In Romania, linguistic respect for people once derided as Gypsies

The World

In Romania, the official term for the country’s Gypsy minority has been amended, after nearly a century of lobbying.

The official Romanian dictionary now uses the term Roma, and now recognizes that the word Gypsy, or Tigan (pronounced Tzee GAHN), has a pejorative connotation.  Groups that promote Roma rights are celebrating, but many Romanians are against the change — as are some Roma themselves.

In an alley behind a busy farmer’s market in the capital, Bucharest, a Roma man named Aurika said his people call each other Tigan, not Roma.

“For me it’s not a negative word,” he said. “But, if you and I have an argument, and you call me a Tigan, we’re going to have a problem.”

Aurika’s son, Antoni, 11, chimed in.  

“I want to be called Roma,” he said, shyly.

His father got angry.  

“Why?” he asked. “Because they tell you in school that the Tigan are bad?”

“Yes,” the boy said.  

“That’s wrong,” Aurika said. “You are both Tigan and a Romanian citizen.”  

Such prejudice, anger and linguistic confusion is nothing new in Romania.  Some Roma groups have been asking for changes since the early 20th Century. This year they finally got their way.

The Romanian Academy, the guardian of the tongue, has officially defined the group as Roma. Behind that big change is tiny Monica Busuioc, an elderly, bespectacled woman who works on the Academy’s fourth floor.

On a recent day, Busuioc sat with the latest edition of the official Romanian dictionary before her. She said it not only recognizes Roma as the correct name of the ethnic group, it makes an equally important modification of the old name, Tigan.

“Before it said, ‘someone with villainous behavior.’ And we added ‘insulting epithet for someone who has uncivilized behavior.’ ”

Busuioc said linguists have no right to remove terms like Tigan from dictionaries, no matter how offensive, because they’re part of history. The word Tigan, she said, appears in documents dating back as early as the 14th century.

But the Academy can modify definitions to reflect social realities.  

“This term was frequently used in proverbs and sayings, and so on. One cannot eliminate this from the Romanian language. A dictionary cannot eliminate a word,” Busuioc said.

Introducing Roma to the dictionary is also offending some Romanians because, in the Romanian language, Roma and Romanian sound a lot alike.

Many Romanians don’t want to be confused with the Roma. 

At a Bucharest bus stop, a woman who would said her name was Julia said Roma are dangerous and they give Romanians a bad name, especially overseas.  She said her sister is an honest, hard working nurse in Italy.

“Every day, my sister’s coworkers show her articles in the paper saying, look at what you Romanians are doing,” she said. “But what they’re showing her are crimes that the Tigan have committed.”

Roma rights groups say this is the attitude they want to change, and taking the term Tigan out of popular usage can help. Ana Avasiuc, with a Bucharest non-governmental organization named Impreuna, said using the word Tigan amounts to linguistic ghettoization.  

“I was reading about the Roma community of Baia Mare in central Romania, around which the town hall built a wall that cost 60,000 euros,” she said.  “Instead of spending this on things Roma are entitled to get as citizens, it used it to push them as far away from daily life as possible.”

That wall was made of cement. In another Romanian city, officials built one out of metal. The Roma there tore it down and sold the metal for scrap.

These incidents haven’t done much to improve the Roma’s, or Romania’s, image locally or abroad. The question is, can changing a word in the dictionary really change things. Busuioc said she’s not sure.

“I cannot combat the discrimination,” she said.  “Only at the level of words.  It is a problem to change mentality. Surely the word helped. If they hear Roma, Roma, Roma, instead of Tigan, then the men will begin to use Roma.”

Language needs centuries to change, she said, but you have to start somewhere.

Beyond language, the Romanian government will soon unveil a plan to improve the Roma’s lot, through social integration and jobs programs, improved housing and education for the young.

The European Union has given all member states until the end of the year to come up with plans to improve the Roma’s situation.

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