The Romani Language
Roots of the Romani language
As late as the 18th century, linguists discovered that the Romani language originated in India, the northwestern parts of India to be precise, and that its roots can be traced back to a vernacular similar to Sanskrit.
The Romani language belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. It is based on Sanskrit, the ancient cult language of India, from which Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and other languages have developed. While Romani and Hindi are sister languages, the Romani language diverged from the Indo-Aryan family tree more than two thousand years ago.
The Romani language is an international language spoken by several millions of people all over the world. Over time, the Romani language differentiated into several dialects that have been influenced by local languages. According to researchers, however, the basic vocabulary has remained almost unchanged in different dialects. This was promoted by the fact that the Roma have always maintained lively contacts with Roma communities in different countries. Due to the remote location of the country, the Roma in Finland have been in an exceptional position in this regard.
In the early 20th century, official policy aimed to integrate the Roma by force in many European countries, including Finland. The destruction of the Romani language and culture was regarded as one method of achieving this. As late as the Second World War, Roma were mainly migratory in Finland and highly dependent on assistance from the agricultural community. For instance, it was absolutely vital to have a place to stay for the night in winter. The majority population was suspicious of the Romani language, however, and in many cases Roma were permitted to stay overnight only on condition that they did not speak the Romani language. This resulted in the Roma becoming wary of speaking their own language and refraining from doing so.
Romani, an endangered language
The Finnish Romani language is listed as a seriously endangered language in the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger and there has been a real threat of the language's extinction. Measures to revive the language have therefore been initiated at a crucial juncture. Despite the positive start of revival measures, preservation of the Romani language still hangs in the balance.
Over time, legislation has begun to accord some understanding and recognition of the value of the Romani language. In the 1990s, Finland took a historical decision which attracted international attention: in 1995, the Finnish constitution included recognition of the importance of and rights associated with the Romani language. The same provisions were included in section 17(3) of the new Constitution of 2000. This provision is regarded as a general constitutional safeguard for minorities, obliging the authorities to enable and support the development of the Romani language and culture, for example.
However, the key challenge to the preservation and development of the Romani language remains its infrequent use. The problems in learning and preserving the Romani language are crystallised in the lack of high quality teaching of the Romani language, the shortage of producers of learning material, and language's invisibility in public activities. For example, play and activity material for children is almost non-existent. Another problem lies in the fragmented nature of legislation concerning the Romani language and the fact that such legislation is insufficiently binding.