1. Can gypsies be understood?
The Romas and the Sinti have not always lived on the Italian peninsula, but their presence goes a long way back in time. The different ways of their life in Italy are reflected in the cultural diversity of the various groups, which have been determined in different times and places by specific historical circumstances. On the whole the different types of immigration were repeated under specific pressures and conditions that were not always easy to analyze in the past; however, they continue in the present and can be observed and analyzed from a historical-sociological perspective.
One example is supplied by the Roma people of central-southern Italy, who reached the Adriatic coasts in the 16th century, arriving from the Balkan peninsula under the pressure of the Ottoman invasion. This hypothesis, which obviously does not find historical substantiation in chronicles or other documents, is founded on 1) the analogy with the “flight” of Albanians and other groups in the same period and under the same circumstances; 2) linguistic factors; 3) the specificity of the groups and their relative cultural homogeneity as compared to other groups, all of which can be referred to consistent dates.
The route taken by the Sinti in the north was different. Here not only the permeability of the border, despite the Alps, but also certain political situations in the past (the Hapsburg Empire, for example, or the trade between France and Piedmont) played a part in defining certain movements.
In our century the arrival of Roma groups from the Balkans took place after their liberation from serfdom and the political changes that followed the First World War. Immigration from the south of Yugoslavia started only in the Seventies, with possible prior movements. They occurred above all for economic reasons, and were favoured by the increasing ease of crossing over the border into the Venezia-Giulia Region.
This brief preface is necessary to take note of a series of important data: 1) the migrations of Romas and Sinti have been numerically significant only in the last few decades; 2) they have not been genuine migrations so much as a new form of nomadism, often “circular” and involving a small number of people at a time who were migrating for socio-economic reasons; 3) the Romas in ex-Yugoslavia were by and large sedentary and in any case represented cultural models very different from those of the “Italian” Romas and Sintis (who were by the Seventies mainly Italian citizens), who had been living in Italian territory for a long time; 4) the overlapping of the concepts of nomad, gypsy, refugee and immigrant has muddied the issue and created difficulty in solving problems relative to integration even on the institutional level; 5) the economic motivation for the migration, which seems the main one, nowadays at times takes on extreme and distorted forms that above all can be difficult to understand and that can lead to difficulties in assimilation into Italian culture; 6) – last but not least – it is still common to deny the existence of a Roma culture, thereby perpetuating the model that associates the gypsy’s condition to asocial vagrancy, crime, etc.
This is why the behaviour that the average person observes – or thinks s/he has observed – is misunderstood or judged negatively even when it is not criminal in nature. We need only think of the use of land for economic purposes in a way that does not involve intensive exploitation. The Roma, like many so-called “primitive” peoples, are fully aware that the territory must be used in a way that does not impoverish it, so as to sustain its cyclicity or circularity. This is relevant both to begging and to services for the sedentary community, and networks are created that grow wider according to whether the demand for these services or the possibility to exploit the territory is larger or smaller. This creates a use of the territory in which new realities can be accommodated only with difficulty without services and jobs that are completely new. Since, by and large, what the gypsy has to offer is not usually recyclable or compatible with the our contemporary model of development, the difficulty for those who have arrived recently increases, unless new modalities are “invented”. All this is translated into the conviction that the Romas do not want to work, and that therefore to live they have to engage in criminal activity, which in fact does happen at times, but only because of the need to survive and not because of intrinsic factors.
This is the source of the perspective, generally shared by the “old” Roma population, which almost never looks favourably on the immigration of the newcomers. The factor of competition is added to that of foreignness, which leads to the “objectivization” of hostility and rejection. This is a phenomenon long known to anthropologists, the same that made the old-time Romas say, “if the good Lord didn’t want gagé to be sheared, He wouldn’t have made them sheep.” Every possible negative trait is attributed to the new arrivals, every new crime is blamed on them.
The network of solidarity is essential in the gypsy world, but it follows no linear or binary logic. If it is true that the opposition Roma vs. gagió exists, this does not mean that the Romas of one group will take the part of a Roma of a different group in a dispute with the gagió. The most important factor in this case is the individual or collective interest of the Roma, and this interest is the fruit of an analysis that is not always correct and is in any case based purely on practical considerations.
The theme of criminality is as important as it is delicate because the risk of unjustified generalizations is always present. It is, however, a real factor whose modalities are extraneous to the traditional culture. Petty crime has, indeed, accompanied the gypsy world at its margins, but always as a sort of “last resource” and within the limits of an ethic of respect for the individual. These were therefore episodes linked to need, involving petty fraud or quick-handed theft; they were, in any case, small-scale offences against property. Today organized crime has not only “fished” for hands among gypsies, but it has created a new mentality, favoured by the cultural models of the hegemonic society (of the gagé): the myths of power and wealth have corroded the gypsy world, which has “discovered” drug-dealing, prostitution, the exploitation of minors, kidnapping, and armed robbery.
This escalation, though on the whole limited and not very significant, is highlighted by the media and, as a consequence, within the gypsy world itself, where it is met with feelings of rejection (“There are only a few of them, they are invented by the journalists”, but also “it’s the others”), that place all blame on the newcomers. At times, however, it can also cause ambiguous feelings of retaliation towards a society that has traditionally always refused the gypsies.
Do the newcomers know what is being said in the media, in the conversation of the man on the street? Do they have a coherent long or middle-term life project? Are their reactions the same that an Italian would have, let’s imagine, or are they in any case comprehensible to an Italian? What instruments doe they possess to understand and to make themselves understood?
Let’s take an example: if a person steals and the fact is reported in the media, an honest individual not only does not feel it necessary to reaffirm his (or her) honesty or, even less so, that the fact cannot be generalized. Knowing that he has not done anything wrong, he feels that silence is sufficient. But if it is a Roma (or indeed other “categories”) that has committed an offence, the media give out messages that “call for” his answer, insofar as he belongs to a category that has been in some way classified, and so is no longer simply an individual. For him it is enough to be honest; what he doesn’t understand is that the news hasn’t been presented as the image of an individual, but as a negative collective image that requires him to answer as a member of that category. After all, it is well-known that a piece of news only needs to be believed in for its implicit generalizations for it to have the same consequences as if it were true.
On the whole, discriminating readers are able to judge, as they were when they read the same implications regarding southern Italians in the Fifties. But the most influential part of society always creates scapegoats. Discriminating readers represent the minority; the school system does little to create more of them, and there are always sectors of society that have an interest in creating monsters or carrying on campaigns of “diversion”.
So the Romas, and especially the newcomers, do no perceive their own position or the image they project. Generally they still experience injustice as belonging to a primitive model in which it is functional to the system in the simplest and most direct way possible, which justifies defence against it not through legal recourse, but rather through subterfuge, ploys, dodges and slyness. The awareness that there might be another possibility is still slow to develop. Consequently, a way of “fitting” into the wider social context continues that is essentially a vicious circle, erroneous but reinforcing itself in its error.
2 Does a gypsy culture exist?
The traditional model is in any case difficult to understand for people not open to an appreciation of cultural diversity. One indication is the attitude towards that element of fundamental self-identification represented by a language. “Yugoslavian” Romas not only do not show, or in any case show to only a slight degree, reluctance to teach their language to the gagé, but they also demonstrate very little “puristic jealousy”. This is in part determined by their sedentary status, as a phenomenon of natural exchange, mitigated by the linguistic melting pot that characterizes the regions they come from. A comparison with the semi-sedentary Romas in Abruzzo reveals that they, on the contrary, have conserved the use of their language for cryptic purposes, tied to use typically within the group itself. Indeed, the Abruzzo Romas speak a dialect of Romany which their neighbours are not familiar with and whose very existence they do not even suspect. The use of the dialect is limited, and neologisms that interest the group culture are derived from Romany words used just insofar as they are incomprehensible to “others”, and only rarely in the presence of Italians.
The Romany of the “Yugoslavian” Romas, on the other hand, has developed as a language for everyday use, welcoming Serbo-Croatian loans for every neologism, and maintaining a conservative morphology because Slavic languages have a very similar structure. Indeed, the language is used all the time, openly, and other languages are used only for practical reasons (such as the presence of an outsider who does not understand). Whereas it is the presence of an outsider that determines the use of Italian for the Abruzzo Romas, who use it to keep the existence of another language secret since it is a language they adopt only when they don’t want to be understood, as an extreme resort.
It seems to us that this example well represents the different mentalities and ways to approach problems involving to narratives, experiences and, consequently, cultural models that are at least partly different. Indeed, it is not only the problem of language that makes communication between groups difficult; besides not sharing the same language, they have different values and beliefs, different modes of non-verbal communication and referential “encyclopaedias”.
So, they find it hard to understand and to make themselves understood, being diverse in their diversity. Remembering their origin in the Indian sub-continent, from which their ancestors parted to follow a dream towards the lands where the sun sets, we should not forget that in that origin itself different ethnic groups and languages were merged. Ab origine India remains a melting pot that has to be recalled in order to follow this path.
Thus, it is important to think of the gypsy people in the context of models of interethnic coexistence which may be models of conflict but are also tools for learning and, in the final analysis, proposals for peace. In all their complexity and variety these models seem to accompany the history of this people emblematically and precisely. It seems even more important to remember this at a moment when the gypsy people is living more than ever ‘on the barricades’, perhaps even more than in the dark years of Nazi persecution, or more than in the centuries when the lack of rights that could offer protection exposed them to arbitrary persecution and to the shame of prejudice that dishonoured them over the centuries.
The reality is that they are a people that has never waged wars, and that has not considered retreat dishonourable but rather a form of passive resistance adopted mainly to save lives. A people that for centuries has lived, worked and travelled without ever trying to own anything more than the elements necessary for its survival and for a happiness consisting mainly in freedom, simplicity and solidarity. A people that certain textbooks of law refuse to identify as such because it has never had nor ever claimed to possess a territory, to the extent of refusing one. That for centuries has used what it found good without hanging a sign of ownership on it. A people that has always chosen being over having, and has looked with suspicion on every form of government, bureaucracy, control over private life, and ideological intolerance.
The problem of defining Roma culture as such and of the identification of this people in relation to the features that distinguish it from other cultures (and even the legitimacy of defining theirs as culture) has often been a topic of discussion. In particular, the attempt has been made to find "unifying" features in the mix of differing modes of appearance of the various groups despite the lack of a territorial reference that disturbs and confounds the conscience of "sedentary people". This lack of territoriality, which did not prevent the recognition of Italians as Italians even if they had emigrated to the Americas, or of "terroni" (southern Italians) in northern Italy, which was a form of recognition albeit a negative one, annuls the identity of gypsies, assimilating them to vagrants with no specific identity or cultural features. The fact that they speak another language counts for little in the absence of a code of prestige promoted by the mass media. The language of others is, in the popular mind, little more than a shy stammer, when it isn’t considered mere jargon.
It is objectively difficult to define a Roma culture, considering the fragmentation and diversification of cultural traits of the various groups. Therefore, the linguistic approach, or better the ethno-linguistic one, becomes mandatory for a series of reasons. Historical studies on the origins and cultural structure of this people were begun by linguists and carried out on linguistic bases, but it is also true that every language is a sort of magnifying lens of a people, showing its socio-economic and anthropological structures, its rites, beliefs, habits, traditions and so on, as well as its "philosophy", its vision of the world and the logical relations it prefers and uses, starting from contents that are never universally necessary.
3. The language
An approach of this type is also suggested from within the Roma culture: the attitudes of the Romas towards their language is particular, often ambiguous and reticent. As such, it reveals a widespread feeling of belonging, not so much as an instrument of communication as because it takes on the function of a “magical” means of self-identification, a group “spirit”, thereby becoming an element of social cohesion and of relations with the outside world.
E romeski šib si lengi zor, says a gypsy proverb, the Romas’ strength is their tongue. This tongue, not by chance, is only taught to “friends”; often it is jealously guarded “against” outsiders. And it is also true that at times the knowledge of just a few words throws the doors of friendship wide open. One who "knows" our language can only be "ours".
And this brings us to another aspect of the relationship between Romas and non-Romas, for whom the tendency to classify lying at the foundation of “scientific” knowledge easily leads to the creation of stereotypes.
There are two possible approaches to understanding who is a Roma: the first is external and objective. It retraces the steps of linguists who through an analysis of the features found in the various spoken dialects of this people recognize possible classifications of the groups and sub-groups. In this way they trace their historical development from the origins, making observations that can illuminate us as regards the uses of the language at various levels – grammatical, textual and pragmatic. A second “internal” approach allows the ethno-linguist to identify the features of a culture diachronically as well, observing its interactions and revealing the modes and the world images of this people so as to understand its position in intercultural relations.
A hypothesis that dates back at least as far as W. von Humboldt, usually called by the name of two American linguists, E. Sapir and B. L Whorf, claims that our worldview is conditioned by the language that we learn at the time we are discovering reality. There is no doubt that there exists a precise correlation between the language and the Weltanschauung of every people. Language is not only an only instrument of communication; it is also an instrument of learning, in which the cultural experiences of a people are stored and its “historical” memory is guarded.
Even if the Romas left India a thousand years ago and not all at the same time, their culture already had some common features. Despite the diversity of the dialects spoken today, some elements conserve an original term. In other words, when we find a term with an Indian origin present in the majority of contemporary dialects, we can more or less conclude that it refers to an original cultural element.
This will have little interest if it is simply a question of a primordial element like water (pani) or fire (jag), but even the fact that the name for the sun (kham) is the same in all dialects, though it does not derive from the form of surya – the Indian sun god – but rather from a root meaning "hot", tells us something. In particular, the use for "sun" of the Sanskrit gharm, "hot", may indicate that the gypsy groups did not belong to a high caste and did not share a worldview in which the sun is a Vedic god, but simply a source of heat. And the other heavenly elements will take on even less importance, in absence of their "utilization" (not necessarily in material terms, obviously) within gypsy culture. The original religious vision centres then on a duality in a contrasting pair of widely shared lexemes, devel and beng, “Dio” and “Diavolo”. This leads us to imagine an original dualism in the forces of good and evil, in which the Indian term for "God" derives from a general concept of "divinity" (devata) rather than from the name of a single god of the Indian pantheon. This pantheon is, however, not totally ignored, seeing that we find the "trident" of the god Shiva (trušul), which takes on the meaning "cross", following a path that suggests disguises and similarities.
And then, what happens to terms that are not Indian? The Romas came from "inland" regions and discovered the sea only in the West, in Iranian lands (the Caspian?), or else perhaps when they arrived at the shores of the Mediterranean. Thence comes that fact that the word for "sea" is in some dialects Iranian (dorjavo), while in others it is Slavic (more) or Rumanian or Italian and so on, when it is not baro pani "great water". The words for "cart" (vurdon) and "horse" (grast/graj) are also respectively of Iranian and Rumanian origin. These are elements that took on particular importance at the time of the migration towards the West, and this is why they come from western languages. Metallurgy, on the other hand, must have developed mainly in Greece, since the terms relating to metals and their products are by and large of Greek origin (hammer, isviri; copper, xarxuma; anvil, amoni; horseshoe, petalo; lead, molivi; furnace, kakavi; nail, karfin; key, klidi).
Following this line of reasoning, we can further observe that the very dialectical fragmentation of the Romany language is at the very least symptomatic of a certain socio-cultural attitude. The fact of belonging to the same people is assured by parameters of a general affinity among the dialects, but the individualism of single family groups is confirmed by the fact that every family speaks its own dialect, which it would be fruitless to try to reduce to a univocal system of classification. In the Romas’ pluri-linguism we find a means to reflect on their contemporary culture. The linguistic repertories of the Romas are generally vast, and they comprehend more languages than, for example, the sedentary Italian population’s do. But the relationship between the languages used is not casual; it is never one of equality. Romany is always the best-known language, but it is only spoken and familiar; while the prestige languages are always and only the languages of the gagé. All this serves to increase differences, as well as the Romas’ mixed feelings concerning their own linguistic competence.
One "neutral" reflection of this situation is the lack of a purist conception of language among the Romas, who have widely developed the mechanism of linguistic borrowing. From an outsider’s point of view even this element is cause for some confusion and perplexities. For someone who comes from a culture with an “official”, standardized ground of reference, every object is strictly collocated in “its place”. There is the "linguistic norm" in the "grammar", just as there is a juridical norm in pandects and legal codes. These is an official culture with standard routes to be followed to reach it; there are classifications of every reality according to apparently rigorous and univocal parameters that have no alternatives.
For the sedentary person what is univocal guarantees rigour, order, scientific validity and respect for an abstract norm that is accepted without discussion, and is therefore unifying. It is psychologically reassuring and guarantees social order. What is more, norms and standards permit wider, unambiguous communication. The Roma view of language, on the other hand, accepts variety in the name of the same principle of the possibility of wider communication, since this is reached through the knowledge and use of as many varieties as possible, ignoring any sort of purism or standardization. The more words we know, the more easily we understand each other: so the Roma tells me that the word for “cat” is macka and if I reply that I call it tsitsaje, mitsa, murga, katsa, pišika or sterna, and that macka is a Croatian word, the answer is practical: “As long as we understand one another, it doesn’t matter.”
4. What future?
What can become of a culture having these characteristics in our times, apart from the outdated and impossible hypothesis of self-ghettoization, though this is sometimes presented as attractive (after all, these are the proposals of the Italian “northern League”), or on the contrary of outright assimilation? Any prediction is difficult. Certainly the Romas of the future will be different from those of today, by necessity. And their language? Apart from any hypothesis that can have only scarce value beyond our hopes and desires, the ways of life will change, and the language will reflect these changes.
The use of words in a world of intense communication, which though not only verbal is still densely populated by words, is more and more influenced by processes of linguistic change. As a consequence it is more than ever today necessary to define words that are otherwise used in different ways and contexts. Let’s take the example of a word like Gypsy, which has become a taboo because it is full of negative connotations, to the extent that though it may still often be used unconsciously or unintentionally, it is not necessarily meant to be disparaging, though it is certainly connoted or metaphorical (we need only think of the "gypsy antics" of a popular film series, to take one of the best examples). In other words, we have a romantic falsification of the Gypsy in films and songs, the same one that in Hitler’s day justified the massacre of all those who did not correspond to the stereotype (the Gypsies, being of “Indian” origin could only be pure Arians, but those who were considered "bastards" – that is, all – ended up in the gas chambers!). In the end, repression leads to the use of euphemisms like nomads, above all in the press and bureaucratic language, or even to the ethnically and historically erroneous names of Slavs or Rumanians.
Now ‘nomad’ is a word that goes back to the pastoral origins of the Indo-Europeans in the Central Asiatic steppes. If by extension the term is used to indicate any nomadic ethnic group whatsoever, it is likely that the metaphor is extended to include whoever lives without a fixed home, and even a person who travels widely. It is clear why the term ‘nomad’ applied to the Gypsy might seem appropriate, but semantics teaches us that to call a cat a feline may be appropriate but it is not sufficiently denotative. Therefore ‘nomad’ can be accepted if used for stylistic reasons as a synonym for the proper term, when the context guarantees no risk of confusion. But to use ‘nomad’ as a synonym for Gypsy, tout court, takes on an snide connotation that we might call linguistic hypocrisy, as when we say "visually challenged” for "blind" or "non-teaching staff" for school clerks, or “environmental operator” for "dustman", almost as though the nomen proprium were insulting...
So – Gypsies, no; Romas and Sinti, too complicated; refugees and immigrants, or the frequently used “non-EUs” (but what about those who have Italian or Slovenian or Rumanian citizenship?) inappropriate; nomads, too generic... What is to be done?
We must get to the root of the question: the future of the Romas and the Sintis lies in their recognition as a people and in the clarity of use of terms which have only too often been employed to create alibis and confusion, to mask old and new prejudices, lack of understanding, and discrimination.
What characterizes the Gypsies and their culture is above all an “inclusive” behavioural mode that allows them to relive and reinterpret different aspects of their surroundings according to flexible, (rarely static) lifestyles that favour a process of, or attempt at, partial integration. In other words, the Gypsy changes to adapt to the cultural and economic milieu, but he does so by discarding certain elements that are totally foreign and modifying others to agree with his own worldview, one that does not give pride of place to consumerism, careerism, competition and earning money for its own sake. But this creates an image rarely seen as positive, or even understood . The negative stereotype of the Gypsy in Italian society has a negative weight in creating the difficulty of acceptance and integration. This negative weight is age-old and is not specific; rather, it is referred to the Gypsy as the last remaining representative of certain taints and "negativities" of the past. At least in the collective imagination.
5. Racial prejudice starting from language.
In a series of studies on emarginated peoples in pre-modern medieval Europe, Geremek deals with this topic very effectively. The Gypsy is the asocial vagrant who refuses work. But not work in the absolute sense, to be clear. There exists a myth of work, a precise ideology. There is an idea of work that made the Nazis say in Auschwitz "Arbeit macht frei", work makes us free! It is, therefore, the system of social control of the privileged classes that is being challenged. Work as a means of repression, not of criminal elements but of the part of the population that does not submit to the laws of exploitation.
Here as well the means of self-identification takes on a negative connotation that is continually stressed in the ordinances and documents of the past. The language as an element of cohesion is repressed and denied. Already in 1500 the Imperial Diet already prohibited its use, and in other places there can be found constant reference that consider it a negative feature of marginal people.
But since they are, after all, only marginal, a justification needs to be found for discrimination and persecution: this is where racism comes to play. The danger of the abuse of this term is that it can lose the connotation that gives it its negative character, becoming neutral. In other words, to apply the definition of racism indiscriminately to every form of intolerance or lack of respect in the end minimizes its negative charge, with the risk of losing the inhibitory effect rightly associated with this word and, consequently, fostering attempts to give the concept an objective status. Taken literally, the term racism refers to a concept of race which – as has been amply demonstrated – has no scientific foundation. To speak of racism means to risk giving scientific standing to a series of behavours and to “justify” them in the context of a theoretical framework.
We feel therefore that racism should be referred to specifically in connection with behavours whose foundation lies in fear of what is different and unknown, which is negatively compared to what is known by using unfounded stereotypes. As such, considering its frightening negative potential, it should be fought through education and understanding. Racism is not open to debate on the basis of “social” exchange, and even less so on a scientific level; granted this, we have to understand how at times real forms of racism (with relative behaviours) reappear under different guises.
The historical excuse of a non-integrated marginality, although it no longer really applies, still dominates the imagination of the gagè. Behind all considerations there are also the ideologies that support the idea of nation. The nation is a people in its systemized configuration within an institutional and cultural framework. The consequence is that nations are classified and catalogued following a procedure current in the cognitive philosophy of the classical European tradition, on the basis of the equation:
It is opportune to recall the tragic conclusions of this identity in times still very near to us. Romas and Sintis may be the only people in the world not linked to a territorial reality. The related linguistic ideology is complicated and contradictory. On the one hand, the use of their language was prohibited, and on the other it was claimed that they did not constitute a people. In the same way, they are not allowed to become sedentary / integrated, while at the same time the lack of integration is stigmatized. What is really desired is the annihilation of diversity.
Linguistic purism is a clear expression, or “by-product” of racist theories. Ideally, the problem is posed by formulating the equation a nation = a language, which is justified as praxis. But purism goes well beyond this. For the purist it is a question of performing a real operation of linguistic ethnic cleansing. It matters little that no blood is shed in this process since essentially it contains the same violent energy. It is not by chance that this process was carried out at paradoxical and frantic levels under Fascism, or that Stalin had serious worries about the question of the language, or that there is a sort of compliance (only to a certain point good-natured) with these questions among highly “nationalistic” groups (we need only recall the case of France, with the proposals of Minister Toubon in 1994, which were voted down by the French Parliament). The case of Serbo-Croatian, with the fictional differentiation into Serb, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, etc., affords a particularly alarming example of attitudes lacking any sound linguistic foundation. In the exploitation of linguistic questions, then, the language is always a “test object”. Any Italian “dialect”, for example, is known to be a Romance language equivalent to national languages such as French or Portuguese; the dialect, however, has not received official recognition within an existing state for various reasons having nothing to do with any intrinsic deficiency. Yet the dialect is considered a sub-variety of Italian and therefore to be condemned, while at the same time it is exalted as a language capable of substituting the official language completely. Both positions are mistaken and tainted with the opposite prejudices.
Romany represents the sum of all these negative qualities, according to a certain sort of “common sense”. Here is a list of some widespread prejudices:
1) all languages of minorities or of so-called developing peoples are inferior. No status can ever be ascribed to them except as folklore or museum items. On the other hand, their language can be used to recognize minority groups to discriminate against or oppress them;.
2) they are irrational languages, incapable of adapting to an advanced society. While in reality every language is perfectly suited to express the needs of a community, and is capable of adapting itself to new needs;
3) the “inferior” languages are inevitably growing extinct, forgetting that on the contrary they change as is natural for all languages, but not for this reason do they necessarily die out. These views at times lead to laws to protect a language, but this process turns it into a “museum piece”, denying it the possibility of development. The language as “inheritance” is dead;
4) literary (or written) languages are undoubtedly superior. First, it is easy to show that writing does not imply an absolute process, and in any case the question is a complex one that cannot be reduced to a simple opposition between peoples who have and others who do not have writing.
Linguistic prejudice is a highly indicative element both in the context of colonial and imperialistic abuses, and as a vehicle and “foundation” of real racism. Many examples can be given of this. The equation
appears little by little as an “inevitable” consequence of a series of postulates found in works that otherwise possess scholarly value. Nineteenth-century comparative studies no doubt had the merit of founding rigorous research methods that allow us to determine language “families” and to reconstruct elements of proto-languages, but the totalization of the method and the effects that this had in certain cases led to damaging consequences.
In Schleicher, for example, languages are considered living organisms, so they enjoy an autonomy from speakers that should theoretically erase the close connection between language and race. But theories are used insofar as they are useful. Considered from this point of view, Schleicher never succeeded in undermining racist theories, if ever he intended to do so. On the contrary, the glory of these linguistic studies reinforced the belief in the superiority of the Germanic nation ...
It was instead Franz Boas who confuted the racist theories. But Boas had to emigrate to the United States to find the freedom needed to show the results of his research. The absence of the language – race relationship, the inexistence of inferior primitive languages, the mutability and adaptability of languages, the influence of the environment, etc., are all fundamental principles upheld by specific studies starting from 1911. Boas’ works were actually burnt in Nazi Germany, which repudiated this “degenerate” offspring.
Romas and Sintis unfortunately constitute a particularly rich terrain for research. They are the living test of what has been said, because they represent all that is “negative’ in the eyes of a racist. So much so that they are not willingly referred to even by anti-racists, either with various excuses or because they are “forgotten” tout court. Roma and Sinti cannot be reduced to a nation because they do not claim a territory and because they do not fit the categories imposed on all peoples since the Middle Ages. Therefore they are not a people, and since they are a minority and a marginalized group, they are undoubtedly also asocial and one step away from criminality. The language as factor of identification, important in the chain shown above, is forbidden; it is defined as argot, it is used to identify them. So it is also studied, but only in order to avoid its use for cryptic purposes or to transcribe phone wiretapping, or at the most in a spirit of tolerant scientific curiosity.
This is still true in our times, which haven’t changed much since the “enlightened” dispositions of 18th-century sovereigns, with their policy of assimilation (Vaux de Foletier, p. 95):
In 1768 and 1773 the Empress Maria Teresa and in 1782 her son Emperor Joseph Il resolved to make the Gypsies happy despite themselves. In Hungary and in Transylvania, where they had been living in their own way for centuries, they even had to lose their name: they were to be called “new settlers” or “new Magyars” and no longer Gypsies. They were forced to give up their language [...]
Thus, if from a scientific point of view the gypsy model is the ideal laboratory for these studies, historically it has represented the ideal test for the exercise of repression and intolerance. It therefore represent linguistic racism in all its potential forms.
All this seems to us to justify the idea, in the words of Jean-Pierre Faye, that linguistic intolerance is, if not the only one, certainly the unfailing, fundamental prelude to racist theories as well as to vast and horrible ethnic cleansing, mass massacres and genocides.
It is therefore not enough to combat prejudice in all its forms. We must also understand clearly that even the concept of tolerance is dangerous in itself, as Mirabeau already reminded us in 1789 (quoted in Faye, p. 299): “[...] the existence of the authority that has the power to tolerate is an attack on freedom of thought for the very fact that it tolerates, and so could also not tolerate”. The only intolerable intolerance, if we be allowed to say so, is towards intolerance itself: “[...] if Hitler came back in person to publish Mein Kampf), should we tolerate him?” (Faye, p. 312).
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translated by Brenda Porster