Romani [romaňi čhib] or Romany, is an Indic (or Indo-Aryan) language — like Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali — which belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. The language retains much of the Indic morphology, phonology and lexicon, while its syntax has been heavily influenced by contact with other languages. The dispersal and differentiation of the Roma since their arrival in Europe brought about a fragmentation of the language into distinct groups (each with different varieties) depending on the contact with local languages: Northern Romani (best represented by the chaladytka roma, the Russian Roma), Central Romani (best represented by the group of the Hungarian and Slovakian Roma, the ungrike roma), Vlax (best represented by the Romanian Roma) and Balkan Romani (best represented by the dialects in Macedonia). Although the Roma communities are highly differentiated, they often use the same term Romanes to refer to the language. Until the 20th century Romani was essentially an oral language; it is now written using various orthographies depending on the host country.
The Roma (the name is the plural form of the word “Rom”) moved from India at the beginning of the 12th century, reached Europe in the 14th century and Central Europe in the 15th century. Successive migration waves produced a number of different subethnic layers cohabiting within the same country, and a diastratic dialect structure as a consequence; the various Roma groups show also a considerable degree of particularism. Because they arrived from the East, they were also called Egyptians or “Gyptians”, which is at the origin of the “Gypsy”, “Gitanos”, “Gitanes” and other words that are often considered derogatory by the Roma. The term “Roma” is widely used, although the International Romani Union (following the recommendations of its Language Commission) has officially adopted Rroma to refer to all people of Roma descent.
When the Balkans became part of the Ottoman Empire, the Roma population on the Peninsula increased as a result of their fleeing from slavery mainly from Moldavia and Wallachia (→ Romani in Romania, 1.2.1) and persecution in different parts of Europe. More and more Roma settled permanently in the Ottoman Empire and primarily in the Balkans, where they werebetter treated. Although the largest Roma migration wave to the Bulgarian lands seems to have occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries, many Roma arrived with the Ottoman troops, accompanying army craftsmen and complementary military units. With the strengthening of the Ottoman state, and in order to exercise a more efficient tax control, the administrative authorities gradually forced the Roma to leave their nomadic life and settle down. According to the Ottoman tax register from 1522–1523, there were 10,294 Christian and 2,694 Muslim Roma households in the Empire. After the liberation, the first censuses in the Principality of Bulgaria undertaken in 1881 revealed that there were 37,600 Roma in the Principality. They were both Muslims and Christians, and normally were not slaves (slavery being virtually non-existent in the Ottoman Empire). They lived outside city boundaries and were active as blacksmiths, tinkers, goldsmiths, shoemakers and other crafts (Spirova, 2000). With the end of the Ottoman empire and Bulgaria’s independence, Roma ― and especially Muslim Roma ― experienced several forced-assimilation campaigns. At the beginning of the communist period, there was a revival of the Roma identity, with the founding of a cultural organisation (1946), a Roma theatre and a Roma newspaper. In the early 1950s, however, all Roma organisations were dissolved and approx. 5,000 Muslim Roma were forced to emigrate to Turkey. The last census officially mentioning the Roma as a minority in Bulgaria was the 1956 one. In the late 1950s, Muslim Roma, together with other non-Turkish Muslim minorities, were forced to change their names and send their children to mixed schools, while authorities started to outlaw their nomadic way of life (Spirova, 2000). The policy of assimilation continued throughout the 1960s (cf. the “regeneration process” → Turkish in Bulgaria). The Roma living in Bulgaria show a high degree of internal diversity, first and foremost in terms of religious affiliation: between 50% and 75% of Roma are Muslims, and more than 30 Romani dialects are reportedly used in the country. Muslim Roma can be divided into several linguistic groups: for example the Xoraxane Roma, who speak only Romani (although they know Turkish or Bulgarian) and identify themselves as Roma; Roma whose language is a mix between Romani and Turkish; Roma who use only Turkish (rarely Bulgarian and Romani); and Roma who can only speak Turkish, identifying themselves as either Roma or Turkish (Kyuchukov, 2006). Beside religion or language, Roma communities in Bulgaria can be further distinguished on the basis of other levels of self-identification. A major differentiation is between the Jerlii (descendants of the first group of Roma who arrived and settled in Bulgaria during the Ottoman rule, further subdivided on the basis of their Christian and Muslim affiliation), the Kardarashi (Christian nomadic groups who were forced to settle in the 1950s, and can be further subdivided in Lovari and Kelderari) and the Rudari (also called Vlach Roma, highly endogamous). These three main groups normally avoid contact and interference, and have a hierarchical organisation which is still unclear (Spirova, 2000).
In the 2001 census, 370,908 people have declared to be “Gypsies” (4.6% of the population) and 327,882 to have Romani as their mother tongue. In comparison with 1992, there is an increase in terms of ethnicity (313,396) and a slight decrease in terms of Romani speakers (310,425 respectively). Unofficial figures for both ethnicity and language are much higher (700-800,000). Just as in other countries with a large Roma population, statistics should be handled with great care, and interpreted in the light of shifting and even multiple identities in order to account for discrepancies between official and unofficial figures, as well as within official figures: for example, the fact that many Roma (50-75%) (Fielder 1997) are Muslim leads to their identification with the Turkish community, and explains why in the 2001 census as many as 24,214 Roma declared Turkish as their mother tongue. The fairly high correspondence between Roma the ethnic group and the Romani language, however, corroborates the assumption that Bulgarian Roma have preserved their language and culture more than in other parts of Europe (Spirova, 2000); indeed, the percentage of Romani speakers who also declare Roma ethnicity is probably the highest in Europe. Most of the Roma nevertheless appear to speak more than one language at home ― which is Romani in most of the cases, followed by Bulgarian and Turkish.
Unlike the Turkish speakers, Roma are not concentrated in specific areas and are present in all districts, but especially Montana, Pazardzhik, Plovdiv, Sliven and Stara Zagora, where they exceed 20,000. The Roma population is more or less evenly distributed all over the country, in both urban and rural areas. The great majority are now sedentary as a result of successive Bulgarian governments’ policies to ban travelling in the 1950s. As elsewhere in Europe, the Roma have a negative socio-economic situation. Child mortality rates appear to be considerably higher than among Bulgarians, their level of education is poor and unemployment rate is high. The main document that defines Government policies aimed at Roma is the Framework Programme for the Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society, which was adopted by the Council of Ministers in April 1999. As regards education, the Framework Programme outlines four major problems with Roma education: the territorial segregation of Roma schools; the arbitrary placement of Roma students in special schools for children with intellectual disabilities; lack of mother-tongue education; low educational status of the adult Roma population. The six strategic objectives have been desegregation of Roma education, termination of the practice of arbitrary placement of Roma children in special schools for children with intellectual disabilities, combating racism in the classroom, introduction of mother-tongue education, support of Roma higher education, and adult education.
At the beginning of the century, the literacy rate among Bulgarian Roma was 3% as against 47% among Bulgarians. Roma literacy tripled in the period 1901-1925, but it was not until the socialist rule that the first Roma school was opened in Sofia (1948). All this came to an end in the early 1950s (→ 1.2.1). Many Roma children were educated either in mixed schools or segregated in neighbourhood schools, which were characterised by a lack of qualified teachers and low standards of education. This had negative social consequences in terms of negative attitudes, absenteeism and petty criminality. . Geographical segregation is still widespread in Bulgaria, both in urban and rural areas, with “Roma schools” in predominantly Roma neighbourhoods. Although parents can choose to send their children to schools outside their area, few Roma parents do so outside an organised desegregation programme. The Ministry of Education and Science has given instructions aimed at improving assessment procedures, but research at the local level indicates that these directives have not successfully counteracted incentives to place children in special schools.
As a mother tongue different from Bulgarian, Romani can be studied up to four hours per week as an elective course (as from the 1990s). There have been many efforts to provide Roma children and their teachers with textbooks and teaching materials in order to help the Roma children to overcome their major education obstacles. The materials include pre-school books for bilingual children, special primers for bilingual children, teachers’ manuals on the language education of Roma children and the education of minority children on the customs and festivities of the Bulgarian larger society. Nevertheless, many of the Roma children do not attend pre-school institutions and kindergartens and consequently their knowledge of Bulgarian is poor. They often speak another language at home, making access to pre-school even more important as a means to improve their Bulgarian language skills before entering school. However, the number of teachers proficient in Romani is very small, placing Roma children at a disadvantage. The teaching of the Roma language and culture has been allowed since 1992, and in 1994 a special decree extended this right to children from the 1st through the 8th grade. However, the state only provided municipal funding for minority education while it left the local authorities to implement the decree. Textbooks were published in three different Roma dialects, and the teachers were given appropriate materials for instruction. Since the beginning of the 1998/99 school year there has been no Romani language education available in Bulgarian schools and, most importantly, the most serious problem of Roma education remains - the high illiteracy and drop-out rates.
Bulgarian is the language of judicial proceedings and legal documents are valid only in Bulgarian (or with a Bulgarian translation). Citizens who do not speak Bulgarian are granted the use of interpreters in courts.
There are no specific provisions on the use of the citizens’ mother tongue the administrative when dealing with the authorities. In the administrative structures in regions where ethnic minorities are highly concentrated, it is possible to use other languages (in particular Turkish) in face-to-face communication if both sides are fluent in the respective language, but such use is not allowed for any formal arrangement nor in written communication.
Post-1989 legislation allows for a relatively broad freedom of the press in Bulgaria. Newspapers totally or only partially in Romani are published freely. In 1998 the Bulgarian Parliament added a provision allowing the broadcasting of programmes in foreign languages aired for “Bulgarian citizens whose mother tongue is not Bulgarian”. However, the unfavourable economic situation of the Roma, and the lack of support from a “kin” state ― in contrast to the case of the Turkish minority ― is not likely to allow the creation of exclusively Romani channels in the near future. Romani newspapers have always been quite popular in Bulgaria. During the socialist period, the Roma minority had several newspapers: Romano Sesi [Gypsy Voice] (1946-1949), Nevo Drom [New Road] (1949-1950), Neve Roma [New Roma] (1957) and Nov Put [New Road] (original title in Bulgarian, 1959-1987). They all followed the official Communist party and state line. The first Romani newspaper, Education [Terbie], appeared in 1933 and had a circulation of 1,500 copies. It was published by the Muslim Roma in Bulgaria twice a week. Its publication was discontinued at the end of 1933 due to the political developments in the country. In the years after 1989, Roma newspapers and publications mushroomed. Roma, published by the Democratic Union Roma (1990-1991), introduced the denomination “Roma” in Bulgarian society and put an end to the expression “Bulgarians of Gypsy origin” introduced during the socialist period. Further publications have included: Devlekano Sesi Romalen/God’s Voice of the Christian (Protestant) Roma, the independent biweekly Tsiganite [The Gypsies], the Sliven regional O’Roma [The Roma], Amar Romane [Friend of the Roma], an addition to the weekly published by the Sofia municipality Stolitsa [The Capital], Romano Ilo [Gypsy Heart], Drom Dromendar [From Road to Road], and Obshtestvo i Rodina [Society and Motherland]. However, due to economic and political reasons, most of these have discontinued publication. At present, only one newspaper, Drom Dromendar, is being published as well asthree magazines – Dzipsi Ray/Gypsy Paradise, Gitan and Andral/Outside. Most of these publications are run and written by the minority itself, but their readership is small. There are no exclusively Romani radio stations in Bulgaria but three local radio stations (Sliven, Stara Zagora and Sofia 2) broadcast programmes for the Roma. Kremena Budinova and Svetla Vasilyeva have a weekly three-hour radio programme on "RT 7 DNI". There are no TV programs in Romani, nor Internet sites of Bulgarian Roma.
The first Roma organisation in Bulgaria was founded in 1901. As to the press, “Drom Dromendar”, an independent monthly periodical since September 1995, is published in Bulgarian, and occasionally in Romani; Romano obektivo - in Romani, published by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee from 1996 to 1998, when it changed its name to Obektiv. There is also an annual publication in Romani with synopsis in Bulgarian. Gitan, in Bulgarian, is an independent monthly magazine published since 1998; Andral-Otvatre [from Inside], an independent monthly magazine published in both Bulgarian and Roma since 1999.
There are no reliable data available as to the presence of Romani in the business world.
There is no precise information on how many children using Romani (including its different dialects) and/or Turkish are also proficient in Bulgarian. There is, however, no doubt that a significant portion of them cannot speak Bulgarian when they get older. According to a recent (2003) survey, around 74% of Christian Roma children and around 90% of Muslim Roma children in Bulgaria speak Romani or Turkish at home. Also, around 70% of Christian Roma children and 87% of Muslim Roma children speak Romani or Turkish with friends. Another study reports that more than two thirds of the children in the Roma and Turkish communities start their schooling with no knowledge of the Bulgarian language. However, in daily communication many Roma seem to have no problem in switching to Bulgarian Turkish and Romani (Boneva 1998).
Although Bulgarian Roma are often seen as a unified group from the outside, they are very heterogeneous in their identity, and are part of different communities in terms of their religion, profession, language and family lines. This lack of unity, together with social prejudice and various attempts of assimilation, may have negatively affected their ability to preserve their language and culture in a situation where ― even today ― Roma are more subjected to discrimination and have higher illiteracy and school drop-out rates (among other problems) than other minorities.