Romani in Britain: The afterlife of a language

Romani in Britain: The afterlife of a language. By Yaron Matras. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. Pp. xv, 255. ISBN 9780748639045. $105 (Hb).

Reviewed by Winifred Whelan, St. Bonaventure University

This book is a fascinating study of the birth (as far as it can be known), death (or serious decline), and afterlife of Angloromani in Britain. It includes a forty-one-page Angloromani lexicon, twelve pages of predecessor expressions by origin, a full list of references, and an index. Angloromani has been researched for many years by the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures of the University of Manchester. This book includes the results of that research and adds valuable new content.

Britain has three distinct ethnic Angloromani minorities: English/Welsh, Irish, and Scottish. These are people who live in caravans and are sometimes called travelers. Their history reaches back to before the middle ages, but they are thought to have arrived in England from Europe in the 1400s. They have always had their own internal way of speaking, which excluded outsiders, but the language was not ‘clean’ in the sense of being totally unique to them. Romani is defined by its speakers as a separate language. However, the Romani lexicon survives only in an English framework, which leads some people to think that it is ‘a Romani-flavored variety of English’. The author agrees that at the present time it is no more than a vocabulary inserted into the morphosyntactic framework of a host language. It uses full English inflection (e.g. past tense, definite articles, possessives, suffixes, plurals).

Inflected Romani in Britain declined in the middle of the 1850s, when there was a significant integration of travelers into the Romani community. The Romani began to use the language as a way to signal solidarity among family and group members. As opposed to an everyday language, it became a context for special effect, or as a way to relax the boundaries between internal and external groups. Conversationally, lexical insertions created an in-group flavor or key of the speech act and reflected group attitudes toward the state of affairs, creating a sense of solidarity.

The Romani use Angloromani to express emotional states such as fear, depictions of faults, money, death, sex, other taboo subjects, and warnings that would be incomprehensible to outsiders. Researchers found that Angloromani is used in narration (e.g. ‘My father used to say . . ,’) when sharing a childhood scenario, in how group solidarity acts to conspire against the mainstream, and in taboos or situations that may be embarrassing or discomforting. The speakers themselves think of Angloromani as a lost language, a broken language consisting of individual words as opposed to a natural conversation. This is consistent with their self image as a broken nation that has lost an important part of its identity. Attempts to revive Angloromani generally have not been successful.