Paola Toninato

Roma and writing

Roma, Sinti and Travellers have long been defined as people ‘without writing’. This definition is both misleading and historically inaccurate. Romani groups appeared in Europe in the first half of the fifteenth century, around the time printing was invented. Ethnographic evidence demonstrates that they had a deep understanding of literacy and its socio-political implications from a very early stage. However, their approach to literacy did not have a narrow focus on alphabetic writing and their attitude towards it has shifted overtime.

Traditionally, Romani groups relied on the oral (rather than written) medium to transmit memories and experiences to new generations in the form of stories and narratives. Alongside oral modes of communication, Roma have developed over the centuries a diverse range of alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems with important socio-economic functions (Piasere, 1984; Williams, 1997). Instances of Romani non-alphabetic writing include early writing systems such as the ‘trail signs’ adopted by nomadic West European Roma (Borrow, 1841; Leland, 1873). Meanwhile, the use of alphabetic writing has been restricted to a small elite in interactions with non-Roma, and mostly for economic and official purposes.

The development of an ‘autochthonous’ Romani written literature dating back to the beginning of the 20th century and marks a radical shift from the traditional strategy of restricted literacy mentioned above. Nowadays, an increasing number of Roma, Sinti and Travellers – especially intellectuals and activists – tend to have a favourable attitude towards alphabetic writing, which they perceive as a means of achieving autonomy and self-determination. They believe, as the poet Leksa Manush put it, that ‘strength is in literacy’, not in its avoidance.

The shift in Roma’s attitude towards literacy and writing can be interpreted as an effort to adapt to recent socio-economic and political changes within which literacy plays a central role. However, this shift should not be dismissed as a mechanical response to modified external circumstances; it is also due to the development among Romani groups of an ethnic self-consciousness that views literacy as a vital tool to preserve and revitalise their linguistic and cultural heritage. Thus, it is not surprising that the rise of Romani writing has been accompanied by a certain level of political mobilisation and a strong commitment to obtaining cultural and political recognition for the Romani people.

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