Romani [romani čhib] belongs to the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European family. Besides Indian characteristics the language contains many later influences, especially in the vocabulary and phonetic system, due to contacts with other languages. South East European languages, on the other hand, influenced the syntax. There is also a strong Greek influence which is also to be found outside the Balkan region. Elements of the contact languages are deeply rooted in the lexicon, i.e. the basic vocabulary, of Romani. Since the arrival of the Roma in Europe, 60 variations and dialects of Romani have emerged. In Europe the language is divided into three to five main groups: e.g. northern Romani (“Russian Romani”), central Romani (“Hungarian and Slovak Romani”), Vlax Romani (e.g. Kalderaš Romani) and Balkan Romani.
For a long time Romani was nearly exclusively a spoken language. Longer written texts have only existed in Romani since the 19th century. The standardisation of the language was initiated by the international Romani Union in the 1980s. Vlax Romani was chosen to build the basis of the standard written language.This variation however is not accepted on an international level although it is used in the correspondence of the National Roma Council and the Romani Union. Although Romani was codified in Czechoslovakia in 1971, discussions on the codification are still going on in the SR.
The majority of the Roma in Slovakia speak central Romani which can be divided into two subgroups: north-central (western, north-central and eastern Slovakia) and south-central (south-western and south-central Slovakia, Slovak-Hungarian border regions) Romani. As the majority language group often acts as a part of the Roma ethnonym the above mentioned varieties are also called Slovak Carpathian Romani (80% of the Roma speakers in the SR) and Hungarian Romani. The third group are speakers of Vlax Romani who mostly live in the south and east of Slovakia.
Nowadays, Roma can be found in most European countries. Between the 9th and 10th century they left their homeland India where internal migration took place even before that date. They moved in groups through Persia, Armenia and Asia Minor, and reached the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century. From there they spread over the whole continent as of the 13th century. The majority of Roma moved through the Balkans and the Danube plain, which explains today’s high concentration in that region. At first, the Roma were tolerated in the countries they lived in, amongst other things because of a letter of safe-conduct from the Pope and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. However, they stood out due to their way of life which was influenced by their nomadic nature: they were fortune tellers, horse traders, peddlers etc.
Since then the state has always tried to make the Roma settle. In the 16th century, Roma who came to Slovakia had to settle down within three weeks in order not to be punished. The first major attempts to assimilate them were undertaken by Maria Theresa in the 18th century by prohibiting Roma endogamy and the use of Romani. Many Roma settled in the outskirts of villages and worked as farmhands, blacksmiths or musicians, and the women worked mostly as housemaids. In the 19th century the Roma settlements grew due to the high birth rate. In Czechoslovakia the Roma were granted minority status in 1921. During the Nazi period the persecution of the Roma also culminated in Slovakia. Unlike the Roma in the Czech Republic, most of the Roma in Slovakia survived.
In different countries and at different times several denominations for the Roma were invented, both by the Roma themselves and by others. The Roma prefer the denomination Roma which is derived from the ancient Indian domba and similar to the Hindi dom, which was used to refer to the members of the caste of musicians. The most common foreign denomination, which is nowadays rejected by most Roma, is gypsy (Slav. cigan, Ital. gitano, Germ. Zigeuner), which indicates an Egyptian origin. However, it is more likely that this name dates back to a Phrygian religious sect called athinganoi which exercised its own cult. The name was probably used for the Roma partly because they also came from the East/South-East and partly because their cult was also foreign to the sedentary population. The word gypsy has the negative connotation of ‘vagabond’ and ‘prowler’ due to their vagrant life. This should make clear why the Roma wish to stick to the denomination of Roma.
On the territory of today’s SR the Roma were first mentioned in 1322 in Spišská Nová Ves and in 1381 in Zemplinska Župa. Today, about ¾ of the Roma in Slovakia live around the regions of Prešov, Košice and Banská Bystrica (see annex 3). In contrast with the Roma in the Czech Republic who are urbanised to a large extent, the Slovak Roma mostly live in rural regions and small towns. After World War II many Roma moved from Slovakia to the Czech Republic into places from which Germans had been expelled and were employed as manual workers. Later some of them went back to the territories of today’s SR since they considered this to be their home.
Statistical data on the number of Roma in Slovakia and its predecessor states vary widely, as they seem to do in all their settlements in Europe. Often, Roma are not considered to be an ethnic group. Another reason that Roma may not wish to indicate their nationality in censuses might be for fear of repression. In Czechoslovakia there were 219,554 Roma according to the official statistics in 1970. Ten years later this number increased to 288,440, i.e. nearly 2% of the total population. In the last two censuses from 1991 and 2001 there were 83,988 and 89,920 persons respectively stating Roma nationality. The number of persons stating Romani as their native language (99,448) was much higher, though, which might indicate that many do not publicly admit to be Roma for fear of discrimination. However, most estimates of the actual number of Roma are much higher and assume up to 500,000.
At 80% (in some places even 100%), the unemployment rate of the Roma is far higher than that of the total population (2002: 18.6%). The general socio-economic situation of the Roma varies widely but is basically much worse than the situation of the total population. The Roma mainly live in isolated settlements in the east of Slovakia, but for some groups, living standards are comparable to those of the total population.
In 1991 the Roma in Slovakia were granted national minority status (nationality), the basis for this being the Slovak Constitution. The Roma are also included in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995) and the act on the use of minority languages (1999) also applies to the Roma who reach the 20% barrier in 57 municipalities.
In 1999 the position of the governmental representative for Roma issues was created. Besides the mobilisation of Roma initiatives and NGOs, this representative’s main tasks include the coordination and supervision of the two-phase governmental strategy for Roma, which was adopted by the government in September 1999. This programme aims at improving the situation of the Roma in the areas of education, culture, language, employment, health and accommodation (see 2.6). The office of the government representative for Roma issues also evaluates potential projects aimed at improving the situation of the Roma. Generally, the representative for Roma issues acts as a link between the Roma and the government.
In general, the educational level of the Roma is much lower than average, as most Roma settlements only have one primary school and are highly underrepresented in secondary schools and universities. However, Roma children are overrepresented in special schools which were initially created for children with learning as well as psychological and social problems. In some areas, up to 80% of Roma children attend special schools. Since the school year 1996/97 preparatory classes have been offered to Roma children, and in some of those classes Romani is used as an “auxiliary language” besides Slovak. In many of those classes Romani-speaking assistants are employed who belong to the Roma minority themselves. Only 11% of Roma want to make use of their right to be taught in their native language, i.e. that their children in primary school are taught all subjects in Romani, whereas 45% do not wish Romani to be the language of instruction in any subject. Usually, Roma children attend Slovak or Hungarian schools. As regards education in Romani, problems arise through the lack of teachers and books as well as the fact that the language is not yet completely codified. It is also unclear to what extent Roma families are aware of their right to receive education in Romani.
So far there are no schools in the SR with Romani as the language of instruction. There is only one secondary school, in Košice, where Romani is a compulsory subject whereas in a few other schools, the language is taught only as an optional subject. As of September 2004 Romani is to be taught at two primary, two secondary and two grammar schools. Future Romani teachers study at the department for Roma culture at the University of Nitra. Here, several research projects were carried out in 2001, parts of which are still not finished. These projects deal with, amongst other things, Roma migration, the evaluation of the training of assistant teachers for Roma children, cultural integration of the Roma children at school etc. There is also a Romani department at the institute for ethnical studies and foreign languages at the University of Prešov.
The right to use Romani during judicial proceedings can be derived from the Slovak Constitution (free interpreter if one does not know the procedural language) and from article 9 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In practice, however, the procedural language is Slovak since most Roma in Slovakia speak Slovak anyway, and many are Slovak citizens and thus obliged to speak the language.
The Act on the use of minority languages allows the use of Romani in contacts with local authorities and national authorities in municipalities where there are more than 20% Roma. This is the case for 57 municipalities in the SR. Since the administrative staff generally do not speak Romani and are not obliged to do so and the Roma do not invoke the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages (article 10) – as they are probably not even aware of the existence and contents of the Charter – contacts with authorities are maintained in Slovak.
In the last census in 2001, bilingual Slovak-Romani forms were used for the first time in order to encourage the Roma to state their ethnical identity and thus making the results more precise. However, only 2% of the population stated a Roma ethnicity whereas the actual proportion of Roma in the total population is estimated at 6% to 9%. The reason that the Roma do not state their nationality or claim their language rights with authorities is also the fear of discrimination and disadvantages.
The possibility to use bilingual street, town and other signs in places with more than 20% Roma is not used in practice. On the other hand, the opportunity of using Romani forms of names and surnames is often taken.
The right to receive information in a minority language is mainly based on the Slovak Constitution and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. There are several print media which are at least partly published in Romani. There are no daily newspapers but weekly and monthly periodicals. These are mostly bi- or trilingual. The Ministry of Culture supports Romani print media, especially since 1999. The number of publications increased during the 1990s to eight. Due to the lack of financial means the publication of some periodicals had to be stopped or continued on a less frequent basis. In 2000 Romani periodicals were supported by government aid which according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs amounted to SKK 2,843,000 (17.4% of all financial means for this purpose) while non-periodicals received 483,000 (5.0%). The major periodicals are the monthly Romano nevo l’il (1992-2000 7.9% in Romani, SKK 950,000 national subsidy in 1998) which is available on the internet in Slovak and English (www.rnl.sk) and Romane vasta (in Romani and Slovak) as well as the fortnightly Híd-Most-Phurt (in Romani, Slovak and Hungarian). Another Romani-Slovak-English newspaper is available on the internet at www.rps.sk.
Statistics on the total air time of radio programmes vary, but on average it is ½-1 hour per week. The emissions are mostly produced by local radio stations and are often bilingual Romani-Slovak(-Hungarian). One weekly 20 min news and culture programme is broadcast by the public radio station in Prešov. 15 hours of Romani TV programmes are shown on a weekly basis (in 2000 16.9 hours, 38 programmes) including the weekly Roma programme Romale. Besides the Slovak programmes, broadcasts from neighbouring countries are also available, although the offer in the Czech Republic is also restricted (see report on the Czech Republic). One problem with Romani radio and TV programmes is that the language is not yet completely codified in the SR, making it hard for speakers of the different dialects to understand each other. Moreover, approx. 30% of Roma in the SR do not speak Romani.
The Slovak Roma are only weakly represented on the internet. A central forum is the Inforoma in Bratislava (www.inforoma.sk) with a library which collects valuable literary Romani texts and an information centre with reports on different Roma projects. More reports on different aid projects can be found at www.roma.sk.
The Ministry of Culture allocates subsidies for cultural activities of national minorities in Slovakia. In 2000 Roma cultural activities were supported with SKK 2.728.000, which is 13.6% of all means attributed to cultural activities of national minorities in the SR. On 1 January 2002 a documentation centre on Roma culture was founded as a part of the Ethnographic Museum in the city of Martin, where the public can learn more about Roma culture and which carries out studies in this field.
In the 1990s the number of books in Romani published remained stable at 1-2 books per year. Most of the books are school and children’s books, poems, short stories and religious books. In 1999 the Prague publishing house Fortuna published the first complete textbook on Slovak Romani: Romaňi čhib. Učebnice slovenské romštiny (by Šebková, H. & Žlaynová, E.). In 2002 Vašečka, M. et al. published Rómské hlasy. Romovia a ich politická participácia v transformačnom období and in 2003 A Global Report on the Roma in Slovakia (both by IVO, Bratislava). The latter precisely analyses the Roma history since their migration from India, their political situation in different eras, their ethnical identity, language, media, protection of minorities etc. The IVO (Inštitút pre verejné otázky = Institute for Public Affairs, www.ivo.sk) is an independent non-profit organisation which brings together experts of different scientific fields in order to carry out studies on various social, political, economic, cultural and legal topics and thus promoting the values of an open society. The studies on minorities in the SR focus on the Roma.
Folk music and theatre are very important elements of Roma culture. There are several amateur theatre groups performing occasionally but there is also one professional Romani theatre – Romathan – which receives government funding. Since 1992 Romathan has had 29 premiers and 1,720 shows in the SR and abroad. The most popular folk music orchestras are Diabolské husle under Ján Berky-Mrenica, Grand Slovakia with E. Vizváry and the violin orchestra led by Rinaldo Oláh. CDs of the most famous orchestras are also available. In addition, there are religious children’s choirs, e.g. Devleskere čhave.
Romani plays no role in the Slovak economy and knowledge of the language is not considered favourable on the labour market. In practice, the Roma ethnicity is rather a disadvantage. For example, it was only in 1999 when the employment centres, after interventions from outside, stopped marking applications from Roma with an “R”. Even though complaints regarding discrimination against the Roma in professional life are frequent, they seldom lead to legal proceedings.
In the case of the Roma, many problems in the field of language and language rights are closely linked to social problems. For many Roma language problems are secondary to more pressing social problems such as unemployment, insufficient accommodation and education etc.
Romani has mainly the status of a family language in Slovakia. Nearly all Romani-speaking parents living outside the big cities speak Romani to their children. Some representatives of the intelligentsia stopped teaching Romani to their children 20 30 years ago since speaking Romani and belonging to the Roma ethnicity were considered as disadvantageous. This led to a decrease of the knowledge of Romani in that generation. In recent years, due to a stronger ethnical consciousness the Romani language, which is regarded as a major element of Roma identity, is spoken a lot more often. In total, approx 70% of Roma speak a variety of Romani. The use of the language is also made difficult because of the low prestige of Romani; speakers of Romani are generally considered backward and on a lower social level, since the prejudices against Roma are also projected onto their language.
Inter-group contact between speakers of different varieties of Romani occurs when they live in the same geographical territory. However, there are contact barriers which are based on attitudes and social distance between different Roma groups. One reason for the distance might be the so called tribal particularism caused by the dispersal of the Roma into different parts of Europe. In Slovakia endogamy within the own group is still practiced and exogamy with non-Roma is even more common than with Roma of other groups. The major obstacles for Roma inter-group contact are: a stereotyped status of their own clan, the “purity” of the own rituals and the prestige of their own occupational group. A differentiation is also made on the basis of the socio-linguistic prestige, i.e. of the attitude that their own dialect is the “most correct” and the best. However, contacts between the dialect groups gradually increase, especially at the institutional level amongst the elites. Furthermore, the gradual weakening of the confining norms contributes to more contacts.
In 2001 there were 166 Roma NGOs, four foundations and one fund for the promotion of Roma culture. The associations mainly work on a local level and in different fields, e.g. youth (Združenie mladých Rómov na Slovensku and Združenie rómskych detí a mládeže), women (Klub rómskych žien na Slovensku so sídlom vo Zvolene) and religion (Združenie rómskych veriacich). Other associations with general tasks are for example: Občianske združenie Rómov žijúcich na Slovensku, Rómska samospráva and Rómske občianske združenie – Šťastie pre Rómov – Bach le romenge. There is also a central forum, Inforoma, which unlike the smaller associations, also has a website (www.inforoma.sk).
Besides Slovakia, Sweden, Slovenia and Poland are the only EU countries which included Romani in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, ratified by Slovakia in 1995, also applies to the Roma. PHARE funds were used to finance various accommodation projects (e.g. in the Spiš region), projects on the mobilisation and education of Roma (traditional Roma craft, women, youth, entrepreneurship etc.) as well as a project aimed at increasing tolerance.
The European Roma Rights Center (www.errc.org) is an international non-profit organisation which monitors the implementation of human rights for Roma in Europe and offers legal help in case of violations of human rights.
Slovak research institutes and aid organisations have underlined the urgency of solving the Roma issue in Slovakia. The Roma do not merely have language problems, they also experience social problems. However, both are linked. As long as the unemployment, housing standards and health situation etc. of the Roma in Slovakia do not change, the status of the group und thus of the language will not improve either. The attitudes of the Roma themselves as well as the rest of the population are projected onto the language. For example, Roma do not request to be taught in Romani although they would have the right to do so. On the other hand, illiteracy in Slovak is very common amongst Roma. Romani is mainly used within the family and knowledge of the language is not required on the labour market. Therefore, learning the language seems unnecessary. However, a positive start can be made with, for example, the governmental strategy for Roma, the training of Romani speaking teaching assistants and the PHARE projects. Nevertheless, more actions must be taken in the future in order to positively influence the attitude towards the Roma population.