The status of Romani

Dialect Diversity

Dialect diversity within Romani is not fundamentally different from dialect diversity within any average European language. Taking into account the fact that there are no measurable criteria to distinguish between related 'languages' and 'dialects' - Dutch and Flemish are acknowledged as two mutually intelligible 'languages', while the German 'dialects' of the Lower Rhine area and of Bavaria are hardly mutually comprehensible - cross-dialect communication in Romani is impeded predominantly by the following factors:

  1. All Romani speakers are bilingual, and are accustomed to freely integrating words and phrases from their respective second languages; this creates potential difficulties when trying to communicate with Romani speakers from other countries.
  2. Romani was traditionally used primarily within the extended family and close community, and there is little experience in communicating with those who come from farther away and whose speech form is distinct. (It is this inexperience that often leads speakers of Romani to label the speech of other Roma as a different 'language').
  3. There is no tradition of a literary Standard to which speakers can turn as a compromise form of speech.

This situation is changing with growing mobility and growing opportunities to encounter Roma from other regions and engage in conversation with them. Romani intellectuals especially acquire the skill to handle conversations without resorting to insertions from their respective second-languages, and patterns of mutual accommodation in the choice of words and even grammatical structures can be observed.

Because of the ambiguity of the criteria defining a 'dialect', it is also difficult to enumerate the dialects of Romani. The scientific literature has over the past decade or so operated with a consensus classification grid, which differentiates around 4-5 principal divisions among dialect groups, with further sub-divisions (see Dialect classification). The differences are, essentially, geographical. Almost all Romani dialects that are spoken in southeastern Europe (more precisely: between Turkey and Slovenia, including Romania and parts of Hungary), are mutually intelligible with minimal effort (apart from second-language insertions). The same can be said about the dialects of central-eastern Europe (northern Slovenia, the Czech and Slovak Republics, southern Poland and western Ukraine). Another very closely-related group of dialects is spoken between central Poland, the Baltic states and Russia. Somewhat more distinct, and therefore more difficult for outsiders to understand, are the Romani dialects of Germany (also represented in neighbouring countries, such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and northern Italy), southern Italy, and Finland, respectively. The picture is somewhat further complicated by the presence of 'migrant' dialects in many countries, which are usually similar to the dialects of the region from which the migrants originated, rather to the present-day neighbouring dialects.