Yiddish and Romany: Two Stateless Languages

By Julia Elkouby

On this Summer School we had a very thought provoking lecture on the Romani people and how they are not really ‘a people’ yet. As our group focuses on Yiddish culture we immediately started to make comparisons between another stateless language group like the Yiddish speaking Jews and the Romani.

The main common theme between Yiddish culture and the Romani is their strong sense of family. The Romani did not agree with the way in which the communists would try to assimilate them within their workforce as they were splitting up family units and a central part was being able to work in family units. The Jewish community who spoke Yiddish also had a very strong sense where being and having a family was a duty as it’s one of the central themes in the Torah and their culture.

Another way in which these two cultures are similar is through the fact that they have always moved about and don’t have a central nation. The Yiddish people would always live in communities in ‘Shtetl’s (cities) in parity with people from all different cultures in that city. Romani would also make gypsy camps more in farmland areas where they would be able to help out and contribute to the society. Both cultures as you can see would move about throughout the world, sometimes building more structured communities with either gaudy Roma palaces or synagogues.

The most physical way in which we see this similarity between cultures is through their languages. The Romani language is very different in different places as it borrows words  from all different languages which they have encountered similar to Yiddish which has many influences from German, east European and Russian languages depending on where it was spoken. There is also a difference in how the pronunciation depending on whether they speak Ukrainian or Lithuanian Yiddish due to this culturally different language. The maps pictured below show clearly how there are many divisions in both languages due to this nomadic way of life.

romani dialect







A similar theme between Yiddish culture and that of the Romani is that they both had a very strong connection with their own culture. This was evident in the clothes they wore and how they kept a strong connection within their communities as they were often marginalised by the dominant society. Before the war there were strong anti-Semitic beliefs throughout all of Europe which is what helped Hitler’s policies to be accepted during WWII. Nowadays we live in a less anti-Semitic society but stereotypes against the Romani community make the one of the most discriminated linguistic groups in Europe.

Overall however, the main difference between these two people is the identity with which they see themselves. Yiddish speakers have a much more standardised language and can connect with other Yiddish speakers a lot more easily due to them sharing a Jewish religion. Romany on the other hand is a lot less standardised. They do not necessarily follow the same religion depending on where they came from. The Spanish gypsies are very strong Catholics but those from the Balkans are also quite often Muslim. This already provides a strong disparity and due to the differences in the language they are able to connect a lot less than their fellow Yiddish speakers. However, there is hope with the emergence of internet chat rooms Romani from around the globe have been connecting and trying to find a common identity. This has sparked new connections within the Roma community and maybe one day they will find a way to become ‘a people’ in their own right.