History of the Romani language

Early Romani

The Romani language changed dramatically as a result of contact with Byzantine Greek. This justifies defining a later phase in its history, which we call Early Romani. We know somewhat more about the shape of Early Romani than about Proto-Romani, even though it is not documented either, because many Early Romani forms are continued into the present-day dialects of Romani. For example, present-day Romani dialects have numerous different forms for the word 'day': dives, dies, di, zis, zies, diveh, dive, djes, gjes, džive, džes and more. The oldest of those is dives, which corresponds most closely to the Indic divasa. We can therefore assume that Early Romani had the form dives, which was inherited by the dialects, then underwent different changes to its structure in various individual varieties of the language.

We assume that Early Romani was spoken in the Byzantine Empire, centred in Asia Minor, but spread between Anatolia and the Balkans, sometime from around the tenth century CE onwards. The immense Greek influence that Romani absorbed during this period testifies not only to widespread bilingualism among the Rom and to their minority status, but also to a long period of very intense contact with Greek-speaking populations. But there are also other influences. There are numerous Iranian loanwords in Romani (some of them might be attributed to any one of several Iranian languages, including both Persian and Kurdish), including words like diz 'fortress, town' (Persian diz), zor 'strength' (Persian and Kurdish zor), and baxt 'luck' (Persian and Kurdish baxt). Another important contact language was Armenian, which gave Romani words like bov 'oven', kotor 'piece' and grast 'horse'. It is often assumed that contact with Iranian and Armenian occurred before contact with Greek – mainly due to the geographical locations of the languages in our present era. But it is also possible that the Greek, Iranian and Armenian influences were all acquired during the same period; eastern Anatolia, where both Iranian languages and Armenian were spoken, was part of the Byzantine Empire.

The Greek influence on Romani includes numerous lexical items, such as drom 'way', luludi 'flower', fóros 'town', kókalo 'bone', zumí 'soup', skamín 'chair' and many more, including the numerals eftá 'seven', oxtó 'eight', enjá 'nine'. There are also morphological borrowings from Greek, including the marker of ordinal numbers (pandž-to 'fifth'), nominal endings (prezident-os 'president', slug-as 'slave', čač-imos 'truth'), and endings that identify loan verbs (mog-in-ava 'I can', intr-iz-ava 'I enter'). Greek has also had an immense impact on the syntactic typology of Romani. Features such as the preposed definite article (o čhavo 'the boy'), verb-object word order (xav manřo 'I-eat bread'), postposed relative clauses introduced by a general relativiser (o manuš kaj giljavel 'the man who sings'), and the split between factual and non-factual complementisers – džanav kaj del biršind 'I-know that it is raining', but džanav te ginavav 'I-know how to read (lit. that I-read)' – all these can be attributed to Greek influence. Owing to the Greek impact, Early Romani as spoken in the late Byzantine period was already part of the Balkan linguistic area – a balkanised Indic language.

See Elšík & Matras' reconstruction of the structure of Early Romani