Launch of Romany language website aims to save culture

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The Independent Online

A project will be launched today to preserve the endangered language and culture of one of the world's most marginalised and maligned populations.

Romany is spoken by small groups in 42 European countries but since it has a largely oral tradition and those conversant in it are stateless and scattered, it has been driven to the brink of extinction, appearing on a list published by the University of Manchester of the world's most threatened languages.

The university is transcribing the many Romany dialects for the first time, and today it will launch a website allowing people to locate different dialects on a world map and listen to examples of them.

It is hoped that this will help the Romany people to codify their language and agree on how words are spelt, as well as provide a resource ensuring the language is eventually included in mainstream media and school curriculums. "We also hope it will inspire governments across Europe to develop policy in educational and cultural development," said Professor Yaron Matras, who heads the Romany linguistics project at the university.

Many Romany lack access to computers, but those who do have discovered that they may at last communicate with compatriots as far apart as Norway and eastern Russian. Chatrooms for speakers of the language are beginning to flourish.

"In the UK, we are also discovering that Romany immigrants from central Europe are being approached by British Roma who have only a few words and asked for help," said Professor Matras.

There are Romany books but copies are almost unobtainable. For example Valdemaro Kalinino, a Belarussian Romany, has won a Romany poetry prize. But the average Roma seeking a copy of Kalinino's work will be hard pushed to find one. The only Romany bookshops are in Budapest and Prague.

Analysis of the Romany language has shown that it is closely related to those spoken in northern India, Punjabi in particular, which is a reflection of the people's geographical origin. Loaned words also make it possible to trace the pattern of their migration west and some of these remain in common parlance, including posh, pal, lollipop and slang words such as shiv or chiv (knife) and cooshtie (good).

Romany people from different parts of Europe would find it a challenge to communicate with each other, because each group borrows words from their country of residence. "It can be difficult but you try to eliminate as many of the non-Romany words as possible in the hope you will be understood," said Veliyana Chileva, a Bulgarian Romany student who has been working on the project in Manchester.

The Roma have suffered years of persecution. Between 200,000 and 1.5 million were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Their identity continued to be suppressed after the war and only in December 2004 were the Romany officially recognised as an entity by the European Union.

The president of the newly formed European Roma and Traveller Forum, Rudo Kawczynski, will tell today's launch event that "anti-Gypsism" has been present not only among extremists but "within the mainstream of every European society" including academics and teachers.

Words at risk

* BAXT Fate, karma, the way things are meant to be

* BITCHENO PAWDEL To be deported

* LI' HA' EER By the gods!

* PISLISKURJA Darling

* SHEBARI Girl or young woman of marriageable age

* HAI'SHE'LI Yes, I swear!

* ROM Adult male (derivative of Romany)

* STAVEN Water

* TE'SORTHENE Friend, bonded by heart

* AME SAM E RROMANE DZENE We are the Romany people

The website's address is www.llc.manchester.ac.uk/Research/Projects/romani/

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