Britain (though he does have the British form daiya elsewhere in his book). In the second line, Romanes is an adverb, though he doesn’t seem to have realized this; he has it glossed as a noun in his dictionary, and believing it to be a noun has it following the preposition drey.  In the form Rumnis it is a noun today, but it would not have been in the sixteenth century. In the third line, he has the inflected locative forms mande and tute (“at me”, “at you”) functioning as personal pronouns as they do only in Angloromani, while pukkeravava is a causative verb form, meaning “I’m being made to tell”.  The verses, in British Romani, ought to have read kon si tiri daj, kon si tiro dad, phuker mange romanes tha (me) phukerava tuke.

Smart himself was not innocent of creating his own Romani material and “commit[ing] it to the disintegrating waves of Gypsy tradition” unidentified as his own, as his notebooks reveal (Macfie, 1927: 143).

An amusing though unintentional reinterpretation of a word is found in Sutton’s 1982 reprint of Borrow’s Lavo-Lil, where the original hin “to void ordure” is glossed as “to avoid ordure”.  This is modern Angloromani hingger or hinder “defecate”.

Travellers don’t have to be Romanies to be susceptible to a little fudging of the truth.  “T.J.” includes a version of the Lord’s Prayer in his account of American Traveller life “which was recited to [him] by [his] Grand-Uncle Ned” (2007:117), but which matches, word for word, Hancock (1986: 207), itself a phonemicized respelling taken from Macalister (1937: 139-140), e.g. for the English words “but” (bat) and “our” (aur).

Two writers who have shamelessly appropriated from each other’s work, even to the extent of copying each other’s mistakes, are represented in Romani lexicography; we find for example the English Romani word for “hedgehog,” hochiwichi, turning up in Romanian Romani wordlists such as that by Kogalnitchan who lists hotschauitscha (1837:60), or Vaillant, who has hoc’awiça (1861:108)—though the source of the word is in the regional English dialect urchin (cf. the prickly “sea urchin”), and it exists only in Britain, having first been recorded by Roberts in 1836, Vaillant’s and Kogalnicean’s unacknowledged and respelt source.  There is likewise scarcely a dictionary of Caló (Spanish Romani) that is original, each one copying freely from the one preceding it, mistakes and all, usually without a word of acknowledgment.

Roger Moreau has built an entire thesis around a misinterpretation.  On the basis of the word “Nawar”, the place-name Dasht i Nawar is believed by him to mean “Desert of the Nawar”.  According to the standard Nelles 1:1,500,000 map of Afghanistan there is a Lake Navar about 90 miles west of Ghazni, and Moreau places his desert next to this. It is posited by him in his book to be the location to which three Indian peoples were taken from India as captives by Mohammed of Ghazni, three distinct ethnic groups who grew together over time to become the ancestors of the Romanies. “Nawar” is an Arabic name for the Domari-speaking Gypsies in the Middle East.  Their eventual date of departure for the West, he maintains, was at the end of the 12th century:

“When do you think they left that terrible place on their journey West, Uncle?”
“The year following the Battle of Tarain—twenty-five miles north of Delhi—AD 1193 would be my guess.  In fact I’d put Patsi’s shirt on it” (p. 111).

He continues (p. 116) “[t]hey had entered Dasht i Nawar as three separate peoples.  Three and a half centuries later they were leaving as a race, the appellations Lohar, Banjara and Kanjar forgotten.  Their ‘Romany roots’ had taken hold”.  But that entry into the region would have been in AD 843, over a century before Mohammed of Ghazni was born.

Nawar is the plural of Nuri, elsewhere known as Luri and Luli, and probably adopted by Arabic from the Indian luth, meaning “plunderer” (cf. lur “robber” in Romani).  One would assume, then, that the entire toponym were Arabic.  However, “Desert of the Nawar” would be sahra’ i nawar in that language. The word dašt means “rubbish” in Arabic.  In Persian, long the lingua franca of Afghanistan, the word for “desert” is either the adopted Arabic sāhra or the native biaban, while Nawar is an Iranian family name entirely unconnected with the Dom.  The language indigenous to the area, however, is Pashto, and here, the word for “desert” is dašt, and nawār in Pashto means “a cultivated place, a habitation”—Dašt-i-Nawar, therefore, in the region’s native language, means something like “inhabited desert” rather than “desert of the Nawar”.  Alternatively, if the lake’s name Navar is the source of the toponym, it is hardly likely that a lake in a non-Arabic-speaking country would be named with the Arabic word for “Gypsies”.  If the area is called dašt today (though Dasht i Nawar doesn’t appear on the Nelles map) this is surely more recent, and must refer to the fact that the lakebed is now dry.  The very name Lake Navar indicates that it held water in the past, and it is hard to imagine that 1200 years ago the area adjacent to it would have been a desert and named as such for the Lohar, Banjara and Kanjar that Moreau believes to have occupied it.

It was Roger Moreau too who, in his capacity as “an expert on Romany culture,” provided Cleo Magazine with “Your ancient Gypsy guide to wild sex.” It explains that “[t]he nomadic Romany people believe every man is ruled by one of 13 totem animals; to discover your ideal man, you must first identify his love totem” (Moreau, 2000: 83).

Like the Moshto story which has been picked up and repeated as fact in works published subsequently, Moreau’s account of Romani origins is likewise already finding adherents.  Patrick Lee (op. cit.: 27) says it provides

 . . . a more feasible solution to the puzzle of the Gypsies’ early days.  Roger Moreau . . . suggests that the Gypsies were taken from their homeland in vast numbers as slaves in the ninth century AD by the Afghan-Turks who used them to ferry booty out of India into Afghanistan.  Three tribes, the Lohar, the Banjara and the Kanjar, who bore a great resemblance to the Gypsies in Europe and who were also at the lower end of the caste system in India, provided easy pickings for these ruthless marauders in their greed for India’s vast wealth.

Besides questioning the actual meaning of Dašt-i-Nawar, and therefore the entire hypothesis that rests upon it, the date of the exodus proposed by Moreau (the ninth century) and the identity of the ancestors of the Romanies (from “the lower end of the caste system in India”) also bear scrutiny: regarding the date, the relocation of the Lohar, Banjara and the Kanjar into non-Indian-speaking territory in the first half of the 9th century does not coincide with the fact that the language or languages which subsequently developed into Romani were still a part of Middle Indo-Aryan at the time of its development into New Indo-Aryan at the beginning of the eleventh century.  We know this because of the redistribution of the original Middle Indo-Aryan neuter gender, which became reassigned to either masculine or feminine when it began to be lost.  The redistribution of the nouns in Romani which derive from original Middle Indo-Aryan neuters match those in e.g. Hindi and Panjabi at a rate approaching 100%; if pre-Romani had left India in the 800s it would have done so with three grammatical genders, and the subsequent loss of the neuter would have occurred randomly, outside of India.  Furthermore, every one of the Persian words in the language is traceable to New Persian only.

Regarding the caste identity of the pre-Roma, Bhalla (1992:331-332), on the basis of bio-anthropological data comparing Romani and Indian blood groups, concludes that

the results of the distance analysis clearly refute the Dom theory.  The gene pool of East European Gypsies is more in line with the stock of Indian people represented by Jat Sikhs, Panjabi Hindus and Rajputs, who share a common ethnic substratum.  The dominant ethnic element in the Doms and Kolis, the two representatives of the low caste population, is Proto-Australoid, which is not reflected in any sizeable proportion in the genetic makeup of East European Gypsies.

This “common ethnic substratum” is supported by recent and more rigorous serological investigation.  A team of researchers at Cowan University’s Centre for Human Genetics in Perth, after exhaustive blood samplings from 14 Romani communities throughout Europe, concluded in a report dated June, 2001, that

Analysis of slow-evolving polymorphisms has identified a single paternal and a single maternal lineage of Indian shared by all [Romani] groups . . . these lineages belong to a small subset of the known genetic diversity of the Indian subcontinent.  Thus, Roma descend from a small ancestral ethnic minority in the Indian subcontinent that has subsequently fractured into multiple population isolates within Europe.

Elsewhere (Hancock, 2002), I discuss the need for higher academic standards in treatments of Romanies. The very latest authoritative volume, part of Gale Research’sIndigenous Peoples of the World Series (Sharp, 2003) still begins “The Gypsies are a nomadic people . . . living and traveling in caravans of colorfully painted wagons,” and has all groups belonging to vitsas, a category and a word exclusive to the Vlax Romanies alone.  The author also maintains that Romani is not a written language (p. 49), despite abundant evidence to the contrary on the many websites she consulted in preparing the book.  That certain authors demonstrate less attention to accuracy may well be a reflection, conscious or not, of the low regard in which they hold Romanies as a people, or the fierce urge to make us what they want us to be.  As controversial as such findings as those of Bhalla and others may be, like the contemporary linguistic research being undertaken by Boretzky, Bakker, Matras, Friedman, Halwachs and others, they are the result of scientific investigation and analysis, and contrast as sharply with the non-academic literature as the image of “gypsies” cultivated by the latter does with true Romani identity. Indeed, a clear parallel is evident here between the two: those writing about Romanies generally maintain scholarly standards; those writing about “small-g gypsies” see no need to do so.  The newcomer to the field has a difficult job discerning the two.

When the Cowan findings were made public (in Gresham, et al., 2001), the immediate response from a subscriber on one Romani/Traveller listserve (posted 12:xij:01) and himself an academic was that they were just a “newly souped-up version of racialist thought . . . crap”.  Such reaction, and the debate it engenders is necessary; it moves the discipline forward and separates the useful lines of pursuit from those leading nowhere; but the arena is not mostly populated by specialists who are in a position to judge and critique the data.   The overwhelming majority of those with even a passing interest in Romanies are the same people that might read Stephen King’s Thinner or watch Walt Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Working with my own students over the years, I hear from them repeatedly that they cannot tell whether the sources they are consulting for their own research papers are reliable or not.  Should a project on Romani religious belief rely on Wood?  Should a study of gender roles use Walker as a source?  Is Moreau a good book for early Romani history?  All have been assumed to be trustworthy by my students. If there is to be a sincere concern for Romani Studies there must be a sincere concern for Romanies too, and the same criticism we do not hesitate to level at the work of our academic colleagues must extend to the popular treatments which, after all, reach a far larger audience and which help to shape the misconceptions and attitudes associated with the Romani people.

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