History of the Romani language

Present-day Romani dialects

Following the decline of the Byzantine period in the late fourteenth century, Romani-speaking populations began to emigrate from the Balkans, settling in central and in western Europe during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Differences among the speech varieties of the various Romani populations emerged during this period, resulting in a split into dialect branches. The different internal developments in morphology, phonology, and lexicon were accompanied by the influences of various contact languages on the individual dialects, the most significant of those being Turkish, Romanian, Hungarian, German, and various Slavonic languages. The earliest attestations of Romani are usually in the form of groups of short sentences and wordlists, dating from between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. These sources represent dialects from western Europe, southern Europe, and the Balkans. There is an abundance of sources dating from the eighteenth century, documenting Romani dialects from all over Europe. The linguistic features attested in these documents already conform rather closely to the type of dialectal variation found in Romani today. Thus, by the eighteenth century, the formation of the different dialects of Romani had already been completed.

Structural developments that are characteristic of the differentiation of Romani into separate dialects include the following:

  • insertion of prothetic consonants: j-aver, v-aver 'other', j-aro, v-aro 'flour'
  • jotation and palatalisation: kerdjom > kerďom > kerdžom 'I did'
  • s > h substitution: kerasa > keraha 'we do', lesa > leha 'with-him'
  • loss of final s: dives > diveh 'day', kerdas > kerda 'he did'
  • palatalisation preceding i: dives > džive(s), džes, zis 'day', tikno > cikno 'small'
  • palatalisation preceding e: kher > ćher 'house'
  • presence of initial vowel: bijav > abijav 'wedding', nav > anav 'name'
  • simplifcation of ndř: mandro > manro > maro 'bread'
  • simplification and re-shaping of demonstratives: akava > kava > ka-kava > kako, adava > ada, dava > ka-dava > kada > kado

and more.

Go to Dialect Classification

How do we know that the various dialects evolved from a common ancestor – a more-or-less uniform 'Early Romani'? In the absence of documentation of Early Romani, we can never be entirely sure. However, on the whole, the structural variation that is found among today's dialects can be attributed to a) a uniform set of forerunner structures, and b) a series of innovations that are each geographically contained, and so must have evolved during or after the period of settlement outside the historical territory of Byzantium. Let us consider once again the example of the word 'day' in Romani: As for the first criterion, all the phonological shapes of the word cited above are derivable through naturally, universally attested phonological processes from the one forerunner form, dives. In regard to the second consideration, the form that is structurally the most conservative – dives – is also the one that shows the widest geographical distribution; it is present in Romani dialects in the Balkans, in Scandinavia, in Britain, in the Iberian peninsula, the Ural and central Europe. The other, more recent forms, are always confined to smaller and more contained regions: džes for instance is found in Transylvania and adjoining regions, zis in parts of Bulgaria and Macedonia, dive along the Hungarian-Slovak border region, and so on. From this we can tell that the dialectal diversity has its roots in local and regional developments. This in turn suggests that the split into dialects followed the settlement of Roma in the individual localities and regions.

View a map of the various form of the word 'day' in Romani dialects.