A dictionary to keep Romani language alive

University instructor Henry Hedman has worked for many years on a modern Finnish-Romani dictionary, which will respond in particular to the need for new words.

“Our modern information society has many words which do not have a Romani counterpart. This means that coining new words has become an everyday effort for Romani speakers,” Henry Hedman explains.

The University of Helsinki published a dictionary of contemporary Finnish Romani in September.

Efforts bearing fruit

The dictionary project started when Henry Hedman was working as a researcher of the Romani language at the Institute for the Languages of Finland (Kotus). He kept working on the project after he became a university instructor of Romani language and culture at the University of Helsinki. The dictionary is far from a one-man effort, and the long list of thanks in Hedman's preface includes Jouko Lindstedt, chair of the Kotus Romani language board, specialist adviser Miranda Vuolasranta as well as his own students of Romani.

 “Some of them have since begun to create material in the Romani language for the Finnish National Board of Education, or to work as teachers of Romani. This is exactly the kind of result that ensures the work that I have been doing since 1978 will continue,” Hedman replies happily.

Romani speaks of identity

Romani is spoken among populations originating in India. It is related to Hindi and Urdu. Finland has its own dialect of Romani, which is related to the Romani dialects of Wales, Northern Russia, Poland and the Baltics.

“It’s a downright miracle that the Roma have managed to maintain their language and culture so long,” says Henry Hedman.

Romani language is part of Roma culture: it is an emotional language and its speakers have an intense connection to it. It has a significant role in maintaining the community, and it helps preserve the customs and characteristics that make up the Roma culture. It is also believed that having a distinctive language has helped the community protect itself from the hegemony of the mainstream population.

The area in which Romani is spoken has expanded. Romani can also be heard in Finnish media, for example in the Romano mirits radio programme. The Romani skills of children and young people are supported by schools, language clubs and language nests for young children. The learning material remains topical thanks to the new words. Producing literature in Romani and translating official texts also requires that the language has appropriate, up-to-date vocabulary. Hedman says the community needs more television and radio programmes in Romani as well as material that interests children and young people, e.g., games.

Children and young people to embrace the language

The new dictionary is intended for everyone who works with Romani or is studying the language. Henry Hedman would like to see more proficient language users and innovative teachers of Romani in the future.

 “The goal is that the dictionary will enable the expansion and support of the Romani language particularly among children and young people in the Romani community.”

The University of Helsinki also offers basic and intermediate studies in Romani language and culture.

 “University teaching has bolstered the position of Finnish Romani as one of the minority languages protected by the constitution,” Hedman points out.

Henry Hedman on the 375 humanists web page