The manipulation by societies in power of the identities of subordinate groups is achieved in many ways. One such way is through discriminatory legislation, such as that enacted against the Romani people in almost every land, including the United States. Another is through media representation, both factual and fictional. This last category, the portrayal of Gypsies in poetry, film and novels, is the most effective in establishing such negative feelings because they are absorbed subliminally by children, at a time when they are most susceptible to acquiring society’s attitudes. Apart from descriptions of Romani people and their life, which are legion, the Romani language has also been the target of comment, always worded as fact rather than supposition. In his Tales of the Real Gypsy, Paul Kester gives his readers those “real” facts about it (1897:305): The Gypsies, like the birds and all wild things, have a language of their own, which is apart from the language of those among whom they dwell… the Gypsy[‘s]… language is deep and warm and full of the charm of the out-of-doors world, the scent of the clover and the ripple of streams and the rush of the wind and the storm. For the Rommany speech is full of all this, and though the Gypsy has few traditions, his rich mother tongue must enbalm in each word a thousand associations that thrill in the soul. Kesler was not a linguist, and it is easy to see how he was able to allow his fantasies about the Romani people to shape his preconceptions of the language….
This article was first published in Gypsies: A book of interdisciplinary readings (Garland Publishers, New York, 1996) edited by the late Diane Tong.
(This article was originally republished on the Patrin Web Journal)