WAR OF WORDS OVER 'GYPSY' LABEL INTENSIFIES (Romania)

Civil society and Romania’s cultural elite are fighting over whether the term ‘tigan’ (gypsy) is derogatory to an ethnic group. And the battlefield is - the Romanian dictionary. Report by Cerasela Marin

French [french] – noun
1. the people of France and their descendants
2. a name given to someone with bad habits

Bulgarian [buhl-gair-ee-uhn] – noun
1. a native or inhabitant of Bulgaria
2. a name given to someone with bad habits

3/3/2011- These entries would never appear in the official dictionary of any language. So why is it that the description of an ethnic group, the tigan (gypsy) in the official Romanian Dictionary DEX, refers to the people as ‘a person who originates from the India... living in some parts still in a seminomadic state’ and ‘a person with bad habits’? This is the subject of a linguistic war between Roma rights organisations and the cultural egg-heads of Romania’s final word on cultural debate - the Romanian Academy. The debate began last year when Bucharest MP Silviu Prigoana proposed that the official name of the ethnic group ‘Roma’ [rom] should change ‘gypsy’ [tigan]. Many NGOs argued this minority does not identify itself with the name ‘gypsy’, but Prigoana responded that he was following the best advice - that of the Romanian Academy. Through its Iorgu Iordan Linguistics Institute, Romania’s cultural powerhouse argues that the name ‘gypsy’ is widely used across Europe. “But the word ‘gypsy’ was used to describe the social status of a slave,” argues Gelu Duminica, President of the Agency for Community Development, Impreuna. “One wish of the Roma people after the expansion of Romania in 1919 was that this derogatory name should change.” Now he says that to associate a pejorative name with an ethnic group does not fit with the aims and objectives of a democratic EU country. Another argument from the academy is that the word ‘gypsy’ is about 700 years old, while the word ‘Roma’ has a first recorded use in the 1950s, and is employed by members of the ethnic group.

But Duminica argues the word ‘Roma’ appeared in the Romanian dictionary only in 1939, but had been present in dictionaries from other countries since 1890. Last February the Senate rejected the proposal to make tigan the official name of the ethnicity. But the battle has now moved onto new ground. Duminica’s association, together with the ‘Equality of Chances’ Roma Association in Tulcea and gay and lesbian rights NGO Accept, want to change the definition and classification of ‘gypsy’ as a descriptive noun. They demand that the National Council for Fighting Against Discrimination sanction the Romanian Academy and the Iorgu Iordan Institute for prejudice in associating tigan with a “name given to someone with a bad behavior or bad habits”. However a counter-argument is that the dictionary is reflecting the meaning of a word as it used in society - and if society prescribes the meaning of a person with bad behaviour and habits to tigan then it is society’s problem, not that of the dictionary. But Duminica argues that the role of a dictionary is to educate the population - and not to legitimise an existing prejudice. “If you label a whole minority with a name that is used in a derogatory way and you do not tell people that that name is derogatory, then it is a form of discrimination,” he says. However the Academy argues that it is not that easy for them to tamper with the dictionary and a court of law cannot change the meaning of a word. “Lawmakers can’t rule on a linguistic issue,” says Ionel Haiduc, president of the Romanian Academy.

But there is a precedent. The word jidan [‘yid’ in English] appears in DEX as a word to describe Jewish people, but adds that this is a ‘popular pejorative’ [pop si peior] term. Similarly NGOs are calling for DEX to add 12 further characters to the dictionary [pop si peior] after tigan. The history of the dictionary’s relationship with ‘gypsies’ is not pleasant. In 1939 ‘gypsies’ were defined in the dictionary, figuratively, as despicable, shameless, greedy, wasteful, unwilling to help, thieves, without dignity, filthy, meaty-lipped and foul-mouthed. Since then these derogatory descriptive nouns have been condensed in the last three editions of DEX to a “person with bad habits”. There is also an argument that the dictionary includes a disproportionate amount of negative idioms associated with ‘gypsies’. In the current edition of DEX these include “to throw death to the gypsies” (to shift the blame), “to move around like a gypsy with his tent” (to move very often) or “to drown like a gypsy in shallow water” (to go from a bad position to good position but still fail). Together this associates the race with characteristics of irresponsibility, nomadism and ineptitude, while two of the three sayings are visual metaphors of violent murder dealt out to an ethnic group. Duminica argues these are just a few of the idioms linked with gypsies and they ignore the positive proverbs – such as “you’ll have good luck if a gypsy girl kisses you” and “a gypsy mare will sire a boyer’s horse”. “Through these terms and idioms, the gypsy has become the equivalent of the bogey man,” says Duminica. “If we try to acknowledge the fact that the word ‘gypsy’ carries a derogatory connotation, maybe 20 years from now all the pejorative terms that include it will be gone.” The National Council for Fight Against Discrimination should mediate between the two sides in March. But irrespective of the verdict given by the Council, Roma rights organisations say they will sue the Romanian Academy.

View from the street
In a grey headscarf, waterproof jacket and army boots, 60-year old Dedonia is selling bunches of handmade socks for four Euro on a table outside Eroilor metro station in Bucharest. “We’re not gypsies, we’re Roma,” she says. “That is how we are always going to identify ourselves.” Arranging a flower stall nearby, 25-year old Maricica is wearing a long red and green pleated skirt and a pullover with her brown hair in a bun. She says she has no problem with using the word ‘gypsy’. “My mother always says that we are gypsy and that we shouldn’t be ashamed about it,” she says. She does consider the word gypsy is an insult and that she uses it only to identify bad behaviour. “I call my brother a gypsy when he acts like a gypsy,” she adds. Meanwhile 43 year-old Gheorghe, a former mason, now picks up and sells scrap metal. He argues that the poverty in which his ethnic group lives causes its members to be seen almost as “lepers” and says that the Romanian attitude towards them will never change, no matter the name. But he admits that the name “gypsy” makes the feeling of being an outcast even stronger. There is division among the community over whether the correct reference should be Roma or Gypsy. OSCE expert on national minorities issues Ciprian Necula believes that this confusion is because the community has picked up usage of the word ‘tigan’ from Romanians. “History has led Roma to borrow cultural elements from the Romanians,” he says, “including the word ‘tigan’, because in the Romani language the word ‘tigan’ does not exist.”

Out of bounds: a history of Roma
Around 12 million Roma are living around the world, eight million of whom are resident in across Europe. The exact time and path of their migration from India is uncertain. Roma arrived with the Ottoman Turks, or perhaps earlier with the Tatars. The first historical record of Roma in Romania dates from around 1385. Most Roma lived in slavery to landowners and the Church until their liberation in February 1856. In the first half of the 18th century, around 200,000 Roma lived in the Danubian Principalities, comprising five per cent of the population. The 1918 union of Romania with Transylvania, Banat, Bucovina and Basarabia increased the number of ethnic Roma in Romania. The first census took place in 1930 when almost 250,000 registered as gypsies (tigani). In World War II, the Fascist regime of Ion Antonescu deported 25,000 Roma to Transnistria, where half of them died. Today the Roma people are the second largest minority in Romania, although the accuracy of this figure is debatable. According to the 2002 census, they number 535,140 or 2.5 per cent of the population, but other sources claim the correct number is 1.8 million, because many Roma do not want to officially declare their ethnicity. This is because they have a lack of identity papers, have a fear of discrimination and marginalisation or have been ethnically assimilated.

The Romanian Constitution recognises the Roma to be a national minority and an independent political force in Parliament. However due to pressures to assimilate into Romanian society linguistically, many Roma no longer speak Romani dialects. In general, Vasile Ionescu, president of Agency for Communication, Mediation and Media - Romanothan, is pessimistic about the integration of the Roma community in modern Romania. “A decent society is one in which discrimination does not exist, at least in public institutions,” he says. “Romania is not ready for a decent society, as long as the authorities instigate discrimination. The Roma will never be equal to the Romanian because of their historical owner-slave relationship.” More optimistic are young Roma students volunteering at a Roma-run Centre for Education and Social Development. This NGO has launched programmes to support Roma children with advice for choosing a high school or college. “There are young Roma who cannot think about the possibility to create their own future, so they need our support,” says 20-year old volunteer Violeta Paun. Meanwhile OSCE expert on national minorities issues Ciprian Necula says the prejudices against the Roma will disappear in time, but it may take decades, and will need a lot of work from the Romanian authorities, the Romanian people and from the Roma.
The Diplomat

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