In praise of human variety

Xenophilia opening page remarks


Publications by Guy Ottewell




The Gypsies are a mysterious and wandering race. It might be more correct nowadays to call them Roma, but that word may not apply to all of the people we are talking about; and I find the word "Gypsy" as savory as the word that lies behind it, "Egypt".

They appeared out of the east about a thousand years ago. The earliest record of their reaching Europe comes from about 1050 A.D. This takes a little explaining. The Byzantine empire, Greek-speaking and Christian, based on the great city of Byzantium which is now Istanbul, ruled over what is now roughly Greece and Turkey. A document that happens to be in the Georgian language tells a story of how the emperor Constantine IX was plagued by certain fierce animals in his game park in Byzantium. So he appealed to "a Samaritan people, descendants of Simon the Magician, who were called Adsincani, and were notorious for soothsaying and sorcery". These people set out charmed pieces of meat which killed the wild animals. (It sounds as if the Gypsies played a simple trick, passing off poison as magic.) "Adsincani" seems to be the Georgian version of the Greek name "Athinganoi"; and the Athinganoi were a sect of heretics who had been stamped out a couple of centuries earlier. So it seems the Byzantines nicknamed these people after an earlier group who may have had a similar reputation for sorcery. The Greek word for the Gypsies came to be Atsinganoi; from which later came many of the names used in other languages: Tsigan in Romanian, Ciganyok in Hungarian, Zigeuner in German, Zingari in Italian, Tsiganes in French.

From Byzantium, these wanderers from the east spread on into Greece, and into the Balkans, where the majority of them still are; and waves of them spread out of the Balkans into the rest of Europe, and eventually even to North and South America and Australia.

Who were they and where had they come from? One of the stories they told about themselves in the early days was that they came from Egypt—or from a place called Little Egypt—and had been Christians, driven out for refusing to recant their religion. Or that they had lapsed from Christianity, and on repenting had been condemned to wander as penitents, sleeping on the ground without beds and begging for alms. In some versions, they had been condemned to do this for seven years; but twenty years later they might be in another town telling the same story. In other versions, they had been condemned for failing to help the Holy Family during its flight into Egypt; or because a Gypsy smith had forged the fourth of the nails with which Christ was crucified. It was from these stories that they got to be called "Egyptians", from which comes another set of the names by which they are known: Gyphtoi in Greek, Gitanos in Spanish, Gitans in French, Gypsies in English.

Stories like these were well calculated to impress the mediaeval mind. It is evident that the Gypsies, on encountering Christendom, quickly picked up hints of what would appeal to the credulity of peasants and bishops. Penitents and holy beggars were held in awe, as they still are in places such as India. And at first it worked: people received these "Egyptians" with curiosity, and gave them alms. But then the cycle would set in, as it was to do over and over again, up to our time: when times were hard—as they so often were—the dark strangers were natural scapegoats.

What was the real origin of the Gypsies? If they themselves knew, they didn't say; they kept it secret, or told special-purpose stories like the Little Egypt one, or actually did not have a memory reaching very far back, because their traditions were oral rather than written. So there was much speculation, and many quaint theories: that they were Babylonians, or the descendants of Egyptian priests of Isis, or Nubians (Nubia, higher up the Nile, could be "Little Egypt"). The Gypsies spoke a language of their own, which people tended to dismiss as merely a perverse code for baffling others, a "thieves' cant".

But linguists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gradually realized that it was similar to some of the three hundred languages of India. The Gypsies had come from very far away indeed—a quarter of the way around the world, along its band of Alpine-Himalayan mountains!

The languages of northern India form a huge group called Indo-Aryan ("Arya" is a Sanskrit word meaning "noble"); they form, together with the Iranian languages, an Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family to which also belong English, Latin, Russian, and so on. But to which of the Indo-Aryan languages is the Gypsy language closest?—which is more or less the same as asking, Which part of India did the Gypsies probably start from? There was at one time a theory (fascinating to me) that they belonged to the Dardic group. The Dardic languages are between the Indian and Iranian areas: up in the knot of almost inaccessible mountains at the pivot of Asia—Kashmir, the inaccessible valleys of Hunza, Gilgit, and Nuristan. I once, from Kabul, saw the peaks of Nuristan in the distance and learned that, though so near, it was so inaccessible that not until the late nineteenth century had it been conquered by the Afghan state and converted to Islam and had its name changed from Kâfiristân, "land of infidels", to Nûristân, "land of light".

However, it now seems that the Gypsy language is closest to the central Indian languages, such as Hindi, and perhaps borrowed something from northwestern Indian languages such as Lahnda as it moved out in that direction. It seems likely that the Gypsies were a caste, who gradually spread or drifted west. Perhaps they were among the peoples dislodged by the Muslim invasions that came from Afghanistan into India. There are still in India traces of the Gypsies or of people like them: the Banjara, sometimes called the "Indian Gypsies"; and people called Jat, whose name is thought to be the origin of Zutt, the word for Gypsies in Arab countries; and there is the word Dom, applied in India to various groups of low-caste migrant people.

As for how long ago it was that the Gypsies and their language separated from those of central India, there is great uncertainty; perhaps about 900 A.D., but it could have been as far back as 400 B.C.

(To be continued.)


Dom Banjara Jat > Zutt


driven by wars?

Bahram Gur ~400 AD Luri musicians Luli

"man" Dom Lom Rom

Lom (Armenian with Indic words) etc: http://www.llc.manchester.ac.uk/Research/Projects/romani/files/11_origins.shtml

Romani not Romania

The correct name used now is Roma, although even this may only apply to a certain wave in the Gypsy migration.

It comes from their word for "man", Rom.

We call their language Romany.

One thing that confuses almost everybody is the similarity of this to Romania, which is just a coincidence.

Romania was one of the earliest parts of Europe that the Gypsies came to, so that those in other countries are descended from ancestors who once passed through Romania, and Romania still has the highest concentration of Gypsies.

But Romania is so called because it was once a Roman province, so its name ultimately derives from the city of Rome.

It has no connection with the word Rom, which is Dom or Lom in some dialects of the language.

Greece words

Romania inside Turk enslaved

Eur Amer

Sturdy Beggars Tinkers Irish Travelers Didikoi Poshrat



Vlach Rom: Kalderash Machvaya Lovara Churara

Xoraxané ("Turkish")

There are also names for tribes among them, such as the Kalderash and Machvaya; some of these seem sometimes to be used for the Gypsies as a whole, such as Sinti and Manush.

fields tents holes in forest

caravans settled

culture GLS


music dancing flamenco

European composers have been glad to include movements in their works such as Allegretto all Zigan[?r]ese (in Haydn's Quart in D Major, Op. 20 No. 4)

preserv folktales

smithing horsedealing bearleading fortunetelling .....



depravity but taboos

"cracks of society"

spying secret language strangers need info


sedentary serfs envy nomads rootless autonomous

imperial safe-conducts Dukes of Little Egypt Counts Andrew Michael Sindel


renewed bec dodged, inefficient

humor but nothing funny:


mistreat: scourge through town rack

Eng: 'burn thru the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron an inch thick'

kill: hang drowning impaling red-hot crown

assimilate children taken

and against Gypsy-helpers share to informers

incredible survive

Borrow, ...

slavery abol Romania 1855-6

Holocaust map p 263

First I want to mention that I've invited here some friends and neighbors of mine who belong to the community we're presuming to talk about, and they may well be laughing behind their hands when they hear what I say, and they may or may not choose to correct some of my mistakes.

The Gypsies are a byword for a mysterious and wandering people.

Evidently they had come from farther east, through what is now Turkey

Another difficulty is that they borrowed very many words from Armenian, Greek, Romanian, Magyar and so on as they passed through those countries, just as they borrowed many cultural features—the Gypsies are amazingly conservative in the way they've preserved their language and traditions and cultural features, and yet at the same time they're very adaptable.

I could go on forever about Gypsy linguistics and the many names involved and the stories about Black Sara and Bahram Gur...

and especially about the fascinating details of Gypsy culture and nomadism and the trades they've taken up—tinkering and music and fortune-telling and of course a bit of thieving—partly to maintain their migratory way of life and partly because, as with the Jews, they weren't allowed into other occupations.

And also about the very complicated question of who is and who isn't a Gypsy, because there are endless groups that became Rom by adoption, or were excommunicated from Gypsyhood for breaking the customary law called Kris, or that only resemble Gypsies superficially, like the people called Didikoy and Irish Travelers.

But unfortunately the side of it that concerns us is the sad one.

Sedentary people tend to have a prejudice, sometimes a truly ferocious hatred, for nomads, especially if the nomads are a bit dark-skinned.

===from Xeno

the great adventure of Romany history, the journey from a far origin through country after country around the globe, in secret and in a perpetually different way of life

Romanes: the language

Roma: noun plural

Rom: noun singular? adjective?

Romani: adjective

largest number of Roma are in Romania, though the names are unconnected

Romania from Rome, Rom from domba


'In southeast Europe, towns and villages have contained Romani quarters for centuries. Formerly fully inhabited only during the winter, they have become permanent settlements under new economic and social conditions'

'Roma regarded as useless because they could not be easily exploited. they remained outside feudal—and later capitalist and even socialist—society, becoming neither serfs nor wage-earners, but providing services as horse-dealers, smiths, musicians, and more recently as scavengers'

'much legislation therefore designed to sweep Roma along with the dispossessed—such as sturdy beggars in sixeteenth-century england—into the exploiters' sphere'

A slender thread penetrating

Bessarabia, central Asia, Ireland, Australia

despite long separation from each other, holding on to their own language, and their own legal system called the kris

through the extended family and clan relationships

Perhaps it's just me, but I feel there is a kind of humor inseparable from the Gypsies.

their disappearances and reappearances elsewhere

the Great Trick, as they called

Duke Andrew and Duke ==

pilgrims from "Little Egypt"

begging, horse-dealing, tinkering

traveling fairs and sideshows


"license to thieve"


an impudence

despite their sufferings

one out of seven Polish Roma children tuberculosis

dying in Nazi concentration camps—'Holocaust claimed lives of up to 1,500,000 Gypsies

lifespan half that of the average for the countries

or perhaps because of their sufferings, part of their armory against misfortunes

as the British survived by humor under the bombing of London

but in the case of the Gypsies it seems intrinic, not occasional

wry or sly humor

the very existence of a Gypsy

I feel an affectionate smile creeping over me at the mere mention of "Gypsy" (or one of their many other names)


2004Mr28 Indep kept:- Gypsy caravan heads for top museum prize

2004Fe26 Indep kept:- Slovakian police made cuts to the benefits to Gypsies, who protested, violent clashes with police

===UK, Gypsies and travellers, policy etc

1968 Caravans Act required local authorities (counties?) to find sites

1994 Criminal Justice Act revoked this

then ?200? when Britain acceded to the European human rights laws these were held to be against evictions

2006 case of some Irish travellers evicted in Liverpool; law lords ruled that this did not contravene the EU human rights laws

so legal pressure off

but housing shortage pressure from government gives incentive to find sites