Roma people

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Template:NPOV The Roma people (pronounced "rahma"; singular Rom; sometimes Rroma, Rrom), along with the closely related Sinti people, are commonly known as Gypsies in English. They are a traditionally nomadic people who originated in northern India, but currently live worldwide, chiefly in Europe. Most Roma speak some form of Romany, a language closely related to the modern Indo-European languages of Europe, northern India and Pakistan [1], but usually speak the dominant language of a region they live in as well. Modern anthropology has related Romany to Punjabi and Pothohari, spoken in northern India and Pakistan.

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Modern Roma girls in Aetolia. Greece
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A Roma family traveling (1837 print)
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Roma family in Smyrna, Turkey.
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An 1852 Wallachian poster advertising an auction of Roma slaves.


The Roma are popularly known in English as Gypsies or Gipsies, a derivation of the word Egypt, from a former belief among outsiders that they were natives of Egypt. This ethnonym was never used by the Roma to describe themselves. The term Gypsy has long been associated with persecution, and has acquired pejorative connotations.

There is no connection between the names of the Roma or their language, and the city of Rome (Roma in Latin, Italian, and Romanian), the Roman Empire, Romania, the Romanian people or the Romanian language .

In Europe the Roma are variously known as Tsigane (French: Tsigane; Albanian: Cigan, Maxhup, Gabel; Macedonian: Цигани; Bulgarian: Цигани (Tsigani); Czech: Cikáni; Dutch and German: Zigeuner; Swedish: zigenare; Danish: Sigøjner; Norwegian: Sigøyner; Finnish: mustalainen or romani; Lithuanian: Čigonai; Latvian: Čigāni; Russian: Цыгане (Tsyganye); Hungarian: Cigány; Slovak: Cigáni; Greek: Τσιγγάνοι (Tsingánoi); Armenian: Gnchou; Italian: Zingari; Romanian: ţigani; Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian: Cigani Цигани; Polish: Cyganie; Portuguese: Cigano; Spanish: Gitano and in Turkish as Çingene). In Iran they are referred to as کولی (Kowli), in India as Lambani, Lambadi, or Rabari; in Arabic: Ghajar, or Nawar; in Hebrew: צוענים (Tso-a-nim) (pl.) or צועני (Tso-a-ni) (sing.); In Welsh they are known as "Sipsiwn" which is derived from the English "Gypsy".

In recent years, there has been a movement towards use of the "double-R" spellings of "Rroma" for the people and "Rromanes" for the language, as "r" and "rr" represent two different phonemes in Romany. Some Roma say that is a mistaken spelling, never adopted by Roma, and definitively rejected by the last Romany congress, that defined the universal Romany alphabet for the Romany language. Other Roma embrace the spelling as politically correct (or at least neutral).

Most Roma refer to themselves by one generic name, Rom (meaning "man" or "husband").


Analysis of the Romany language has shown that it is related to languages spoken in northern India and Pakistan, such as Hindi and Punjabi. This is regarded as strong evidence for locating the geographical origin of the Roma, particularly in light of the fact that loanwords in Romany make it possible to trace the pattern of their migration west.

Body habitus and ABO blood group distribution is also consistent with northern Indian warrior classes. However, a study recently published in Nature magazine suggests Romany is related to Sinhalese (see footnotes).

Some Roma have developed creole languages and/or mixed languages, including:


The Roma are believed to have left India about AD 1000, and to have passed through what is now Afghanistan, Persia, Armenia, and Turkey. People recognizable by other Roma as Roma still live as far east as Iran, including some who made the migration to Europe, and returned. By the 14th century, the Roma had reached the Balkans, and by the 16th century, Scotland and Sweden. Some Roma migrated south through Syria to North Africa, reaching Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar in the 15th century. Both currents met in today's France. Many peoples similar to the Roma still exist in India, seeming to have originated from the desert state of Rajasthan.

The reason for the diaspora of the Roma is one of the great mysteries of history. It has been proposed by some scholars that the Roma were originally low-caste Hindus recruited into an army of mercenaries, whereupon they were granted warrior caste status, and sent westwards to resist Islamic military expansion. Another theory is that they were captives taken as slaves by Muslim conquerors of northern India, and that they became a distinct community in their lands of captivity. It is reported that Mahmud of Ghazni took half a million prisoners during a Turk-Persian invasion of Sindh and Punjab in India. Why the Roma did not return to India, choosing instead to travel ever-farther west into the lands of Europe, is an enigma, but may relate to military service under the Muslims.

Roma immigration to the United States began in colonial times, with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana. Larger-scale immigration began in the 1860's, with groups of Romnichal from Britain. The largest number of immigrants came over in the early 1900's, mainly from the Vlax group of Kalderash. The two groups do not often associate with each other. A large number also moved to Latin America.

According to Ferdowsi, one of greatest Iranian poets, flamenco started under the Jamsheed regime of 1,500 years ago when the Persian emperor realised that his people did not have enough money to pay professional musicians and entertainers at festival times. So he asked his son-in-law, who was king of Kashmir or somewhere in India, to send entertainers, and he did - 12,000 of them came to Persia. Then they became travellers and gypsies.


Estimates suggest that there are approximately 8 to 10 million Roma worldwide [2]. It's estimated that between 7 and 10 million Roma live in Europe. The largest concentrations of Roma are found in the Balkan peninsula of southeastern Europe, in central Europe, the United States, South America, and in Russia and the other successor republics of the USSR. Smaller numbers are scattered throughout western Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Countries where Roma populations exceed half a million are Romania, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Spain, the United States, Brazil and Argentina. Among other countries where Roma populations are large are Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Slovakia.

The Roma recognize divisions among themselves with some sense of territoriality, emphasized by certain cultural and dialectal differences. Some authorities delineate four main confederations:

  1. the Kalderash (smiths who came from the Balkans and then went to central Europe and North America and are the most numerous),
  2. the Gitanos (also called Calé, mostly in the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and southern France; strong in the arts of entertainment),
  3. the Manush (also known as Sinti, mostly in Alsace and other regions of France and Germany; often travelling showmen and circus people), and
  4. the Romnichal (Rom'nies) (mainly in Britain and North America).

Each of these main divisions was further divided into two or more subgroups distinguished by occupational specialization or territorial origin, or both. Some of these group names include Machvaya (Machwaya), Lovari, Churari, Sinti, Rudari, Boyash, Ludar, Luri, Xoraxai, Ungaritza, Bashaldé, Ursari and Romungro.

A stereotype that Roma people have psychic powers (e.g. fortune-teller) is still sometimes present, and some romantics attribute the invention of the Tarot cards to them. This may reflect the belief that the Roma, being of alleged Egyptian origin, had knowledge of lost arts and sciences of the ancient Egyptians.


Studies of Bulgarian, Baltic and Vlax Roma genetics suggest that about 50% of observed Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA belong to male haplogroup H and female haplogroup M, respectively; both of which are widespread across South and Central Asia. In summary, males consist in the main of haplogroups H (50%), I (22%) and J2 (14%), Rlb (7%) approx; females H (35%), M (26%), U3 (10%), X (7%), other (20%). Whereas male haplogroup H and female M are rare in non-Roma European populations, the rest are found throughout Europe. However female haplogroups U2i and U7 are almost absent from female Roma, but are present in South Asia (11%-35% approx). Hence, it can be seen that about half of the gene pool of Roma is similar to surrounding European populations. But male Sinti Roma in Central Asia have H (20%), J2 (20%) and a high frequency of R2 (50%) which is found in India, with high frequencies in West Bengal and amongst the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. The M217 marker, which accounts for about 1.6% of male Roma, is also found in West Bengal (Kivisild (2003) et al). Haplogroups L which accounts for about 10% of NW Indians/Pakistanisi males is absent from Roma as it is also from West Bengal and Central Asian Sinti (Kivisild (2003) et al). A search on the Yhrd database however, shows that some Roma populations(in Europe)have considerable percentages of male haplogroup R1a1.

(Source: Origins and Divergence of the Roma (Gypsies) David Gresham, Bharti Morar, Peter A. Underhill, et al, Am J Hum (2001); The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity, Wells et al.) See also Indo-Aryan_migration

File:Gipsy Encampment Fac simile of a Copper plate by Callot.png
Gipsy Encampment - facsimile of a copper-plate by Callot.

Luba Kalaydjieva's research has shown that the original group appeared in India some 32-40 generations ago and was small, likely under 1000 people.


Because of their nomadic lifestyle and unwillingness to be integrated, there has always been a great deal of mutual distrust between the Roma and their more settled neighbours. They were, and frequently still are, popularly believed to be gypsies, tramps, and thieves unfit for sedentary labour, resulting in a great deal of persecution. This belief is often cited as the etymological source of the term gyp, meaning to "cheat", as in "I got gypped by a con man." However, this etymology is difficult to verify; the Oxford English Dictionary lists this as simply a possible derivation. The German name Zigeuner is often derived through popular etymology from Ziehende Gauner, which means 'travelling thieves'. The Roma have sometimes accepted among themselves outsiders from mainstream society.

During the Enlightenment, Spain briefly sought to eliminate the Roma's outsider status, by attempting to forbid the use of the word gitano, and to assimilate the Roma into the mainstream population, by forcing them to abandon their language and way of life. That effort proved unsuccessful.

Persecution of Roma reached a peak in World War II, when the Nazis murdered large numbers of Roma. Like Jews, Roma were slated for extermination, and were to be automatically sentenced to forced labour and imprisonment in a concentration camp or were to be killed on sight. It is believed that 400,000 Roma were killed. See Porajmos

Where possible, many Roma continue their nomadic lifestyle, travelling in caravans (small trailer homes), but in many situations in Eastern Europe, they live in depressed squatter communities with very high unemployment. In some cases — notably the Kalderash clan in Romania, who work as traditional coppersmiths — they have prospered.

To this day, there are still clashes between the Roma and the sedentary population around them. Common complaints are that Roma steal and live off social welfare, and residents often reject Roma encampments. In the UK, travellers, the politically-correct term, became a 2005 general election issue, with the leader of the Conservative Party promising to review the Human Rights Act 1998. This law, which absorbs the European Convention on Human Rights into UK primary legislation, is seen by many to permit the granting of retrospective planning permission. Severe population pressures and the paucity of greenfield sites have led to travellers purchasing land, and setting up residential settlements almost overnight, thus subverting the planning restrictions imposed on other local members of the community.

Former communist countries

Many countries, that were formerly part of the Eastern bloc and former Yugoslavia, have substantial populations of Roma. The level of integration of Roma into society remains limited. In these countries, they usually remain on the margins of society, living in isolated ghetto-like settlements (see Chánov). Only a small fraction of Roma children graduate from secondary schools, although during the Communist regime, at least some of the countries in the bloc forced all children to attend school, and provided them with all required basics for free (manuals and the compulsory uniform -- both were provided for all children, not only Roma). Usually they feel rejected by the state and the main population, which creates another obstacle to their integration.

According to The Guardian (January 8, 2003):

"In the Czech Republic, 75% of Roma children are educated in schools for people with learning difficulties, and 70% are unemployed (compared with a national rate of 9%). In Hungary, 44% of Roma children are in special schools, while 74% of men and 83% of women are unemployed. In Slovakia, Roma children are 28 times as likely to be sent to a special school than non-Roma; Roma unemployment stands at 80%." [3]

In some countries, dependence on social security systems are part of the problem. For some Roma families, it may be preferable to live on social security, compared to low-paid jobs. That creates many new problems: anger against Roma, conditions that produce crime, and extreme sensitivity to changes in social security. A good example of the last one is Slovakia, where reduction of social security (family is paid allowance only for first three children) led to civil disorder in some Roma villages.

In most countries within or approaching the European Union, Roma people can find chances to lead normal lives. Some Roma families integrate better into the larger societies, avoid having unusually many children, and do not depend on social security. Nevertheless, the Roma most visible to the rest of the community are those few that for various reasons, including traditional avoidance of "pollution" by close contact with non-Roma (cultural standards of cleanliness among the Roma state that non-Roma are mahrime, or spiritually unclean, and are therefore avoided for this reason as well as out of fear of persecution), still live in shacks (usually built ad hoc, near railroads) and beg on the streets, perpetuating the bad image of Roma overall. The local authorities tend to try to help such people by improving infrastructure in their settlements and subsidizing families further, but such aid is mostly superficial and insufficient.

In June 2004, Lívia Járóka became the second, and only current, Roma Member of the European Parliament when she was elected as part of the list of the right-wing Fidesz Party in Hungary, following that country's accession to the European Union. The first Roma MEP was Juan de Dios Ramirez-Heredia, of Spain.

Most Roma abandoned their nomadic way of life long ago, and a good representation of the way of life of Balkan Roma today can be seen in the films of the famous Bosnian director Emir Kusturica.

Another problem Roma, and all ethnic groups, face in Europe is the rigidity of the social and economic system, which prevents such groups from integrating. Britain, which is seen as one of the most free-market economies, received initially a large number of Roma from Eastern Europe, probably for this reason.

Seven former Communist Central European and Southeastern European states launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion initiative in 2005 to improve the socio-economic conditions and status of the Roma minority.

Roma society

File:A Gipsy Family Fac simile of a Woodcut in the Cosmographie Universelle of Munster in folio Basle 1552.png
A Gipsy Family - Facsimile of a woodcut in the "Cosmographie Universelle" of Munster: in folio, Basle, 1552.

The traditional Roma place a high value on the extended family. Virginity is essential in unmarried women. Both men and women often marry young; there has been controversy in several countries over Roma children getting married under the legal age of consent. Some even parallel Roma arranged marriage practices with slavery. In 2003, one of the many self-styled Roma tribal "kings", Ilie Tortică, banned his subjects from entering their children into marriage until they have come of age. This is seen by some as being in direct conflict with traditional Roma family practices. A rival Roma patriarch, Florin Cioabă, ran afoul of Romanian authorities in late 2003, when he married off his youngest daughter, Ana-Maria, 12 [4].

Romany law establishes that the man’s family must pay the dowry to the bride's parents. Romany social behaviour is strictly regulated by purity laws (“marime”), still respected by most Roma (except Muslims) and among Sinti groups by the elder generations. This regulation affects many aspects of life, and is applied to actions, people and things: parts of the human body are considered impure: the genital organs, because they produce impure emissions, and the lower body. Fingernails and toenails must be filed with an emory board, as cutting them with a clipper is taboo. Both clothes for the lower body, and all clothes of menstruating women are washed separately. Items used for eating are also washed in a different place. Childbirth is considered impure, and must occur outside the dwelling place; the mother is considered impure during forty days. Death is seen as impure, as well, and affects the whole family of the dead, who remain impure for a period of time. The dead must be buried, not burned, and subsequently enter Heaven.


It has been suggested that while still in India the Roma people belonged to the Hindu religion, this theory being supported by the Romany word for "cross", trushul, which is the word which describes Shiva's trident.

Roma usually have adopted the dominant religion of the host country but often keep their particular ways of believing and worshipping. Most Eastern European Roma are Catholic or Orthodox or, particularly in the Balkans, Muslim. Those in Western Europe and the United States are mostly either Catholic or Protestant. Most in Latin America kept their European religion, most of them being Orthodox.

After WWII, a consistent and constantly-growing number of Roma have embraced Evangelical movements, and for the first time in history, Roma have engaged themselves as religious leaders and ministers, creating their own, autonomous churches and missionary organizations. In some countries, the majority of Roma now belong to the Romany churches. This unexpected change, usually hardly criticized by many, has greatly contributed to a better image of Roma in society, as they have begun to perform legitimate work, and obtain legal permits for commercial activities.

Evangelical Romany churches exist today in every country where Roma are settled. Particularly strong is the movement in France and Spain (in this latter State, there are more than one thousand Romany churches, known as "Filadelfia", of which almost one hundred are in Madrid alone). In Germany, the most numerous group is that of Polish Roma, having their main church in Mannheim. Other important and numerous Romany assemblies exist in Los Angeles, Houston, Buenos Aires and Mexico. Some groups in Romania and Chile have joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In the Balkans, the Roma of Macedonia and Kosovo have been particularly active in Islamic mystical brotherhoods (Sufism). Muslim Roma immigrants to Western Europe and America have brought these traditions with them.

Roma music

In addition to their own Roma music, which is very relevant within the Eastern European folk, the Roma have had and still maintain, a prominent role in the evolution of Flamenco music and dance. Also European-style jazz is widely practised by Roma; the most famous musician was Django Reinhardt.

Fictional representations of Roma

Notable representations of Roma in fiction include The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo, La Gitanilla by Miguel de Cervantes, Carmen by Georges Bizet or Montoyas y Tarantos by Saura. The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies features major characters who maintain Gypsy traditions, including the care and repair of musical instruments, in modern Canada. Fires in the Dark by Louise Doughty is a fictionalised account of Roma experience in Central Europe during the Second World War. Canadian contemporary fantasy author Charles de Lint's novel Mulengro presents a portrayal of the Rom and their cultural mythos. Stephen (Barbara) Kyle's novel The Experiment is about an American Roma who is the daughter of a victim of Nazi experimentation.

Groups with similar lifestyles

In Germany and Switzerland, France and Austria there also exist so-called white gypsies which are known under the names of Jenische (German spelling), Yéniche (French spelling), and Yenish or Yeniche (English spellings). Their language seems to be grammatically identical with other (Swiss) German dialects; the origin of the lexicon however, incorporates German, Romany, Yiddish and other words. See: Jenische (in German)

In Norway (and to a lesser degree, in Sweden and Denmark) there is a group of people who call themselves Tatere; they are often mistaken to be of the same people as the Romani. The Tater people were often working people, building roads and railways in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and therefore, have similar traits with the gypsies. Their origin is unknown, and they speak either Norwegian or Swedish. Their name comes from a belief that they were of the nomadic Tartar people. Distinguished Norwegian rocker Åge Aleksandersen is a Tater.

There is also a group of people in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States called Irish Gypsies or Irish Travellers. In Scotland, they are traditionally known as "tinkers", from the Irish "tinceard", meaning "tinsmith"; as this term became a pejorative amongst the settled community, the term Irish Travellers emerged as a more sensitive descriptor. They are not genetically related to the Roma, but their nomadic culture has been influenced by them. Their language, Shelta, is mainly based on an Irish Gaelic lexicon and an English-based grammar, with influence from Romany.

The quinqui or mercheros of Spain are a minority group, formerly nomadic, that share a lot of the way of life of Spanish Roma. Their origin is unclear, maybe peasants who lost their land in the 16th century. In spite of sharing persecution and mores with the Roma, the quinqui have often set themselves apart from them.


  • Gray, RD; Atkinson, QD (2003). "Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin." Nature. 426, 435-439. [5]
  • Gresham, D; et al. (2001). "Origins and divergence of the Roma (Gypsies)." American Journal of Human Genetics. 69(6), 1314-1331. [6]
  • Luba Kalaydjieva; et al. (2001). "Patterns of inter- and intra-group genetic diversity in the Vlax Roma as revealed by Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA lineages." European Journal of Human Genetics. 9, 97-104. [7]
  • Achim, Viorel (2004). "The Roma in Romanian History." Budapest: Central European University Press. ISBN 9639241849.
  • McDowell, Bart (1970). "Gypsies, Wanderers of the World". National Geographic Society. ISBN 0870440888.
  • "Gypsies, The World's Outsiders." National Geographic, April 2001, 72-101.
  • Ringold, Dena. Roma & the Transition in Central & Eastern Europe : Trends & Challenges. Washington, DC, USA: World Bank, 2000. pg. 3,5, & 7.
  • De Soto, Hermine. Roma and Egyptians in Albania : From Social Exclusion to Social Inclusion. Washington, DC, USA: World Bank Publications, 2005.

See also

External links

bg:Роми ca:Gitano cs:Romové da:Roma (folkeslag) de:Roma el:Ρομ eo:Cigano es:Gitano et:Mustlased fa:کولی‌ها fi:Romanit fr:Rom (peuple) he:צוענים hu:Roma it:Rom ja:ロマ ko:로마인 nl:Roma (volk) nn:Sigøynarar no:Sigøynere pl:Romowie pt:Rom (povo) ro:Rromi ru:Цыгане sk:Róm sr:Роми sv:Romer zh:罗姆人