Romani Genetic Linguistics and Genetics: Results, Prospects and Problems

By Bakker, Peter | Romani Studies, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Romani Genetic Linguistics and Genetics: Results, Prospects and Problems


Bakker, Peter, Romani Studies


Much progress has been made recently in the migration history of the Roms based on language data. Genetic research on the Roms, using DNA data, sheds light on the same, by studying connections between European Roms and local populations, between Roms in different locations, and between Roms and Asian groups. The genetic data confirm a migration of the ancestors of the Roms out of South Asia, through southern Persia. In most locations of settled populations in Europe, the Roms appear rather different from the local non-Roms and from other Romani groups. The groupings used by geneticists often differ from those used by linguists, and the density of data, too, differs between the two disciplines. This leads to problems of different kinds in comparing the genetic and linguistic results on migration patterns. Generally, the data point to the same historical scenario, including the dating of linguistic and genetic splits.

Keywords: dialects, genetics, geography, Gypsies, history, language, linguistics, migration, Romani, Roma

Until now, most findings on the origin of the Roms and the history and splits of Romani groupings have been established by linguistic research. An Indian origin of the Romani language was proven several centuries ago, and migration patterns were reconstructed subsequently with linguistic data. Archaeological or historical corroboration was almost completely absent. More recently, another branch of science, human genetics, has contributed additional evidence to these historical findings, especially the implications of DNA research. This article presents a brief summary of the rather extensive genetic literature on Roms, and discusses the compatibility of linguistic and genetic data. Two types of evidence are dealt with: the mutation history and the distribution of genetically transmitted diseases.

The results of linguistic and genetic research appear to be compatible: genetic research proves an Indian origin, subsequent splits and the founding of groupings by limited number of ancestors and often limited mixture with outsiders. However, a number of methodological problems are identified, especially the way of sampling by geneticists and the fact that some genetic research is not done independently from linguistic findings. If performed well, genetic and linguistic research can complement one another, and promising findings are ahead.

1. Introduction

The question where the Roms come from has long fascinated both students of the Roms and the Roms themselves. There is evidence that they arrived in Europe in the late Middle Ages and that the language originates in India. However, there are no unambiguous historical documents that mention a massive exodus from South Asia or that describe a sizable group travelling between India and Europe. Linguistic research, however, has enabled us to reconstruct a migration route between India and Europe. After speakers of an early form of Romani arrived in Europe, they spread through the continent, which, naturally, led to the development of different varieties of the language.

In this article I will try to shed new light on the history of the migration of the ancestors of the Roms from India, and their subsequent migrations, by reviewing the increasing body of literature on recent genetic research, and compare it with what linguistic research has established. In Section 2 I first sketch the historical background of linguistic research. Well aware that genetic research is controversial, even more so in the case of groups like the Roms, I will discuss the choice of these data in Section 3. In section 4 I deal with several ways in which genetic data can shed light on what we already know from linguistics, and compare changes in language with changes in genes. Section 5 deals with the history of Roms as revealed in DNA. I will focus on the Indian origin, the journey through Iranian speaking territory, evidence from genetic diseases, the comparison between Roms and neighbouring populations, and the relation between the genetic and dialectal diversity of Romani groups. …

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