Programme Outline

1. Aims and objectives

The RomRep research programme aims at introducing a hitherto missing but much needed dimension into the study of Romani, by examining the dynamics of complex linguistic repertoires in communities that are undergoing changes through increased mobility and transnational networking, and the resulting emergence of new settings and contexts of linguistic interaction. At the same time we aim to draw on the example of Romani in order to enrich current theoretical and methodological understanding of concepts and methods in ‘critical sociolinguistics’. 

With upwards of 3.5 million speakers, Romani is the most dispersed as well as one of the largest, if not the largest minority language in the European Union. Estimates of speaker numbers outside of Europe, mainly in the Americas, range from 0.5-1.0 million or more. Speaker communities are scattered across virtually all European countries as well as in the Americas and Australia and do not form a majority in any region. The language has attracted increasing interest both from scholars and from policy makers since the opening of European borders in the early 1990s. 

Romani has traditionally been a vernacular language, used primarily for face-to-face interaction in domestic settings; Romani communities are always multilingual and bilingualism in Romani has mostly been unidirectional. Public institutions very rarely maintain organised provisions for Romani. There is relatively little scripted institutional intervention of a regulatory nature in Romani, while speakers usually partake in institutional routines that are led by others, non-Roma, who more often than not display little awareness of Romani linguistic repertoires while on the other hand they are often guided by pre-existing external narratives about the Roma which impact considerably on their aspirations of them. 

Globalisation, increased mobility and networking as well as communication technologies have over the past two decades opened up new interaction domains and new modes of language use. Romani activists have been lobbying governments and multilateral organisations for support for language activities; transnational artistic, political and religious networks have promoted the use of Romani in new institutional and public domains; and social media and digital messaging have transformed the use of Romani from its traditional confinement to oral face to face interaction to written, remote, informal but often publicly accessible modes of communication.

Romani is inherently transnational in its distribution, excluded from top-down language planning, invariably contiguous with other languages in both actual space and functional repertoires, yet at the same time persistently safeguarded by speakers as an emblem of identity and through unscripted micro-level planning. For that reason, it is a perfect case study on which to test current theories and methods for the study of pluralistic and permeable language repertoires in the context of mobility, globalised networking and the increased indexical complexity of the linguistic resources that are employed by individuals and communities. The language’s geographical dispersion under what are essentially very similar sociolinguistic conditions in different locations lends itself for a perfect multi-site investigation.

2. Research questions 

The programme seeks to address the following research questions:

– Given that multilingualism is ubiquitous in Romani communities, how is the use of linguistic resources mapped onto routine activities, and what can we learn from the multi-site comparison about the potential for variation and permeability in the way that language resources are mapped onto similar or parallel activity routines?

– What role do distinct repertoire components have in such routines in the particular Romani setting, with special reference to what is regarded as the in-group Romani variety (‘group-internal’ or group-defining dialect), out-group Romani varieties (the forms of Romani used by and with non-group members), the majority non-Romani language of the country of residence or ‘host’ country, the majority non-Romani language of the country of origin (in the case of migrants) or of transition countries of interim migration, and other foreign languages?

– What meta-discourses about language can be found in the various communities, how do they derive from similar experiences and how do they impact on community internal practices as well as on interaction routines in contacts between the community and external institutions?

– Which interaction settings bring Roma of different backgrounds (such as so-called indigenous, established migrants, and recent migrants), speakers of different Romani varieties, together; how does inter-dialect communication in Romani shape structural choices; and how is it linked to emerging discourses, both private and public, about shared identity and community awareness?

– What approaches to language planning can be identified at the meso- and macro-levels, where organised lobbying and formulated strategies can be observed, in Romani constituencies that are multi-dialectal and who possess a variety of plurilingual repertoires?

– How are plurlinguistic repertories considered at micro-level planning, for instance in the choices made by families to use media (including social media) in Romani or another language, and what consideration is given in this connection to the national languages of origin countries (e.g. Romanian among Romanian Roma in the UK, Finnish among Finnish Roma in Sweden) and the maintenance versus permeability or porousness of transmitted repertoires?

– What institutional practices give rise to domain expansion such as the promotion of Romani literacy, and which narratives are used to shape and describe them by the actors themselves?

– How do external narratives about Roma and their language impact on community internal practices and discourses? And to what extent do Roma take active steps to influence others’ narratives about them in regard to language practices and language needs?

– To what extent is Romani acknowledged in local institutional discourses as part of the fabric of an urban linguistic environment, and to what extent are ‘metrolinguistic’ practices among Roma similar to or different from those that are described for other migrants communities who are able to relate to an ‘origin’ or ‘heritage’ language that shows overlap at least in perception with a localised origin community?

3. Theories, basic concepts and methods

In order to address these questions we embrace post-structuralist notions that approach language as a localised practice (Pennycook 2010) and which examine the use of language in the context of emerging postnationalist narratives (Heller 2011), globalisation (Blommaert 2010), the relevance of superdiversity (Vertovec 2007) and the need to tailor analytical tools to a new pace of change in a complex reality especially in urban settings (Blommaert 2013, Blommaert & Rampton 2011, Arnaut, Blommaert, Rampton & Spotti 2015, Canagarajah 2017). We avail ourselves of a series of recent observation methodologies developed in order to study multilingual language practices in urban settings, and which emphasise the need for a holistic appreciation of repertoires that investigate communication beyond the confines of system-oriented language boundaries, as applied through the conceptual lenses of frameworks such as translanguaging (Blackledge & Creese 2010, García & Li Wei 2014), individual repertoire analysis (Matras 2009, Blommaert & Backus 2013), and metrolingualism  (Pennycook & Otsuji 2015; see also Stevenson 2017). 

While Romani has received much attention from a historical as well as from a functional and corpus-based contact linguistic perspective (e.g. Matras 2002, Adamou 2016), as good as no attention has been granted to actual discourse in the language and the manifestations of plurilingualism or, as we prefer to approach it following the above cited research context, repertoire management (an exception being discussions of repertoire management in computer-mediated discourse; see Leggio 2015, Leggio & Matras 2017a). We will draw on our established access to communities, on our team members’ immersion in them and on their knowledge of Romani and other relevant languages, to obtain first-hand data on actual interaction in localised settings, capturing what Lamarre (2013) refers to as ‘verbatim’ samples of language ‘on the move’. Accordingly, following Pennycook & Otsuji (2015), we will seek to map language practices involving Romani to the routines of urban life, where Roma interact with a range of institutions and engage in a range of transactions and interactions. This introduces a key innovation to the study of Romani at community level, which so far has been preoccupied primarily with descriptive aspects of the speech of rural communities, or else has centred on Romani speakers as a contained community disregarding their interactions with others.

In connection with language policy and planning, too, consideration has been given to Romani primarily at meso- and macro-level (see e.g. Matras 1999, Halwachs 2005, Granqvist 2006), while large-scale surveys of multilingual cities have, with few exceptions (such as Extra Yağmur 2011, Duarte & Gogolin 2013, Matras, Robertson & Jones 2016), largely disregarded the language. We introduce a new perspective into the study of policy and planning in Romani that directly derives from and is congruent with our approach to repertoires as individuals’ dynamic use of linguistic resources in the context of interactional routines. We connect to the discussion of micro-level language planning (Liddicoat & Baldauf 2008, Chua & Baldauf 2011) and especially to recent theorising of the interplay between policy, planning, and everyday interaction in domestic domains (Davies & Ziegler 2015, Macalister & Mirvahedi 2017) to approach issues of language vitality, language maintenance, and language choice from a direction that is consistent with our overall appreciation of language as a local practice. Consequently, we embed our investigation of family-based and community-based micro-level planning of language in Romani into a holistic appreciation of language as an activity, one that examines speakers’ life histories, their ideologies and those of the actors that surround them around the locatedness of language that views languages as a pool of non-countable, non-discrete and thus non-separable resources which, in the way in which they are employed, are themselves constitutive of ‘languaging’ (Pennycook 2010; cf. also Canagarajah 2008). 

Exploiting the uniqueness potential of the Romani case study, and seeking connections to cross-discipline theorising, we will demonstrate how analytical concepts from the social sciences that are connected to the study of globalisation, such as Appadurai’s (1992) notion of ethnoscapes, Glick-Schiller’s (2010) critique of methodological nationalism, and Vertovec’s (2007) idea of superdiversity, can be shown to be intrinsically relevant to the perpetually transnational configuration of Romani speech communities. We will show how Romani varieties and the practices into which they are embedded or indeed through which they are constituted lend themselves as examples for the application of a more dynamic understanding of dialect, one that not only draws on notions of koineization and levelling (Trudgill 1986, Scholtmeijer 2000, Kerswill 2002) but also on the more activity-oriented theories of dialect as local repertoire that results in an indexical ordering of linguistic resources (Silverstein 1998, 2003). This approach to localised dynamism as function-driven and at the same time hierarchical will be applied equally to our investigation of how use of Romani expands into new domains, acquiring a presence in computer-mediated communication, where literacy is licensed precisely by a loosening of the sequential organisation of distinct ‘languages’ and their blending instead into an integrated resource (Androutsopoulos 2013), whereas the planned promotion of Romani printed literacy offers an example of the way in which texts are themselves figurative, metaphoric displacements and in that sense constitute integrated manifestations of the collective.

Drawing inspiration from these theoretical models, the programme’s interest is firstly in the components that make up the repertoires and supply linguistic-communicative resources to the Romani community in globalised, urban contexts: in-group Romani (identified by speakers as their ‘group-internal’ or group-defining dialect), out-group Romani (the form of Romani used by and often with non-group members), the majority non-Romani language of the country of residence or ‘host’ country, the majority non-Romani language of the country of origin (in the case of migrants) or of transition countries of interim migration, and other languages to which community members have access. Next, we are interested in describing how the employment of resources drawn from these components map onto routine communicative activities and communicative events. The teams will aim at documenting, and for that purpose observing and where applicable participating in, activity routines that involve family communication (accessible to us in particular through interaction by which our team members will provide casual and informal advice and support to adults and parents on matters such as school registration and school progress of children and interaction with various institutions such as school and authorities), extended family and inter-family interactions (enabled through our participation as guests in celebrations such as weddings and christenings), worship (enabled through our participant observation in Romani evangelical congregations and missionary gatherings as well as through individual interaction with missionaries), individual narration (captured through life history interviews), informal written communication among family and extended family and friends within the community (captured with permission from individuals to view text messages and to observe friends networks on Facebook), public display of informal written discourse (captured through YouTube videos and comments), interactions among Romani professionals and authors (captured through participant observation in meetings of cultural activists and interviews with activists and authors), and literary text analysis (enabled through access to a corpus of literary production). 

In addition, we will employ a ‘language on the move’ approach (Lamarre 2013, Pennycook & Otsuji 2015), following individuals across various interaction routines in the urban setting and making a record of, and where possible audio recording communicative events. Typical settings will include interaction in youth clubs, appointments at institutions, shopping in the local neighbourhood, visits to friends and relations, participation in organised activities of Romani people such as church or cultural activism and cultural events.

The observations will also take into account the distribution of repertoire choices across a variety of communicative events and media. In the family domain, for instance, we look into the choice of broadcast media and music. Online, in social media, we examine the choices made in communicative events of a presentational nature where a user reports on an event, and in accompanying audio-visual segments (embedded video clips) as well as the choices in comments posted in reaction to those. In institutional events, we look at formal and scripted presentation in comparison with person-to-person interaction among participants. In addition to the documentation and analysis of repertoire use among Romani participants and their interlocutors, we seek to collect and analyse a corpus of meta-discourse on language, from both Roma and non-Roma with whom they interact (such as friends in the young generation, teachers, health care professionals, officials) and to document and assess the extent to which Romani plays a role in institutionalised language provisions, for instance through the training and deployment of Romani speaking teachers and classroom assistants and of Romani interpreters in public services such as health care and social services. 

All these together add up to a portfolio of observations that captures individual choices that are localised and at the same time indexical and hierarchically ordered, on the one hand, and negotiations around the scripting and regulation of various routines, on the other, which amount to what has been termed micro-level language planning activities. Our principal goal is, once again, to compare such configurations across the various investigation sites of complex (multi-group) Romani communities in different countries, and then, drawing on that comparison, to assess whether the distinctiveness of Romani communities, as alluded to above, offers any particular insights that can sharpen the theoretical assumptions that have been put forward in the conceptual frameworks cited above.


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This project is funded by