Antigypsyism and Language

Bashe Rroma
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Bashe Rroma

As point of departure I will take a personal story from my childhood in communist Bulgaria when the use of the Romani language was forbidden at school. And even more - my teachers and my classmates constantly made me feel guilty and ashamed for being Roma and speaking Romani as my mother tongue. My teachers used to tell me: "Do not speak that dirty language, use Bulgarian only, you are in Bulgaria!" My classmates made fun of me. In their opinion Romani was not a good language, it was not even a language. This was in the 1970s in communist Bulgaria.

Being a migrant in Germany in 2010, I observe more or less the same phenomenon. Visiting schools and kindergartens with Roma children I often witness comments by teachers or children of other ethnic communities towards Roma children that they are not allowed to speak their mother tongue at school, "because this is Germany". Strangely enough I heard that comment by a Roma "activist" telling me that we are in Germany and we should only speak German.

Unfortunately, Roma children still do not get enough support to strengthen their Romani language and their Roma identity in many European countries. In many European schools the use of Romani still equals a "criminal act". Apart from that, other forms of antigypsyism concerning Romani are increasing. There are more and more cases when Romani is forbidden and all kind of negative comments towards Romani are taken as something normal. Jean-Louis Auduc (2006) writes that “schools must be places of understanding, of knowledge of other cultures, especially to bring their pupils to understand the part each culture occupies in the whole” (p. 322). Further Auduc writes that “it is important to understand that there are no ’small’ racist or anti-Semitic acts” (p.323). Every racist act is a crime and every statement is, and must be, punishable. And any generalization aiming at blaming an ethnic or religious group for the behavior and attitudes of few others of that group is racism. In the French society, Auduc writes, the discrimination against young immigrants is even stronger when they are qualified. The first generation of qualified immigrants coming to the employment market finds that despite their efforts to integration, discrimination towards them remains. The unemployment rate for these qualified young people is three times higher than the national average (Auduc 2006).

In my opinion antigypsyism as phenomenon has the following forms:

personal/individual antigypsyism - when someone has negative or racist attitudes towards Roma; institutionalized antigypsyism - when an institution makes racist comments or takes actions which damage Roma; institutionalized personal antigypsyism - when a racist person has the position and the power in an institution to present her/his racist feelings on behalf of the institution. In this paper I will try to show examples of all three mentioned forms.

"Hate Speech"

Maybe I should start with defining the notion "Hate speech" which was used in the era of the Third Reich in Germany and is known as LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii) - the Language of the Third Reich (Klemperer 2007). According to Wikipedia "Hate speech" is a term for speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against a person or a group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, appearance (height, weight, hair color, etc.), mental capacity, and any other distinction that might be considered by some as liability. The term covers written and oral communication and forms of behavior in a public setting. We could also say that hate speech against Romani people is in fact a serious form of antigypsyism which makes way for further violence against Romani people.

Another important point is that antigypsyism towards Romani can be expressed by any official language. I am not going to analyze the written appeals in the official language of a particular country such as “Dead to the Gypsies” or “The Gypsies – to a soap”, with painted swastika sign next to it, which I have seen in many public places in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czech republic, Hungary, Serbia. I am not going to analyze short "poetic" rhymes written on public places which present Gypsies as stupid, uneducated, wild etc.

For example, in Bulgarian media one can see and hear examples of hate speech towards Roma in everyday news and programs, and the Bulgarian journalists present that as “freedom of speech”. The internet is another place where very nasty jokes and anecdotes about Roma are posted. The most important thing is that no one is aware that this is a racist act, respectively a crime. 

In his work E. Glassman (1999) analyzes expressions (words and phrases) in Hungarian which present Roma in a pejorative way such as ciganisag (Gypsy way of life), cyganyputri (hovel, shanty), ciganikepű (swarthy), ciganyelet (wandering life), ciganykodik (to flatter, to haggle, to beg) and ciganyutra mert (the food went down the wrong way). In Bulgaria the phrase ciganska rabota (Gypsy work) is very popular when something is not done well or when someone wants to show the negative attitude to something. Another example is ciganiya (Gypsiesness) when something is wrong or not well done, or it is not clean.

Personal/individual antigypsyism

Negative expressions for and comments towards Roma and Romani language in a public place can be defined as personal/individual antigypsyism. Here is an example from a school in Alt-Moabit in Berlin with a lot of Roma children who are newcomers from Romania and a lot of children from other ethnic groups. One day during the break in the yard of the school a Romanian Roma girl who was speaking Romani with other children was called "schmutzige Zigeunerin" (“dirty Gypsy”) by another student. The teacher on the yard hears that but does not react. The girl reacts but she does not have support from anyone. The Roma mediator who is on duty takes part in the fight and protects the Roma girl although this is not her duty. It is more than obvious that the teachers with a passive behavior show the same attitude, although it is forbidden to tolerate any forms of racism and discrimination at school. It seems they share the same feelings towards Roma children speaking their mother tongue if they do not stop all forms of racist comments.

Institutionalized antigypsyism

A perfect example for institutionalized antigypsyism comes from Slovakia and Czech Republic. The Ministry of Education of the Slovak Republic has a testing process for all children entering primary school. However the testing is done in Slovak language only. Most of the Roma children who do not attend kindergarten or preschool do not know Slovak and they cannot pass the test in Slovak. Because of this the Roma children are very often labeled as "mentally retarded" and placed in "special schools". Experts estimate that 70 percent of the Roma children in Slovakia are in "special schools" (ERRC, 2003). At the same time the Ministry of Education and the Research Institute for Child Psychology and Pathopsychology in Bratislava refuse to do any testing in Romani language, because "they do not have a real language and they speak different dialects". Instead of that the Institute of Child Psychology received financial support to develop a new test - only for Roma and with lower standards.

In the opinion of the two institutions - the Ministry of Education of the Slovak Republic and the Research Institute for Child Psychology and Pathopsychology - Romani is not a good language for testing Roma children (personal communication with representatives from the Research Institute for Child Psychology and Pathopsychology).

Institutionalized personal antigypsyism

As I already mentioned the institutionalized personal antigypsyism is when someone who is a racist has a position in an institution and s/he misuses his/her position to express his/her negative attitudes towards a person or a group of people.

Two examples of mayors of European cities - one in France and the other one in Slovakia - became very popular with their comments. A French mayor visiting a Roma community in the surrounding of the town and having some argument with them said that “Hitler did not finish his job” ( 2013). And the Slovak mayor wrote more or less the same - in a Facebook posting. Chatting with someone, he wrote that it was good that so many Jewish people were killed in the WWII, but the same should happen to the Gypsies as well.

Other examples come from Bulgaria and Slovakia. After the democratic changes in 1990 the Bulgarian Ministry of Education allowed four minorities to have education in their mother tongue: Armenian, Jewish, Turkish and Romani. The first three minorities have departments in different universities and they train teachers for mother tongue education. The only minority which does not have departments is the Roma minority. Two attempts to open university programs with Romani language were cancelled by the National Agency for Accreditation of University Programs. The reason for closing the programs was that the Chair of the Pedagogy section - professor Georgy Bizhkov, known for his racist comments towards Roma in Bulgaria - and his collaborators, professor Galya Hristozova and the Rector of the Veliko Tarnovo University professor Plamen Legkostup, stated that there is no such thing as a Romani language and that the Roma children do not need mother tongue education (Kyuchukov and Balvin, 2013:201).

Another example is the Dean of a Faculty at Nitra University in Slovakia, professor Eva Sollarova. In the Faculty there was a program for Romani language and culture, but Roma students were not accepted to study there, because of comments of professor Sollarova like: "The Gypsies always create problems! I do not want so many Gypsies here" (Kyuchukov and Balvin, 2013, 203).

These are perfect examples how institutions give rights to a minority, but because the person in power has the position of decision taking she/he can stop an initiative and can harm the people motivated by his/her racist actions.


If there are comments such as "dirty language", or "there is no such a language" and based on that actions are taken which harm a group of people, in this case Roma, this is antigypsyism. It is more difficult to identify indirect (hidden) antigypsyism. For example in the case of closing down the University program in Bulgaria the "reason" was that the "curriculum was not good". The curriculum of the Romani program was identical with the curriculum of the English language program. But only the Romani curriculum was not good. In the case of Slovakia the reason not to accept students in the program was "there are no candidates" to study in this program (Kyuchukov and Rawashdeh, 2013).

The discourse in the societies towards Roma and their language is similar to the discourse in the German society before the WWII against the Jewish people. The style is similar. The majority often presents itself at the same time as a "victim which carries on his/her shoulders the parasites of the society" and heroes dealing with Roma. Some years ago in the Serbian town Niš where is a statute of the singer Šaban Bajramovič, someone wrote "Stop the Gypsy terror on us". It is not clear how a singer's statue is terrorizing the majority of the population if the singer belongs to the minority. 

The Romani language and culture will not be respected and appreciated as long as there are no Romani language classes in kindergartens and schools. Another way to fight the antigypsyism against Roma and their language is to fight against humiliating jokes and anecdotes about people who cannot speak the official language of the country where they live.

Another example comes from Austria. Some years ago I visited a colleague of mine with Austrian background whose three-year-old daughter was attending a preschool where some Roma children were present as well. The teacher of the group taught the children a short nursery rhyme in Romani language. The mother of the child - my colleague - also already knew the song. On our way home from the kindergarten to their home the mother and the child were singing the Romani song. And then I asked the child: “What is the song about?” The mother helped the child, because the child did not know Romani and she did not remember the meaning of the text of the song. For me the most important thing was the attitude of the mother who very patiently explained the meaning of the text of the song to her daughter.

This is the best lesson I ever saw about how intercultural communication towards Roma should be. If a child grows up with a positive attitude towards a minority language and culture in a country where these minorities exist, s/he will hopefully not engage in any form of hate speech towards that minority and s/he will not allow anyone from her surrounding to make nasty jokes or tell anecdotes humiliating Roma people's human dignity.


Auduc, J.-L. (2006). “Forging a common sense of belonging respecting the diversity of identities.” In: Prospects, vol. XXXVI, N 3: 319-326.

Glassman, E. (1999). The otherness of Anti-Tsiganism. Unpublished M.A. Thesis. Budapest: ELTE University.    

Klemperer, V. (2007) LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun.

Kyuchukov, H. and Balvin, J. (2013) Antigypsyism and University Education. In: Kyuchukov, H. and O. Rawashdeh (eds.) (2013). Roma Identity and Antigypsyism in Europe. Munich: Lincom Europa: pp. 195-203. (2013) . Hitler als Referenz.!120521/ (20.07.2013)

European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) (2003). “Segregated Education for Romani Children in Slovakia.” (…)