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Roma (people)
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Roma (people)

The Roma (singular Rom), commonly known — and to them, pejoratively — as Gypsies, 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 northern India.

Their principal occupations over the centuries have been as itinerant peddlers, metal workers and horse dealers.

Roma were widely believed to have psychic powers (see the popular stereotype of the Gypsy fortune-teller), and some romantics attribute the invention of the Tarot cards to them. This may reflect the belief that the Roma, being of Egyptian origin, had knowledge of lost arts and sciences of the ancient Egyptians.

Table of contents
1 Name and language
2 History
3 People
4 Rejection
5 Balkans and Eastern Europe
6 Roma society
7 Roma music
8 Famous Roma
9 References
10 Related topics
11 External link

Name and language

Collectively, they are referred to as Roma, or more popularly Gypsies or Gipsies (aka Tinkers, tsigane), which is derived from Egypt, for it is believed that when the Roma first arrived in Europe their darker skins caused many Europeans to believe that they were natives of Egypt — the only hot foreign country most Europeans had heard of. The term was never used by the Roma to describe themselves but was imposed by outsiders. The term Gypsy has long been associated with persecution and fails to recognize that the Roma form distinct (although culturally and socio-economically related) groups.

Most Roma refer to themselves by one generic name, Rom (meaning "man" or "husband"). They have their own language Romany. Caló is jargon using Romany lexicon and Spanish grammar that Spanish Roma (the calé) used when they lost full Romany. It is the source of many words of Spanish cant and slang. Analysis of the Romany language has shown that it is related to those spoken in northern India, such as Hindi and Punjabi, which is believed to indicate their true geographical origin. Loanwords in Roma 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.

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.


The Roma are believed to have left India about A.D. 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. It is virtually impossible to identify Roma still living in India. By the 14th century, 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. Both currents met in today's France.

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 Afghan or Iranian conquerors of northern India and that they became a distinct community in their lands of captivity. Why the Roma failed to return to India, and chose instead to travel ever-further west into the strange and sometimes hostile lands of Europe is an enigma.

Roma immigration to the United States began in colonial times with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana. Larger scale immigration began in the 1860s with groups of Romnichal from Britain. The largest number of immigrants came over in the early 1900s, 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.


The world population of Roma is difficult to establish with any certainty. Estimates suggest that there are between approximately 5 and 10 million Roma worldwide. As many as 6 to 8 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, and in Russia and the other successor republics of the USSR. Smaller numbers are scattered throughout western Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The country with the largest populations of Roma by far is Romania with 0.6—1.5 million (the similarity of names, however, is most likely coincidental). Other countries where Roma populations probably exceed half a million are Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, the former Yugoslavia, and the United States.

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, and Romungro.


Because of their nomadic life-style, there has always been a great deal of mutual distrust between the Roma and their less mobile neighbours. They were, and frequently still are, popularly believed to be thieves and kidnappers, unfit for sedentary labour, resulting in a great deal of persecution. This belief is the etymological source of the term gyp, meaning "cheat", as in "I got gypped by a con man." The German name Zigeuner is believed to be derived from Ziehende Gäuner, which means 'travelling thief'. The Roma have accepted sometimes among themselves outsiders from mainstream society.

A Spanish Enlightened king unsuccessfully attempted to suppress discrimination by full integration, forcing them to abandon their language and way of life and forbiding calling them gitanos.

The distrust of Roma reached a peak in World War II when the Nazis murdered large numbers of Roma. They were one of the major groups (along with Jews, communists, homosexuals, prostitutes, etc.) to be automatically sentenced to imprisonment in a concentration camp or 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 Roms and the sedentary population around them. Common complaints are that Roms steal and live off social welfare and residents often reject Rom encampments.

Balkans and Eastern Europe

Many eastern European countries still have substantial populations of Roma. The level of integration of Roma in society still remains limited today. They usually remain on the margins of society, living in isolated ghetto-like settlements. Only a small fraction of Roma children graduate from secondary schools. Usually they feel rejected by the state and main population, which creates another obstacle to their integration. Roma are usually the targets of various form of prejudice. Their situation actually became worse after the fall of communism in some of these eastern states. Slovakia is a good example. In other less biased countries like Romania and Serbia, they could find better chances to lead normal lives. Roma have been targets of attacks by various Neo-Nazi groups. Little or no effort has been made by governments to improve the living condition of Roma.

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

Roma society

The traditional Roma place a high value on the extended family. Virginity is essential in unmarried women.

Roma music

In addition to their own Roma music, the Roma have had and still have a prominent role in the evolution of Flamenco music and dance.

Fictional representations of Roma

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo, La Gitanilla by Miguel de Cervantes, Montoyas y Tarantos by Saura.

Famous Roma

Django Reinhardt, Carmen Amaya.


Related topics


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 (English spelling). 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)

There is also a group of people in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States called Irish Gypsies or Irish Travellers. They are not genetically related to the Roma, but their nomadic culture has been influenced by them. Their language 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.

External link