Romani language and cultures in need of research

There is a need for teachers of the Romani language, and large areas of the minority’s history and status remain unstudied. In 2012, the University launched efforts to change this.

The Roma have lived in Europe and in Finland for several centuries. However, few are familiar with Roma history or cultures. The University of Helsinki established the discipline of Romani and Roma culture in 2012 to help address this gap.

“Issues related to the Roma population are currently topical, and we can and should do something about them,” says Henriikka Julkunen, who studies Romani and Roma culture as a minor subject.

“Taking these courses really makes me feel like we’re part of something important and concrete.”

In Finland, studies this field is hindered by the lack of learning material and teachers. Romani language teachers in particular are in high demand. Researchers also have their work cut out for them, since Romani was long used as a secret language, and its written form is very young.

Last year in an intermediate Romani class, the students themselves began to create grammatical terms for Romani for the first time.

Endangered language

Encompassing several distinct dialects, Romani is the most significant minority language in the EU, yet it is endangered. Estimates of the number of Romani speakers range from ten to twenty million. Of the Finnish Roma population of over 13,000, half have satisfactory skills in Romani and only a third can claim fluent skills in the language.

“I have previously studied living, dead and living-dead languages. But now, with Romani, I am in a way part of a process which strives to save a language,” Julkunen enthuses.

“Romani is a very interesting language. It reflects the route taken by the travelling Roma. The language shows influences from India, Greece and Eastern Europe – and the Finnish Romani variety, from Sweden and Finland.”

The inexplicable, explained

In addition to the language and its dialects, Romani and Roma studies cover the cultures and social status of different Roma communities.

“The Roma minority are a part of Finnish history, yet are seldom mentioned. For example, Roma soldiers fought in the Winter War, but you don’t hear talk of Roma veterans,” Julkunen muses.

“For me, it’s important that Romani and Roma culture are a part of the University, the academic world and Finland, which means that people may have to change their categorisation of Romani and the Roma population.”

“The studies have explained many things that seemed inexplicable, and I have a new-found respect for the Roma population."

Better coexistence

Postgraduate student Lidia Gripenberg, who has worked at the Kaalo drop-in centre for Roma in Helsinki, emphasises the need to solve social problems in addition to rescuing the language. We have a long way to go in terms of addressing prejudices, attitudes and the complexities of coexistence.

Gripenberg’s dissertation examines the interaction of Finnish and Bulgarian Roma in Finland.

“I hope that in future I'll be able to work for the Roma community to help them dream and achieve those dreams in this society.”