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Discovering Gypsy History and Language

written by: Renae Haug • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 1/5/2012

Whatever image the term “Gypsy" brings to your mind, Gypsies are typically thought of as a mysterious people recognized for their care-free nomadic life-style, dance and making music. Many have a perception based wholly on media portrayal. There is more to these people than this simplistic view.

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    Origins

    Where are these renown nomadic people from? This subject has long been debated. It was at one time thought that they were from Egypt (the name "Gypsy" being derived from the word "Egyptian"), but this has proved not to be the case.

    What accounts for so many years of uncertainty? One factor was the lack of written documentation or records kept by them. Another is that they were afraid of persecution and would not register upon arriving in a new territory, even if such registration was required.

    Recently, with the aid of cultural and language scholars, as well as technology, the origin of the Gypsy race has been discovered. Based on linguistic and genetic evidence (DNA), it has been determined that their mother land is none other than Northern India.

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    The Romany Language

    While many theories exist on the reason and time of migration, there is no question that The Gypsies are a race with a language of their own. They now live on all continents, but primarily in North Africa, Europe, and North America. Their language, called Gypsy or Romany, includes several dialects and is part of the Indo-European family. It is classified as Indo-Iranian, derived from Sanskrit.

    The reason for their dispersion out of India is not known. But it is believed that they did not leave India earlier than 1000 CE.

    Prior to that year, the Aryan Languages were spoken using three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, referred to as Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA). By the second Millennium the language became New Indo-Aryan (NIA) and had only masculine and feminine genders. Most nouns became masculine and a few became feminine.

    Parallels in grammatical gender development between Romany and other NIA languages suggest that there were changes in the Indian subcontinent--providing the departure timeline above.

    Sir William Jones, an English philologist, stated: "The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both to them a stronger affinity." His sentiments have been echoed by many philologists.

    The Sanskrit language is not in vernacular use today. It is primarily used in literature and scholarship as well as in ceremonies of some Eastern religions.

    Despite their nomadic history, Gypsies have been able to maintain their identity and prosper in foreign lands. This distinctive race of people has had a great influence on many cultures today. Their influence can be seen with many classical composers, such as Mozart, Rossini, and Beethoven. The popular Bohemian style of clothing is another reflection of the influence of Gypsies on the countries in which they have traveled.

References

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