Recovering the Romani identity through language

Activist groups in Barcelona have been working for years to recover Roma culture

Painting of Roma boy with Roma flag by painter Luis Rodas
Painting of Roma boy with Roma flag by painter Luis Rodas / Lea Beliaeva Bander

Lea Beliaeva Bander | Barcelona

November 5, 2023 01:17 PM

January 14, 2024 10:43 AM

For decades, Roma activists and linguists have been fighting for the recovery and recognition of the Romani language. In 2015, UNESCO proclaimed November 5 as World Day of Romani Language, a step taken to promote and preserve the Romani language and culture as well as improve the well-being of Romani people.  

Centre for Roma culture, history, and language 

In Barcelona, various activist groups have also worked for years on cultivating and recuperating the Romani language and culture.  

One of these activists is Italian-born Roma Seo Ćizmić, honorary ambassador of the Romani language as well as director of Romanó Kher, the Romani House, located in Barcelona.  

"It’s a space dedicated to recovering the historic memory of the European Roma people. We also, in part, work with recovering the Romani language," Ćizmić explains to Catalan News. "We have to bring it back to life, because it's a testimony of our existence, our history and our identity."  

The space, located in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, hosts talks and expositions, and also offers online beginner courses in Romani.

A family with the Roma community flag celebrating the International Romani Day on April 8, 2018
A family with the Roma community flag celebrating the International Romani Day on April 8, 2018 / Lea Beliaeva Bander  

History of the Romani  

The Romani language, or rromani ćhib, is an Indo-Aryan language that has been spoken in Europe since the Middle Ages. Language studies show similarities to the Indic languages such as Hindi and Sanskrit, a testimony of the origins of the peoples, who emigrated from South Asia around the year 1000.  

Even though it's primarily an oral language, French linguist and life-long Roma advocate Marcel Courthiade proposed a standardization of the language, which was adopted by the International Romani Union in Warsaw in 1990. 


Since then, it also has been included in the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, although only 16 member states of the council have officially recognized the language as a minority language as of 2018.    

Romani influences on Catalan 

Estimated to be spoken by between 10 and 16 million people in Europe alone, the language has many different dialectical variations depending on where they are spoken.  

The predominant variation in Catalonia and Spain is Caló, which according to Ćizmić can be seen as a "daughter of the Romani language." It has both given and received influence from the majority language it comes in contact with, and in Catalan, words like "xaval" (dude, in English) and also "xoriço," (the name of the spicy paprika sausage) are originally Caló words. 

English-Romani classes in L'Hospitalet             

Another initiative to promote the Romani language and culture takes place in the Gornal Primary and Secondary school in L'Hospitalet near Barcelona. Here, extracurricular classes of English-Romani have been offered to students since 2018 by the group Rromanipe's, formerly The Young Roma Association of Gràcia.  

Currently more than 100 Roma and non-Roma students attend these classes, taught by Marinela Isuf who is Roma and grew up speaking Romani as her first language. The motivation behind teaching the two languages at the same time may be different, but the end goal is the same: to open more doors.  

"The aim of that project is to recover our language, especially for a new generation," Isuf explains to Catalan News. According to her, the youth in particular lack basic knowledge of the Romani language and culture, so in class she tries to teach both language and also show them how diverse the Roma culture is: "I put on music in Romani so they can see the differences in the music and the Roma people, not everything is flamenco," she says. 

Both Marinela Isuf and Seo Ćizmić agree that the language is a key component of the Roma identity, and that without the language the identity will diminish. 

First Catalan-Romani dictionary 

In 2022, the first Romani-Catalan dictionary was created and published by Ćizmić and Ignasi-Xavier Adiego Lajara, professor of Indo-European linguistics at the University of Barcelona. 

According to Ćizmić, the dictionary is a way of empowering the Roma people to learn Romani: "It's a way of giving the Roma people the possibility of having the dictionary at hand when they want to learn a word or want to say something." 

Language learning as a way of fighting discrimination 

Even though anti-Roma sentiments was added as a hate crime to the Spanish Criminal Code in 2022, the Roma people still suffer discrimination. This fall, according to the Foundation of the Roma Secretariat (FSG), there were almost 600 cases of discrimination against Roma people in 2022.  

But the real number is much higher, because cases are often underreported, says Ćizmić: "In our community, many often don’t report incidents to the authorities." This, in part, is because of an internalized anti-Roma sentiment, that has been fomented after centuries of discrimination against the community.  

By recovering their language, the activists hope to inspire the community to feel proud of their heritage, history and culture.

To learn more about the Romani language listen to the latest episode of our podcast Filling the Sink.