(Un)wanted Institutionalization: The Case of Finnish Romani

By Granqvist, Kimmo | Romani Studies, June 2006 | Go to article overview

(Un)wanted Institutionalization: The Case of Finnish Romani


Granqvist, Kimmo, Romani Studies


For a long period of time, Finnish Romani lived solely as an oral language of the Roma community. It was primarily used within the family and as a secret language. After World War II it lost most of its traditional domains. However, during the last few decades it has undergone a process of institutionalization. As part of this process, the institutional rights of Romani have been much improved and the infrastructure of the language has evolved. The language extended into several new public domains, but the transition from private to public is not unanimously supported by the Roma.

Keywords: Finnish Romani, minority languages, instutionalization, status, language rights, infrastructure

1. Introduction

For a long period of time, Finnish Romani lived solely as an oral language of the Roma community used within the family and as a secret language (Valtonen 1968: 241). Connected with the history, traditions and customs of the Roma, the language has constituted a symbol of cultural identity-the hortto romanseeliba (Åkerlund 2002: 126; Hedman 2004: 43). Very importantly, the language has been a border that separated the Roma from gadze (Hedman 2004: 42). As a secret language, it has also provided protection as well as a possibility to discuss the family's internal matters in strange places during the period when the Roma travelled (Åkerlund 2002: 127).

The language has also been extremely useful as a means of maintenance of discipline, as a medium of exhortations, pieces of advice, and warnings when negotiating business or dealing with authorities (Valtonen 1968: 214; Tolkki 1951: 264-6; Hedman 2004: 43-5). These kinds of function motivated the use of the Romani language so that the language was able to survive. However, as a consequence of social changes after World War II, such as the mechanization of agriculture and urbanization, the traditional occupations of the Roma lost most of their significance, and the forms of habitation changed. As a result, the language lost its traditionally most significant domains, and its use began to decrease rapidly (e.g. Granqvist 2001b; Kopsa-Schön 1996: 44; Vehmas 1961; on professions, Koivisto 1992; cf. Pirttisaari 2003). According to statistics published by Vehmas (1961: 91-9, 188-9), 60 per cent of adult Roma had a complete or good command of Romani, and as many as 89 per cent considered themselves able to get along in Romani. On the other hand, Finnish was the main language of discourse for a vast majority of the informants. Already at that time, the proficiency of young Roma in Romani was weak, which Vehmas (1961: 188) attributed either to a slow rate of language acquisition, or to an accelerated pace of acculturation. A later survey conducted by social welfare authorities in Helsinki in 1979 indicated that no more than 37 per cent of the families that participated in the study mastered the language well, and only 21 per cent could get along in every-day situations (Mustalaisasiain Neuvottelukunta 1981: 57-8). According to Kopsa-Schön (1996: 44), only the elderly Roma were able to communicate fluently in Romani in the 1990s. The young Roma she interviewed did not speak Romani.

The political climate of the latter half of the 1900s permitted a number of legislative measures that greatly improved the position of the Roma and other minorities. One result of the extension of the institutional rights of the languages spoken by the minorities was that new linguistic domains emerged: what had previously been private and solely restricted to the Roma community now became public. The public use of Romani was seen to contradict the traditional point of view, according to which the language was the only property of the Roma which should be carefully safeguarded from outsiders (Åkerlund 2002: 126; cf. Ganander 1780; Valtonen 1968: 241-5; Grönfors et al. 1997: 175; Pirttisaari 2002: 17-18). This contradiction still manifests itself as a fear or shyness of many Roma to use the language publicly. …

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