Word Nerd: Everyone speaks Romani, the language of the Gypsies

20 Feb

Languages are often more interconnected than we realize. They reflect centuries, or even millennia, of migration, trade, and cultural borrowing. Although many of us may feel no connection to the Roma people (a.k.a. Gypsies), we do, in fact, share quite a bit of vocabulary with them. If you’re a Hindi or Urdu speaker, for instance, you call thieving chori, right? In the Romani language, chor means to steal. See?

If you’re not a Hindi speaker, no problem. English is related too. For example, “cushy”, which means comfortable, easy, or secure, is related to the Romani word cushy, and the Hindi/Urdu/Farsi word khush, meaning healthy or happy. And according to one theory, “lollipop” comes from a Romani phrase, loli phabay, meaning red apple. Here’s a popular Romani song about a loli phabay:

The reason we share vocabulary with Romani speakers is that we are all part of the same language family – Indo-European – which includes more than 400 languages spoken by nearly half of humanity. Many scholars believe all these languages descended from a single prehistoric root language, known as Proto-Indo-European, spoken in the Neolithic era (roughly 10,000 BCE to 2000 BCE).

The Roma are a traditionally nomadic people whose origins lie in what is today northwestern India and Pakistan. They appear to have migrated further and further west over many centuries, reaching Europe during the Middle Ages. The reasons for this migration are not known, but discrimination is a possible explanation.  Unfortunately, even in modern India, some people regard nomadic tribes with distrust (and in British India, many such tribes were officially considered “criminal”). In Europe, too, the Roma have historically suffered, and still suffer, discrimination. In the 1940s, the Nazis killed an estimated 220,000 to 1.5 million of them, sometimes just shooting on sight.

The Indo-European language family, however, is thriving. The most commonly spoken languages are Spanish, English, Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu), Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Farsi, and Punjabi – each has more than 100 million native speakers. Romani is not a single language; variants of it are spoken in different parts of Europe and Asia.

If you speak Hindi, you will recognize many numbers in Romani: 1 = yek, 2= du, 3 = trin, 4 = star, 5 = panj, 10 = desh, 20 = beesh.

Here are some Romani words and phrases that you will probably understand, if you speak a northern Indian language:

  • Na djanava – I don’t know
  • Paani – water
  • Churi – knife
  • Dood – milk
  • Laj – shame
  • Amaro, amari – our
  • Kaer, shoon, deek – do, hear, see
  • Bal – hair
  • Dja – go
  • Nak – nose
  • Kan – ear
  • Bhen – sister
  • Doshman – enemy
  • Ratti – night
  • Divvus – day
  • Matchi – fish

Want to learn a few more words and phrases? Try the University of Manchester’s searchable Anglo-Romani dictionary.


Can you think of other languages whose vocabulary connects people around the world? Leave a comment below, or tweet to @braingainmag with the hashtag #WordNerd.

Previous WordNerd posts are here.


By: Uma Asher


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