“This is the truth, not just a poem”  – Linda Hogan

As a child I was constantly reminded that for Roma, words are very powerful things. To give someone your word was an oath that bound your very lives together and words were a form of currency, joining the past, present, and future. My bibi always told me “čhines čuraha, e dukh pes predžal, čhines laveha, e dukh ačhel” (A wound from a knife fades away, a wound from a word, remains) and she often told stories of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons who’d learned this the hard way. There were also a stories about O Šajtanos (the Devil) and his tricks to make you swear an oath or agree to a deal, and how it was possible to also use words and cunning to escape him. I was told to “beš banges he phen vorta” (sit bent but speak straight); “av řomnji tira vorbake” (be a woman of your word); “destar phenes” (speak from your soul). I grew up listening to stories told so often that they became our very breath, the words smooth and round, rolling off our tongues like well worn pebbles. 

Our ‘real’ names were sacred and rarely spoken. As children we were given second names, so that any spirits who might wish us harm would be unable to find us. We also had many nicknames, some of which outsiders often considered to be offensive or upsetting, but we saw them only as speaking the truth and apt to our characteristics. My uncle was “bajusiči” (little moustache), because he had thin, wispy facial hair. My grandmother was “Babka” (Dolly) because she was small and of slight build. My names? I had several, mostly based on my light skin or blue eyes: paješki čirikli (white wagtail), parne jakha (light eyes), and Ješenja (Ash – as in the kind of European tree, with a pale bark and leaves that sometimes appear silver) were among the most frequently spoken.

I never thought about the vast difference in my upbringing until recently, when a friend asked me, “why are words so important to you?” I couldn’t answer her immediately. At first, I was a little taken aback by her question. But, it is true. Sometimes, I can’t speak what I feel or think because a spoken word carries the whole road with it. There have been times, even quite recently, when the words I have said have hurt others and whole worlds have been shattered in the most unimaginable ways, forgiveness hard to fathom since words are so very important.

I told her of the saying that my bibi would tell me, and was startled when she laughed.

“That’s it!” She said, proudly, as if she’d won the jackpot on some fairground game. “That’s why!”

She told me that when she was a child, people constantly told her, “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you” – the complete opposite of the Romani saying that I wore like a badge.

Being spoken to and speaking were very important to my largely illiterate family. The written word meant nothing to us. We had no books, no newspapers, no magazines, comics, or other collections of writing. We spoke to each other, constantly. Yet, it wasn’t only in the words we found meaning. The silences held their own weight, too. An unspoken word could say many more things than a spoken one and even as a small child I feared that emptiness. When my mother stared, silently, one hand clutching her hip, the other waving uselessly in the air I knew I was in serious trouble. A toss of her head and a small tssssk as she turned her back sealed my fate; there would be words later, many of them, crowding in on me like a swarm of biting ants, but still, the anticipation of it was far, far worse.

I suppose somewhere along the way, I learned that other people kept their words on paper, some of them forever. I had no interest in it though, even when I started school. I hated learning to write and the alphabet was a nightmare:  A is for apple… but why? Where did the apple come from? And where is she going? What about her sisters? I was always in trouble for my half-finished letters and sentences, the words spinning out into stories in my head, but refusing to be marked down permanently. We were reprimanded for speaking anything other than English (Romani, Pavee, or Anglo-Romany), even outside the classroom and I was often in trouble for misspelling, grammatical errors, and speaking Romani with my friends Jenovefa and Rahela (anglicized – Jennifer and Rachael).

A lot of this staunch denial of our first language can be explained by predominant opinion (in academia and research) at the time; “Gypsy children, who often do not succeed in school, are generally regarded as linguistically and culturally “deprived”. The prevailing view, even among scholars, is that Gypsy mothers do not speak to their children, and that Gypsy children suffer from grave linguistic (and other) deficits” (Vairnagy & Vekerdi 1979). It was thought that we would be served best by forcing us to assimilate and forget about our own culture. It was also thought, however, that we could never fully overcome the disadvantages of our heritage and we were considered a waste of time and resources for teachers and the school system. We’d all just get married between the ages of 14 and 16 anyway…

But, learning English only gave me more words – the new kind of grapes or potatoes or bread were spoken in English, the old familiar ones, in Romani. It allowed me to act as an interpreter for my father’s parents, making evictions or other trouble less likely. However, it also began to erode the relationships I had with my own language. It didn’t help that my mother’s parents encouraged us to abandon our “Gypsy language” and learn the “Gadže tongue”. They clearly saw the benefit of adapting more thoroughly to our environment than did the other half of my family. My siblings and I were caught in the middle. One on hand admonished for speaking English and on the other for speaking Romani.

By the time I was a teenager I spoke mostly English, except to Maami, even if I was spoken to in Romani. Sometimes, my Papu would exclaim, “Mištoj, mišto! Na rov, phenav tuke jekh paramiči!” (Okay, okay! Don’t cry, I will tell you a tale!”) and then he would launch into a “silver” or “gold” tale about “what’s in the sky” or about “the Holy Lord and His home”…

Čerhaje, Sunto Marija, phabol lako kher, či dikhol andaj sumnakaj
anda sumnakaj kerdjon gurumburi haj šošoja;
Devlam, čumidav tu, aźutin p’amende, soha na ker t’avas nasvale,
te del ame Sunto Marija baxtaloro …

“‘Stars, Blessed Virgin,
her house is glowing, shining,
it cannot be seen gold,
the gold turns into doves and rabbits;
My God, I kiss you, help us, may we never be ill,
let the Blessed Virgin make us happy….”

I felt so very guilty, then. His invocations to the Blessed Virgin pulling at my heart and tugging the language from my lips, “mišto, Papu, mišto”. Even now when I hear my language spoken and have to strain to follow, I feel so very guilty. When searching for articles about education, first language, and cultural identity, it was hard to find anything in support of preservation of cultural heritage in the educational system. It seems as though most scholars feel that English is little threat to the maintenance of other languages…

My language was never pure – speaking a mash of Slovak, Polska (Bergitka), and some Gurbet Romani, mixed with Anglo-Romani – but now I mumble it like a young child and am afraid to speak it with Elders or relatives, preferring halting English, broken French or German, or the few words of Slovakian I remember. I know many Romani have suffered a similar fate – their language torn from them in favour of assimilation. I believe, in large part, that our strength lies in our language and often sit dreaming of schools where our language is the first language, where we are encouraged to write our stories and our lives and to call things as they’ve always been called, with English, French, or Slovak as a second language choice…

As Vaclav Havel stated, “The world might actually be changed by the force of truth, the power of a truthful word”…


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