The Social and Linguistic Development of Scandoromani

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In his review of Iversen’s Secret languages of Norway, Einar Haugen concludes that in that country Romani is “just a dialect of Norwegian”, yet goes on to say that the core of its vocabulary goes back to India (1949: 391).

Text: Ian Hancock
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There is an evident anomaly here; being of North Germanic descent, no Scandinavian dialect can be shown to have a core of direct lexical retention of Indic origin, yet when we examine Scandoromani,1 it does indeed appear to have just that. In the normal course of linguistic evolution, we cannot expect a language to start as (in this case, for example) Indo-Aryan, spoken in Asia, to become Germanic and spoken in northern Europe. This apparent shift in genetic affiliation is itself sufficiently aberrant to warrant closer investigation.

Romani itself is an Indic language today having between five and ten million speakers throughout the world, principally in Europe, North Africa, the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. These are the Romanies, commonly, though incorrectly, called Gypsies. In order to understand the Scandinavian linguistic situation, it will first be necessary to say something about the origin and spread of Romani in a world context.

Although the Indian roots of the language have been known to western scholarship for over two centuries, two questions still lack definitive answers: (a) to which people and language in India is it most closely related, and (b) what led to the exodus of the original population out of India, and when did it take place? In the Scandinavian case, a third may be added: (c) what linguistic process can account for its shift in genetic affiliation from Indic to Germanic, if this is indeed what has happened?

During the nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth, speculation in this regard has been clouded by reliance upon vague and usually unsubstantiated hypotheses. A connection between the Romanies and the lowest of the four Indian castes was made as early as 1783 by Grellmann, continuing to be supported by Leland

and others a century later, and by Sampson in the 1920s. Grellmann’s rationale was that the Romani populations in Europe have traditionally been employed in professions similar to those characteristic of the Śudra caste; later, a connection was made between the word dom, referring to members of a menial class in India, and the Gypsies’ self-designation Rom.

Supporting this hypothesis, and also providing a date for the departure from India, was the claim that Firdausi’s epic book the Shah Nameh was in fact an account of the first Gypsy migration out of the subcontinent. This Persian poem, written in the eleventh century, told of ten thousand Indian musicians being given as a gift by the Indian emperor to the ruler of Persia in A. D. 439. The story relates that after a year, the musicians had all been sent away, presumably migrating toward the West. What they were doing during the intervening eight centuries before entering Europe, and where they were located geographically, is not explained by Firdausi.

There are solid reasons for rejecting this explanation, both linguistic and historical. Phonological and morphological development within the neo-Indic languages, including Romani, cannot place separation as early as the fifth century AD. Furthermore, the almost total absence of Arabic-derived items in Romani argues strongly against centuries of settlement in the Middle East. Persian and Byzantine Greek items on the other hand, are plentiful.

We must also re-evaluate the idea that the ancestors of the Romanies were untouchables, doing the same jobs in India that typify them in Europe today. Nor can we dismiss the likelihood that it has been racial and social prejudice among western scholars which has helped to sustain this notion; in late 1930 for example, the Norwegian sociologist J. Scharffenberg published a series of articles demanding that Romanies throughout Norway should be sterilized as a means of achieving the eventual permanent eradication of the population (Scharffenberg 1930; Bartels & Brun 1943; Johansen 1989); Unn Jørstadt, Director of the then Norwegian School for Gypsies concluded her 1972 report entitled “Norway’s Gypsy minority” with the observation that “all of them are just like children. One thing is certain: they need help” (1972:137).  Like other European nations during the colonial period, Sweden too had a policy of getting rid of its Romani population by shipping them off to New Sweden on the Delaware River in North America—a colony which existed only between 1638 and 1655, subsequently being taken over by the Dutch.

An early Swedish commentary on the nature of the Romani language by the Reverend Christfrid Ganander in 1780 claimed that the Gypsy’s

… mouth and lips are big, wide and thick, convenient for the pronunciation of their language, which is rather aspirated and full of “schz” or “Sclawoniska” words, which call for a strong aspiration and a lot of spittle before they can be pronounced. Their pronunciation or sounds and voices are peculiar, loud, sharp, rough and harsh, and also demand twitches of the body and gestures with the hands, before they can be articulated.2

These are prejudices originating outside of the Romani population; when we examine the Romani vocabulary itself, however, it becomes apparent that practically all of the words for concepts most stereotypically associated with Gypsies were not brought from India at all, but were acquired after reaching the Byzantine Empire—that is, it has been contact with European and other foreign societies which has brought about the Romanies’ contemporary social situation. Thus, except for the Indic-derived words for “iron,” “silver” and “gold,” the words for metals such as steel, copper, brass, lead, zinc, tin, the words for nail, pliers, chisel, furnace, bellows, forge, smelt, solder, horseshoe, hammer, file, anvil, and even the words for horse, hoof, donkey, mule, saddle, bridle, bit, reins, whip, waggon, wheel and road, are not Indian, but lexical items acquired before reaching the gates of Europe at the time that the five and a half centuries of enslavement of the Romani people were just beginning.

The hypothesis that has gained ground most recently is the result of research undertaken by Indian scholars themselves. In the mid-1970s, interest in the Romanies among academics in India led to the establishment of the Indian Institute of Romani Studies in the Panjab and the appearance of its journal Roma, devoted wholly to all aspects of the Romani experience (Rishi 1975). That hypothesis maintains that the ancestors of the Romanies were a composite people consisting of high-caste Rajput warriors together with their camp followers, who were drawn from the lowest caste. According to Watson in his Concise History of India (1981: 88), the Rajputs had themselves been “welded out of different non-Aryan material into a martial society of interrelated families, and rewarded with ksattriya [i.e. warrior] status and certificates of descent from the sun and the moon” in the tenth century, to fight against Islamic incursions into north-western India by the armies of Mohammed Ghaznavid. Watson also mentions the Rajputs’ “facility for assimilating foreigners” (1981:88), a characteristic also of the modern Romani population. A remnant of the symbolic association of the Rajput warriors with the sun and the moon, as well as with the stars, is found among some central European Romani groups today (Chatard & Bernard 1959:93-94; Sutherland 1975:125). The Rajputs and their camp followers moved westwards into Persia, becoming embroiled in a succession of Middle Eastern battles against Islam; as they became more and more remote from their homeland, their shared Indian identity, we can hypothesize, overcame whatever caste distinctions might have divided them socially, and in time the population became one. This would account for the character of the Romani language, which demonstrates Central Indic, Northwestern Indic, and Dardic linguistic characteristics. A 1987 medical report in the The Lancet’s August 15th issue determined that “Analysis of blood groups, haptoglobin phenotypes, and HLA types establishes the Gypsies as a distinct racial group with origins in the Panjab region of India.” 

This hypothesis, promoted most prominently by Kochanowski (though based on the earlier hypotheses of de Goeje, Clarke, Leland, Burton and others) requires some tempering, however, since if there were indeed Rajputs they were certainly outnumbered by the general fighting force and even moreso, by the service providers accompanying them—this latter body would have to account for the female genetic markers in the Romani bloodline.

The original Romani language brought into Europe seven or more centuries ago exists today in some sixty to eighty widely scattered dialectal variants. Despite the fragmentation of the language, its dialects fall nevertheless into a number of well-defined subgroups, and it is easily possible to speak of a “Common Romani” core shared by all of them. Differences are, in the main, lexical and phonological, although calquing on local non-Romani idiom and morphosyntax is also everywhere apparent.

In a chapter which appeared in a study of ethnic minority languages in Britain (Edwards & Alladina 1991) I proposed that all contemporary Romani populations have a non-Indic genetic component, because

… wherever Roma have migrated, they have encountered, and sometimes formed permanent alliances with, other, non-Romani peoples. This has given rise to newer, syncretic populations which, because of the pervasiveness of the core culture and language, have remained essentially Romani in terms of their own perceived identity; non-Romani groups have usually adjusted to the Roma rather than the reverse, although sufficient non-Romani elements have also been incorporated to affect the broader cultural and linguistic characteristics of each individual group … In some instances, the Indic element has not been sufficient to keep the overall identity of the group Romani, so that while Romani elements are discernible in the speech of such peoples as the Jenisch in Germany or Switzerland, for example, or the Quinquis in Spain, other factors, both genetic and cultural, are insufficient either for them to think of themselves as Romani, or for them to be regarded as such by members of coexisting populations who do.

In Scandinavia, as elsewhere in Europe, the Romani populations consist of both first diaspora and second diaspora immigrants. The first European Romani diaspora began in the mid- or late thirteenth century, when the first Romanies crossed the Dardanelles into the Balkans and subsequently fanned out into northern and western Europe. Perhaps half of those arriving from Asia Minor at that time, however, were held in slavery in the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (Hancock 1987), a situation that was not fully abolished until the middle of the 19th century. The flight of the ex-slaves out of Rumania from the 1860s onwards constituted the second diaspora, and descendants of these people, who are usually referred to as the Vlax (i.e. Wallachians) have settled everywhere that the first-diaspora populations are also found.

Because of the very different historical situations distinguishing the two migratory waves, and the resulting linguistic divergence, Vlax and non-Vlax Romanies today share little social interaction, even when they inhabit the same environment. The Vlax in Norway numbered less than one hundred according to Unn Jørstad when she published her report seventeen years ago, a number which has at least tripled since that time; nevertheless, pedagogical materials have been produced there to teach literacy in Vlax Romani (e.g. Jansen & Heltveit 1979; Syverud, Heltveit & Gaardner 1979). Such publications in Sweden, with its larger Vlax population, are more numerous, and have been mainly produced by Skolöverstyrelsen in Stockholm. This discussion is concerned not with the Vlax Romani minority in Scandinavia, but with the descendants of the first diaspora, the population generally, though incorrectly, referred to as Tattare.

Norbert Boretzky has recently drawn attention to the fact that in the Romani lexicon, the indigenous (i.e. Indic) and the non-indigenous items adhere tenaciously to their respective grammatical paradigms, a characteristic “hardly found in any other language” (1989: 357). While the majority of dialects do indeed retain their basically Indian structure, there are a number of varieties of the language which have survived lexically, but which demonstrate no, or almost no, indigenous grammar and phonology. These include Lomavren, the speech of the Armenian Lom (Finck 1903), Caló, spoken in Spain (Tudela 1985), Angloromani in England (Acton & Kenrick 1984; Hancock 1984 a, 1984b), Hellenoromani in Greece (Triandaphyllidis 1923-24), Tent Gypsy in Yugoslavia (Uhlik 1941-43) and others. This phenomenon is not restricted simply to Romani; such languages as Mbugu (Goodman 1971), and Shelta (Hancock 1984c) also appear to consist of lexicons couched in the framework of other languages. It is to this category that Scandoromani also belongs.

Documentation on the various Romani populations in Scandinavia is extensive; a selection of references appears in the bibliography following this paper. The question most frequently addressed in connection with the Tattare concerns their ultimate origins, and the extent to which they are in fact ethnic Romanies, if at all. Little has appeared on the linguistic classification of their speech, which has traditionally been viewed merely as a kind of slang consisting of cryptolectal vocabulary of mainly Romani origin in an entirely Scandinavian grammatical matrix.

Such languages have more relevance to linguistic theory, perhaps, than is at once apparent; first of all, they challenge the traditional genetic approach to language classification. Secondly, they provide useful insights into the maintenance of ethnic identity, as well as into contact phenomena and language attrition, both the focus of scholarly interest at the present time. The variety of Romani belonging to this category for which most theoretical work has been undertaken is Angloromani, which originated in England and which has subsequently spread to other parts of the English-speaking world (Hancock, 1986). It is in fact possible that the origins of Scandoromani may also be traced to Britain, in the light of early contact between the British Isles and Scandinavia, although the processes yielding each possibly differ.

While Romanies may have entered Britain from southern Scandinavia in the first place, as the Jutes had done a thousand years before, the first record of their presence in Denmark indicates that they had been transported to that country by James IV of Scotland, in July, 1505. Their arrival in Sweden via Denmark is dated 1512, and they were being abandoned on the coast of Norway from British ships from 1544 onwards.

According to Bergman (1964: 13),

. . . the Scottish and the Swedish Gypsies kept in touch during the 16th century . . . in the Swedish National Archives there are two passports for the Tattare, or as he is also called the Egyptian, Anders Faa . . . the name Faa is well-known in Scotland, and has been so (among Gypsies) for a long time. John Faa was the name of perhaps the most romantic Gypsy leader in Scotland, and he even had a poem written in his honour by our Swedish poet Orvar Odd.

Bergman (1964: 16) continues:

Nowadays, a distinction is made between Tattare and Zigenare. This last term is used to refer to descendants of the Gypsies who immigrated in the latter part of the 19th century, mainly between 1860 and 1880, and later. They are bilingual, and speak both a pure European Gypsy dialect, and Swedish . . . The term Tattare is reserved for a less well-defined group of people who live in the same way as the Gypsies, and who no doubt in certain cases are descendants of Gypsies who have mixed with Swedes, but who otherwise, and probably mainly, are descendants of the loose people from whom have come the (contemporary, non-Gypsy) significant group of loiterers.

Lastly, Bergman says (1964:22)

Just as the Spanish Gypsies, after having settled down, mixed their language with the Spanish of the lower classes, with the germanía of the criminals, etc., so the Swedish Gypsies have also mixed their language with Swedish. Today’s Tattare speak a mixture (rotvälska) in which, to be sure, the basis is old Romani, but where the inflectional system of the Gypsy language has been lost.

The language of the Swedish Zigenare, as referred to here, has been superbly described by Gjerdman & Ljungberg (1963); while no comparable grammar yet exists for the same language in Norway, that dialect is closely related to the one described for Sweden, and work on a linguistic description of Norwegian Vlax (which is the Lovari rather than the Kalderash or Churari dialect spoken in Sweden) is in progress by Lars Gjerde under the supervision of Dr. Knut Kristiansen at Oslo University’s Indo-Iranian Institute. The speech of the Swedish Tattare has been recently dealt with in a book by Johansson (1977), while for the Norwegian situation, Iversen’s three volume Secret Languages in Norway (1944-1950) remains the most comprehensive treatment. I am not dealing with Finland in this paper, but a number of linguistic works describing Fennoromani also exist, e.g. by Valtonen, Thesleff, and others.

While Bergman refers to the “mixing” of the Romani and the white populations, and of their languages, he makes no attempt to explain why such mixing should have taken place. No scholars seem yet to have attempted this from a linguistic perspective, although a number of ethnographic studies have been written such as those by Ethler, Heymowski, Bartels & Brun, Hansen, Takman, &, which examine the ancestries of the Scandinavian “Traveller” population. The parallel situation in Britain has received more attention in this regard, and it is likely that what we have learned about this may equally apply in Scandinavia.

There are two principal hypotheses for the British situation: firstly, that contemporary Angloromani is the result of progressive language attrition or decay—a position favoured by Romanologist Donald Kenrick, and secondly, that it is a deliberately contrived cryptolect dating from the sixteenth century, this being my own belief. I reject the possibility of language attrition, because dying Romani dialects, such as that spoken in Wales, are not restructuring themselves; Welsh Romani has not slowly become Angloromani. Nor, in fact, is Angloromani dying, at least in North America, but appears to be spreading, numerically and geographically. I favour a sixteenth century origin for Angloromani, because we have numerous references to a “secret language” in use among the Romani population from that time. The fact that no samples of Angloromani occur in print until the nineteenth century attests only to its secret nature, although it has been used to support the attrition hypothesis; but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; Shelta remained hidden from the outside world until the nineteenth century (cf. Hancock 1984c).

I will not repeat detailed arguments supporting my position here, since they have appeared in print elsewhere. But to summarize, it would seem that the newly-arrived Romanies found themselves thrown into the same social milieu as the British outlaws, and were obliged to interact with them for survival. The British outlaws already had a cryptolect of their own, known as Cant, evidence of which may be found in the still surviving speech of the Scottish Travellers (see Hancock 1986), and, of course, the Romanies had the Romani language as their own means of private communication. Cant, which seems to date from the eleventh century, consists of cryptolectal items in an all-English grammatical and phonological framework. It has been used for poetry in the past, and some words, such as booze, gear, hooker, &c., have passed into general English slang. The Romanies were not opposed to allowing Romani items to be incorporated into Cant, and no doubt learnt that speech themselves, but withheld inflected Romani from the non-Romani community, in order to be able to maintain their separateness within the larger separate population. The inflected language survived in England and America until the early twentieth century; by the mid-nineteenth century, Smart & Crofton were able to transcribe stories from British Romanichals told first in inflected Romani and then in Angloromani.

The restructured language in Scandinavia appears to exist in several regional dialects; Johansson discusses two for Sweden, a Northern and a Skånish dialect, the differences between which appear to be mainly lexical. Phonologically and structurally, Scandoromani, or Tattarespråk, approximates almost completely to the Scandinavian host languages in the midst of which it exists. It is in its lexicon that it remains distinctively a Romani ethnolect. As with Angloromani, native morphology has undergone a process of collapse—taking the attritionist argument—or never existed in the first place, if Romani items were inserted into a co-existing Cant. We might still speak of reduction, however. For example, in Angloromani, the first-person personal pronominal forms all derive from the historical postpositional case mande, used following various prepositions (e.g. mandi I, me’, to mandi, from mandi, with mandi, mandi’s ‘my’, &c.). The Scandoromani forms on the other hand have generalized equivalents based on the possessive singular masculine nominative in the inflected language, (miro), thus miro ‘I, me’, miros ‘my’, &c. Nearly all other morphology seems to be attributable to vernacular Scandinavian, for example reflecting their three-gender system rather than the two genders of the standard languages. Inflected forms appear to be frozen, e.g. dakkri ‘mother’, a genitive in Common (i.e. historical) Romani. Derivational morphemes are in the main non-productive, with the exception of the historical genitive, typically used in the inflected northern dialects such as Sinti or Welsh Romani as a means of lexical expansion. Examples from Scandoromani include däkkaskiro ‘soldier’, from däkka ‘sword’, minnsjeskre ‘gonnorhea’, from minnsja ‘vulva’, bängerske ‘hell’, from bäng ‘devil’, dikkopaskro ‘mirror’, from dikka ‘to see’, and so on. Calques on Scandinavian languages also account for some forms. Examples include sapp-jakkad ‘wicked’, literally ‘snake-eyed’, from ormøgd, ditto, or ali-jakkar ‘spectacles, glasses’, literally ‘glass-eyes’, cf. glasøgon, ditto. Other lexical items have been created by a process of incoining—combining existing morphemes into new lexical combinations. Examples include krajjo-dikklo ‘flag’, literally ‘king cloth’, starrto-mossj ‘policeman’, literally ‘capture person’, randrar-mossj ‘secretary’, literally ‘write person’, and bassjar-mossj ‘musician’, literally ‘play person’, pilo-dukt ‘having a hangover’, literally ‘drunk-pained’, rubb-smitto ‘silversmith’, is an example of a Romani and a Scandinavian derived morpheme in combination. Items from Scandinavian and Scandinavian Cant are also common in Scandoromani, usually in disguised form. Thus fimmpus ‘five’, dustus ‘flour’, varsnos ‘our’, ersnos ‘your’, alonum ‘alone’, (from fern, dust, vur, er and alones). This can even extend to Indian-derived items, e.g. jekkum ‘one’ (from jekh) or nakkus ‘nose’ (from nakh).

Following are three sentences in Swedish Scandoromani with their Angloromani, inflected Romani, English, and Swedish equivalents:

  • Scandoromani:     miro honkar alonum; mander honkar alonum
  • English:               ‘I am alone’
  • Swedish:              jag är ensam
  • Angloromani:      mandi’s alonus; mandi’s akonya
  • Romani:               me šom kokoro
  • Scandoromani:    vi tradrar to fåron en vaver divus
  • English:              ‘we(‘ll) go to town another day’
  • Swedish:             vi åker till stun en annan dag
  • Angloromani:      we’ll tradder to the forus a wavver divvus
  • Romani:               džasa ka o foros vaver dives
  • Scandoromani:     ska vi puttja dålle mossj om han vill suta palla i ratti?
  • English:               ‘shall we ask that fellow if he’ll stay and sleep tonight?’
  • Swedish:              ska vi fråga den där karlen om han vill ligga kvar i natt?
  • Angloromani:       will we putch the mush if he’ll atch and suti to-rati?
  • Romani:               pučhas i muršeste te ačel te sovel akarat?


The question has arisen whether languages of this type may be said to have undergone processes of pidginization or creolization (discussed in Hancock 1971). Although Arnbjørnsdottir & Smith (1986) attempt an argument against this in their discussion of Russenorsk, there is in fact no incontrovertibly attested case of the kind of linguistic restructuring typifying these processes which has arisen from the contact of just two languages; nor has what Whinnom called “tertiary hybridization” occurred, i.e., when the speakers of the language supplying the lexicon subsequently withdraw from the contact environment, the pidgin then having to expand using its own internal grammaticalizing and lexicalizing resources rather than drawing upon its lexifier for these components. When two language communities come into contact, speakers of one usually just learn that of the other (e.g. Saami and Norwegian in Norway, Spanish and English in Texas) with cross-interference, but generating no extensive structural or semantic innovations having no outside source. These processes have been discussed by the Scandinavian linguists Jespersen (1922) and Hjelmslev (1939); Reinecke (1937) tabulated at least ten social contexts which can yield contact languages, whether pidginized or not (discussed in Hancock 1990b), those of the Scandoromani type being most like his category of “foreigners’ mixed speech”, although he discusses restructured Romani in particular under the heading “dying minor languages” (Reinecke 1937: 76-79), thereby adhering to the attrition hypothesis.

Scandoromani, like Angloromani and probably other such varieties, does not appear, then, to have evolved in direct descent from Common Romani by a process of linguistic decay, but instead is based upon sociolectal varieties of Scandinavian—Norwegian in Norway, Swedish in Sweden, Danish in Denmark, whose speakers drew upon a (now extinct) coexistent inflected Romani which served as a lexical reservoir for maintaining and enriching it as a cryptolectal register. In light of claims that have been made for both Angloromani and for Caló or Hispanoromani (Hancock 1990a: 96-97), however, regarding the nature of the Romani element in each, this explanation may require elaboration.

Whatever its ultimate origins, in the course of time, Scandoromani came to replace inflected Romani as the ethnic language of the community, we might guess because of increasing intermarriage with non-Romanies, but surviving because of the continuing identity of the group as Romani, and the resulting need for a linguistic means of reinforcing that identity, and to provide a protective insulation from the establishment—in this context functioning as an antilanguage (Halliday 1968). Language maintenance and choice as a factor of ethnic identity is discussed in Le Page & Tabouret-Keller (1985). For these reasons, as long as the Scandoromani population remains a distinct segment of the Scandinavian population, it is likely that their speech will survive in some form also.


1Scandoromani, like Angloromani, Fennoromani, Hellenoromani, Hispanoromani, &c., is of course an academic term, and not one used by its speakers themselves.
2This is similar to Wilkinson’s (1820: 176) own naïve description of Romani:

The Wallachian and Moldavian gypsies speak the language of the country; but those who lead a wandering life use, amongst themselves, a peculiar jargon composed of a corruption of Bulgarian, Servian and Hungarian words, mixed with some Turkish.  Its pronunciation, however, sounds so much like that of the Hungarian tongue, that a person accustomed to hear both without understanding either, is apt to mistake the one for the other.

Ernst Håkon Jahr (ed.)
Language Contact: Theoretical and Empirical Studies
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992
pp. 37-52.


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