All Droms Lead to Roam

I think there's a problem with access to resources when it comes to learning to read Romani literature. Generally learning materials for a dialect of Romani are only available in the national languages co-territorial with the dialect in question.

A English-speaker, unless they have the will and the ability to pour through specialized work written by linguists for linguists without language-learners in mind, has only Ronald Lee's Learn Romani: Das-Duma Rromanes which, excellent though it is, mainly deals with a dialect — North American Kalderash — that is seldom written. It contains a lot of evocative and moving songs, some oral poetry which makes one dearly wish there were audio files of the recitation available, some illustrative interview fragments and more. But the only non-oral texts it contains are two poems adapted — quite heavily — from other dialects. Though one can certainly use the book as a starting point for approaching other dialects, particularly Vlax dialects.

I do not mean to imply that oral, as opposed to written, literature is of lesser importance. It is not. But the difficulties involved with modern literate critics and scholars properly approaching an oral corpus are greater, as the history of study of oral literatures has by now well demonstrated. It would require of me an entirely different and much longer rant than this one. For one, much more participation from actual Roma in the scholarly enterprise would be in order just to get on the ground floor. Of course, academic participation from native speakers of Romani is desperately needed in general and — outside of Russia, at least — damnably lacking. But with the study of Romani oral literature, it is or should be obvious that such a lack will lead to analytic immiseration and parodic obtuseness all round, even if it didn't lead to the condescension that it already does. But I digress.

For an American or Briton to study the versions of Romani most commonly used as vehicles for written literature, they must know other languages than English, and probably other languages than the ones most commonly learned by English-speakers. Some good material does exist in German, most of it dealing with Sinti and also with the dialects brought to Germany more recently by migrants from the Balkans.

Mostly the really good learning materials for dialects with a lot of written literature are in Eastern European and Balkan languages, such as Romanian, Serbian, Albanian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Polish, Czech, Slovenian and Russian.

Were I unable to read Russian, I would've been unable to read Viktor Shapoval's enormously useful Самоучитель Цыганского Языка ("Self-Study Textbook for the Romani Language") which is much more than a description of a Romani dialect, more than a self-instruction book. Like Lee's English work, it is also a trove of fascinating and illustrative texts. Though in this case one finds also a wealth of written artistic literary samples (including a Romani verse-translation of one of Sergei Esenin's most famous Russian poems.) A learner would have to be quite incurious and dead-minded to not be fascinated and drawn in by the textured linguistic world which Shapoval offers to the learner.

Translations of such textbooks into French, English and German are much needed.

But there is another reason why a great many languages would be, and will be for the foreseeable future, necessary for serious study of written Romani literature as a whole. What is true of the Romani language is also true of written Romani literature: it is the product of prolonged and profound multilingualism.

Like Hebrew writers before the 20th century, all Romani writers are at least bilingual, and are writing for an audience they can assume to be at least bilingual. They therefore draw on the forms, stylistics and material of the majority language(s) they are in contact with. Multilingual puns like the title I gave this blog entry are common in a lot of Romani literature, particularly when it is humorous. Sometimes any element in the co-territorial national language is fair game for use as a loan element. Many Russian Romani speakers do not go for very long without some Russian code-mixing involved. Soviet Romani literature does not have great amounts of code-mixing at all, and there are purists who avoid it. But there are more naturalistic Russian Romani authors who do not. To fully appreciate Lera Yanysheva's poetry, and her achievements in it, one must not only be able to understand Russian (as phrases from Russian may be used at will) but also be aware of some of the genres and conventions of Russian popular verse. With her, of course, one must be prepared for even more twists. One poem of hers shifts between six different Romani dialects before ending with a series of puns in Hungarian.

The same goes for anywhere else.

A hypothetical scholarship of written Romani literature, if it were to do right by Romani literature and not treat it in a token or cursory way, would require a multilingualism and a multidisciplinarianism to match the pluricentrism of Romani. It may well be beyond the capacity of academia as it is currently constituted anywhere. Certainly not in the corporatized ruin of American academia where "interdisciplinary" is fast becoming an impressively bad joke. 

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