Standardization And Codification Of The Romani Language English Language Essay

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Romani is the common language of the Roma, the Sinti, the Kale and other European population groups summarised by the pejorative denomination gypsies (Halwachs 2003:1), and is one of Europe's most significant minority languages. It is spoken in countries throughout Europe with the largest speaker populations found in south-eastern Europe, especially in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, as well as in Greece, Slovakia, Moldavia and Hungary (Matras 2005c:2). The number of Romani speakers relies on estimations made by Romani activists and intellectuals due to the language's wide geographic dispersion as a stateless language and 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 (Matras 2005c:2). Until recently the language has not existed in written form, being a language of exclusively oral tradition upon which Gyspy culture is entirely based (Matras 1999). However in the course of the twentieth century and in particular due to the progress of written communication technologies, codification efforts to create a written form of Romani have increased on regional, national and international levels. In this essay I will firstly define what a 'standard' is and its various stages of emergence. I will then discuss the attempts that have already been made to create written forms of the Romani language on a regional level, in Macedonia and Austria and those on an international level. Furthermore, I will examine the motivations for and necessities of creating an International Romani standard, the problems that are encountered during the process of standardization and possible solutions to them. Finally I will hope to make a conclusion about whether an International Romani standard could realistically be implemented for the entire International Romani Community.

In linguistic theory a 'standard' form of a language is a set of widely accepted rules serving as a norm primarily in writing (Matras and Reershemius 1991:2). From a variationist perspective, standardization can be conceptualised as a movement towards linguistic uniformity through a competition-selection process (Deumert 2004:2). The emergence and distribution of a standard is dependent upon several phases which have been outlined by Einar Haugen's model of standardization; "norm selection" which involves the choice of the variety that is to become the standard, "codification" the choice and development of the writing system, "elaboration" the production of dictionaries, grammars, style manuals and other normative instruments and finally "implementation" which requires acceptance by institutions, writers, publications and especially mass-media communication (Haugen 1972). The first two stages are primarily concerned with linguistic form and the second two focus on the social and communicative functions of language, the latter being of particular interest in the case of Romani in order to be able to understand more about its history and cultural heritage (Deumert 2004). However in attempts that have already been made, the first two stages have caused considerable difficulties. The selection of a norm is widely controversial due to the diversity of Romani dialects, as is the choice of alphabet for codification since speakers usually employ the alphabet of the principal language of the country in which they live, which differ widely among the Roma population. Thus, the process of standardization of the Romani language is very complex.

Since the opening up of Eastern Europe following the collapse of Communism in 1989, the Roma have achieved increased political status allowing them to develop their own language and thus, the production of Romani-language books and magazines has flourished (Hübschmannova 1995).The Republic of Macedonia in particular, where the Roma population are now constitutionally recognized as a nationality, making up roughly 3% of the overall population, has served as the site for a number of important events in the standardization of Romani (Friedman 1995:177-178). In November 1992, the Ministry of Education for the Republic of Macedonia and the Philological Faculty of the University of Skopje sponsored the Macedonian Romani Standardization Conference. Its purpose was to reach an agreement concerning the introduction of Romani as a course of study in Macedonian schools, which involved addressing issues concerning Romani language standardization (Friedman 1995:179). A grammar that was published in 1980 by linguists Kepeski and Jusuf was used as a basis. Following Haugen's standardization model, the Arlija dialect was selected as the norm, spoken by the majority of Roma in the Republic of Macedonia, with some grammatical, phonological and lexical additions and modifications from all the Romani dialects of the country (Friedman 1995 and Matras 1999). However, a general consensus was not reached about the choice of alphabet for the orthography. Although most Roma agreed that the Latin alphabet should be used, others did not think it fully capable of representing the language's phonetic forms. Since the 1992 conference, the standardization of Romani in the Republic of Macedonia has received increased funding on both international and local levels. 17 January 2001 saw the launch of the Roma Times, a tri-weekly, tri-lingual (Romani, English, and Macedonian) newspaper (Friedman 2005:171). Friedman suggests that the production of such texts, as well as non-print media is contributing to the codification and elaboration of Romani in Macedonia and so consensus of a standard form is being reached through usage, a pattern also seen for Romani in other countries (Friedman 2005).

In Austria, however, the standardization of Romani has taken a more scientific approach aimed at avoiding the death of the Romani language and preserving Romani culture and identity (Halwachs 2004). Whereas the Macedonian example was very much driven by government representatives, Romani intellectuals and linguists, the Austrian Romani project was community-based which saw linguists working alongside Austrian Roma communities to develop a written form of their language, Burgenland Romani (Halwachs 2004). A Slavic-Latin orthography was intended to be used, until the Roma people made it clear that they preferred a writing system based on the secondary language, German. This highlights the importance of developing a standard in this way, as had the Slavic-Latin alphabet been used, the likelihood of acceptance of the standard by the relevant Roma population would have been lessened. The project received government support and produced anthologies of traditional tales and biographical texts in books and audio CDs, language education materials including interactive computer games in Romani, comics, and two regular periodicals, one of them directed at children (Halwachs 2004 and Matras 1999). Romani is now a regular part of the regional curriculum at primary and secondary school levels, and is offered at university level as well (Matras 2005a).

As the examples of the Republic of Macedonia and Austria have illustrated, the codification of Romani on regional and national levels is proving successful and effective in making literature accessible and available to their Roma populations. However, attempts to produce an internationally accepted standard of Romani have been and continue to be made. In terms of the creation of an international Romani standard, the work of French language activist Marcel Courtiade has been the most successful thus far. His proposed standardized dialect, based on Balkan and Vlax models, was first introduced at the Fourth World Romani Congress held in Serock, Poland, in 1990 and is one of the few to create a standard orthography. It has been declared to be the standard by the International Romani Union (IRU) and hence adopted as the 'official alphabet' (Hancock 2003, Matras 1999, Halwachs 2004). The authority of the IRU gave the Courtiade alphabet the recognition it needed to qualify for support from the European Commission and its agencies, who agreed to fund publications using the alphabet (Matras 2005b:252). Several publications appeared using his system, but it has not been generally successful (Guy 2001) with plans for a dictionary and encyclopaedia failing to materialise and authors of Romani texts unable to be persuaded to accept the authority of the standardization commission (Matras 2005b:252). Furthermore, because the development of standard varieties generally follows the development of political and economic power structures (Halwachs 2004:2), it is clear that its lack of acceptance is also due to the fact that the status and recognition of the Roma people differs from country to country. However it has been successful in Romania, through its implementation as a standard by the Romanian Ministry of Education, where approximately 15,000 children are taught Romani in school (Halwachs 2004:5).

In 1995 Ian Hancock produced "A Handbook of Vlax Romani," intended as a teaching grammar for students studying Romani in order to learn something about it, and/or to be able to use the language for academic and other pursuits (Friedman 1995b:14), based on the Vlax dialects of Romani spoken principally in the United States and in some areas of Eastern and Western Europe. However, according to Friedman it is also very much a contribution to the creation of an international Romani standard, for use by speakers of the language themselves (Friedman 1995b). Although its intention was as a descriptivist grammar, it has potential to be prescriptivist if used as a basis for an international standard. What is interesting about this grammar is that it is one of the few written by a Rom and therefore has better potential to be accepted by Roma. Ten years later, Ronald Lee, who is also Romani, produced a text book called "Learn Romani" also based on the Vlax dialect, since it is the most widely spoken geographically. Lee maintains that Vlax-based Romani now functions as the language of communication between Roma from many countries who have no non-Romani language in common (Lee 2005), in particular in the domain of new written communication technologies. As a consequence he believes that the various related dialects are levelling and new words and new meanings for old words are constantly entering this international dialect as Roma who speak related dialects find new ways to express modern concepts and inventions (Lee 2005).

As efforts to codify and hence standardize the Romani language are increasing and interest in this field grows, it is necessary to examine the motivations that are driving this need to put down a traditionally oral language on paper. Halwachs points out that the linguistic situation of the Roma reflects their socio-political situation, as politically, economically and culturally marginalized, ethnically stigmatised, discriminated against and persecuted, meaning that they could only survive in small groups, that led to their geographical and social heterogeneity that still exists today (Halwachs 2004:2). Since the development of a standard usually follows the development of political and economic power structures, Romani has therefore not been given the opportunity for this to happen and Romani activists see the standardization of the language as a basic human right. As a result of Romani political and civil rights organizations beginning to emerge in Europe, processes to standardize the language are gaining financial and institutional support. Other reasons, such as language preservation, through documentation of the language and the production of teaching materials, have been put forward to avoid the extinction of Romani, which to an extent has been seen in Great Britain, where it only now exists in the form of lexical items used within speech in the majority language, English (Matras 2008). Moreover, Matras states that standardization is intended to broaden the domains of native language use to include those functions occupied traditionally by the state or majority language (Matras and Reershemius 1991), such as producing books, dictionaries and government forms in Romani, using the language in education and providing radio and television broadcasts. A standard form of Romani can also serve as a useful tool for helping Roma to gain a better sense of Romani ethnic identity and their history and cultural heritage and can as a result promote unity among Roma people. Since Roma mostly use their respective variety of the Romani language for only intra-group communication and the language of the majority population for inter-group communication (Halwachs 2003), even with other Roma, an international standard form of the language would enable Roma to use their native language to communicate with other Roma worldwide. Situations in which to participate in such conversational exchanges are increasing with growing mobility and thus opportunities to encounter other Roma, and via the internet, in particular through e-mail correspondence.

However, the creation of a single Romani standard is not without its difficulties. Hancock outlines three major problems in creating a standardized dialect. His first argument is that "there is no single dialect spoken anywhere close enough to the common proto-form spoken upon arrival in Europe that it may be adopted without modification, so that whatever dialect is chosen will have to be adapted to a more internationally acceptable form" (Hancock 2007:1). This poses the problems of choosing a suitable dialect to be implemented for all and the acceptance of such a dialect. The issue of choosing a dialect to become the standard is extremely problematic. Because of the many years of geographic dispersion and therefore the many different external influences, such as loanwords, that each dialect has encountered, especially since all Roma are bilingual, the mutual intelligibility of Romani dialects has been debated among intellectuals. Kenrick states that "with no standard written language, and between fifty and a hundred dialects, Romani dialects are not mutually comprehensible except at very basic levels," (Hancock 2003). However, Matras disagrees maintaining that there is mutual intelligibility with minimal effort among dialects in South-Eastern Europe (between Turkey and Slovenia, between Romani and parts of Hungary), and among those in central-eastern Europe (northern Slovenia, the Czech and Slovak Republics, southern Poland and western Ukraine), where the largest Roma populations are present, with the exception of Roma from outside Germany and some neighbouring countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and northern Italy) who would find it difficult to understand the Romani dialects that are spoken there (Matras 2005c:5). However the common core of Romani renders it arguably no less uniform than many European languages with significant dialectal variation (Hancock 1995:13). So, perhaps an accepted standard is possible, however since the majority of standardization work is being done by outsiders, who frequently disagree about how to approach this task, the acceptance of such a standard by the Romani population is therefore made even harder.

Hancock's second argument is that "the propagation of a Romani standard will be very unevenly achieved using the means of education, as not all Roma everywhere will ever learn, or be disposed to learn such a dialect" (Hancock 2007:1). Gilliat-Smith supports Hancock's theory as he believes that "basic [i.e. common standard] Romani is theoretically possible, but in the present state of development of the Gypsies of Europe it stands but little chance of being accepted or even generally understood, by those for whom is it primarily intended" (Gilliat-Smith 1960:34 cited in Hancock 2003:269). Because Roma do not have equal status internationally, relying on their individual countries to provide them with financial and institutional support, levels and standards of education differ widely. Already literate Roma, predominate in Eastern European countries, will have a far better opportunity to acquire such a standardized dialect, but for those who are illiterate, it would be much harder (Hancock 2007:1). However, what complicates this further is the Romani attitude towards education. Although many Rom recognize that school cannot be avoided for their children, it is not within traditional Romani culture to mix with non-Romani people (Matras 2008). Therefore they remain suspicious towards educational institutions and so the idea of introducing Romani into school is considered by many Roma parents "a humiliation and discrimination against their own children" (Hübschmannova 1995).

Hancock's third argument has further sociolinguistic implications. He argues that a 'linguistic elite' will be created among the Roma population as a consequence of choosing one dialect as the standard or the basis for a standard, and therefore giving it the status that it is more prestigious than others (Hancock 2007:1). There is currently no form of Romani that is considered more prestigious than others although significant interdialectal bias does exist among some Roma. Individual groups tend to regard their own dialect as 'real' Romani and all others as 'less real' (Hancock 2003:273). So therefore acceptance of a norm becomes even more of an obstacle. Suggestions that have been made, other than the examples already studied in this essay, vary on how best to tackle these issues. The majority agree that an existing dialect should be chosen as a basis however, Joshi suggested that to achieve a standard closest to Romani's proto-form, it requires "a script which can scientifically represent all its phonetic forms." He recommends the use of the Devangari script, used for Sanskrit and Hindi (Joshi 1991:3 cited in Hancock 2003:281). Although it would have a more neutral quality for all Roma groups, it is however, not a practical solution since the majority of Roma live in Europe and use either Latin or Cyrillic scripts for their second language. A further obstacle to acceptance is that the majority of standardization efforts are in the hands of outsiders "Gadže". As a language that is traditionally used within the extended family and close community (Matras 2005c:4) and is culturally significant as an oral language, many Roma do not see the necessity of having a standard and written form of the language, which if used with outsiders, "would rob Romani of its spontaneity and soul" (Hancock 2003:276).

Matras has suggested that the best way to tackle all of the issues which the standardization of Romani is faced with, as a multi-dialectal, stateless and diaspora language is to adopt a policy of linguistic pluralism (Matras 2005c). He claims that it is the most practical way forward in order to "support regional initiative and creativity, while also strengthening international networking efforts and exchange" (Matras 2005c: 1). Since the regional efforts already made to codify the language have been generally successful, these should not be abandoned completely in the hope of achieving a single international standard. Rather codification should become the priority to suit the users and their needs, so each individual dialect can be written down and oriented to the type of communication for which it is needed. It is a policy which reflects the situation of the language and is apt for new communication technologies which already see users producing their own versions of written Romani through trial and error (Matras 2005c).

The case studies examined in this essay highlight some key issues that would be necessary for an international Romani standard to be a realistic possibility. The case of the Republic of Macedonia showed that, despite attempts to decide on and implement a standard, usage of the language in the domain of media-communication is an important factor in achieving a standard and the acceptance of one. The Austrian Romani Project emphasized the importance of collaboration with Roma to achieve a standard, a strategy that led to the creation of a Burgenland-Romani standard being successful among its users. Courtiade's attempt at an international standard stressed the importance of financial and institutional support and for an international Romani standard to be truly successful this would need to be on a global level. The examination of Hancock's and Lee's work on Vlax-based Romani, which Lee claims to be the most used form of Romani between Roma from many countries who have no non-Romani language in common, brings to light the importance of modernization for the Romani language. Matras reflects this when justifying a policy of linguistic pluralism, viewing the internet and e-mail communication as a driving force in the codification of Romani. Although Matras calls for linguistic pluralism, which embraces varieties of the language, it seems that through the nature of the internet, levelling of writing conventions is likely as Roma use it more and more as a tool for communication. In this way, an international Romani dialect is indeed a realistic possibility, but outside of this realm of communication, the sociolinguistic attitudes of the Roma people and their cultural traditions suggest that Romani is perhaps not at all suited to a single international standard.