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A Linguistic Introduction

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Romani – An Indo-Aryan Language of Europe

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I will present a brief survey of some of these activities 3. It is a sample, with no claim to deliver a comprehensive description either of all countries, or of all relevant activities in those countries that are named.


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Though far from complete, this survey demonstrates firstly that Romani is gradually occupying a position in the public life of Romani communities, including periodicals, broadcasting, educational material and the school curriculum. It also shows that initiative is regional, and often local. Authors tend to write for an audience consisting of their immediate community, and language planners adopt solutions that can be implemented within the framework of their own region, or sometimes within the boundaries of the state. The most distinctive feature of current Romani codification attempts is therefore their polycentric character.

Calls such as those made by Romani activists I.

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Hancock 8 or V. Kochanowski 9 to adopt a single dialect as a Standard are not being followed. Nor has M. Although the various models are independent of one another, some global tendencies may be identified in the choice of writing system. The latter has advantages especially in email and web communication, where diacritics are not always transmitted across different software platforms.

The fact that authors adopt compromises and show tendencies to accommodate to international solutions indicates that international networking does play a role even in regional and polycentric codification activities. This is becoming even more apparent in recent years, where many Romani periodicals and other publications have websites which are easily accessible and are read by an audience of readers outside their base country.

Country of residence

Some Romani-language web-publications even incorporate contributions from other countries, written in different dialects and in a different writing system. Indeed, variations in writing conventions and choice of dialect are often found even within a single printed publication.

Apart from the technical aspects of orthography, exchange and mutual accommodation is recognisable also in the spread of new vocabulary. Terms such as aement. Email correspondence is probably the most powerful vehicle of written communication in Romani. Orthographic variation in emails is levelled due to the absence, by and large, of diacritics in most systems.

On the other hand, email brings together writers of different dialectal backgrounds. By its very nature — as a loose, spontaneous, rapid, yet effective means of communication, both private and public — email supports a trial-and-error approach to writing: Writers use their own dialects, but respond to individual usages coined by their interlocutors. Emailing in Romani is thus a pool of linguistic diversity, and at the same time a powerful force of convergence.

One of the remarkable features of the polycentric language planning landscape in Romani is the absence of any overt competition. On the whole, those engaged in codification activities appear tolerant of the diversity of codification models, and although discussions and consultations are commonplace, there are few if any visible attempts to interfere with solutions and strategies adopted by others.

The first conclusion to be drawn from this observation is that linguistic uniformity and the symbolism attached to it do not, for most Romani cultural activists, constitute an agenda item of high priority. For the bulk of users of written Romani, none of these demands can be identified beyond the local or regional domain. Although political unity in the sense of pursuing a common cause is on the agenda of most associations and initiatives, most do not regard linguistic diversity as an obstacle to unity.

It may be useful at this point to return to the question of dialect differences in Romani, whose role as potential obstacles to mutual comprehensibility is often emphasised. In fact, Romani dialects form a continuum across Europe, with neighbouring dialects tending on the whole to be quite similar to one another.

Basic vocabulary and grammar do not generally offer any barriers to mutual intelligibility. A greater obstacle are loanwords from the surrounding languages, which differ of course among the dialects.

However, in oral conversation among people from different backgrounds speakers tend to avoid incorporation of a large number of foreign words, switching off code-switching, as it were, and paraphrasing many terms instead. Finally, the dialects of western Europe Germany and neighbouring countries form a coherent group, with Finnish Romani and some of the Romani dialects of southern Italy in a somewhat more isolated position. Face-to-face communication across any of these groups is more difficult and requires somewhat more adjustment and experience, but it is far from impossible.

Bearing this in mind, one can appreciate that written exchanges between writers of different dialects can certainly allow efficient communication, as long as three main conditions are met:. Linguistic pluralism in Romani can thus be taken to mean three basic principles:.

One might contest that a model of linguistic pluralism along the lines suggested here is perhaps idealistic, but not feasible. I would argue that there are several factors that favour pluralism in written language in the contemporary situation — both globally, owing to the role of trans-national communication, post-modern attitudes, and new technologies; and with specific reference to the Romani experience:. Pluralism already represents the overwhelming trend on the ground, with written Romani showing regional codification with some international orientation.

No unification effort will succeed in bringing dozens or even hundreds of authors and thousands of other users of written Romani under the control of one, single authority. And, conversely, no language policy that ignores or tries to bypass these pioneers of written Romani will have a chance to succeed.

[Introduction to Linguistics] Introduction and Overview

A new generation of Romani intellectuals is exposed to various forms of the language, both oral and written, through encounters with other Roma at international conferences, through internships and training seminars in the NGO domain, and through regular email communication and text messaging. It is especially via the latter two media that writing, including trans-national correspondence, has acquired a new position in the daily communication patterns of individuals.

This generation can accept, comprehend and make creative use of different forms and varieties of the Romani language. These young Romani intellectuals, the future of any Romani literacy movement, belong to a global generation of creative and flexible users of written media, who are at ease in experimenting with different variants of the written word via internet chat rooms, emails, and text messages. To them, linguistic pluralism is not just a concept, but a day-to-day reality.

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Arguably, linguistic pluralism is gradually having a global impact, making it the trend rather than an exceptional handicap. Even in languages where there is a firm and rigid tradition of a uniform Standard, a young generation of users is now taking the liberty to embrace more flexibility and functionality. Witness the mixture of UK and US spellings even in academic publications in English, not to mention the disappearance or otherwise random use of apostrophes in most informal writing in English. Or witness the freedom with which anglicisms are being incorporated into media-language in German, or the sudden appearance of apostrophes in informal written German including advertising , or the confusion caused by the introduction of a spelling reform in German, immediately followed by its retraction from various public domains and media.

These and similar developments suggest that a Standard must not necessarily be interpreted in the narrower modern sense — as a symbol of the acceptance of the power and control of a central authority. Arguably, in the absence of a centralised Romani political authority, and in view of the geographical dispersion and cultural blends that make up the diverse communities of Roma across Europe and beyond, nothing but ownership of a diverse set of norms and options would meet both the moral and practical expectations of the Romani population.

In the age of new communication and information technologies, where texts can be transferred instantly from one format into another, and search engines can deliver both precise matches and approximations, where applications can correct both spelling and style, and machines can provide crude but instant translations, there is arguably less need to impose regulation on the individual who engages in written communication, and even less of a need to insist on homogeneity of formats, styles and shapes. Moreover, to the extent that regional norms remain in place and cooperation is sought at the international level, networks can be formed to produce solutions for teaching materials or media, which can then be transferred easily into the respective regional formats for ground-level distribution.

Romani: A Linguistic Introduction

The latter point means firstly, that it is certainly possible and desirable to pursue international networking for the production of texts and teaching materials in Romani, even if we accept the fact that operational centres of text production are regional and local; there is no contradiction between regional pluralism and international networking. Moreover, as our survey above suggests, the two go hand in hand. There is every reason to draw on a wider pool of talent, experience and expertise and pursue the development of language resources for Romani in an international context.

Next, there is a need for resources that will transmit a message of linguistic pluralism and help users of the language acquire proficiency and confidence in accessing different variants and making choices among them.


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  6. The acquisition of literacy itself is best carried out in the language variety that the learner — child or adult — can call their own. But subsequent language teaching can and should incorporate strategies to acquaint learners with different forms of written Romani. Multidialectal teaching materials in Romani have already been produced and tested in Germany and the Czech Republic 12 , and have acted as catalysts for pupils to develop respect and curiosity toward other dialectal variants. A central, electronic pool of teaching resources would allow teachers to have access to a range of materials, and to choose and adapt those that may be of use to them.

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    Finally, there is a need to base new language resources on new technologies, and to make the maximum of what technology can offer. Even simple programming at the level of word-processor macros can enable users to convert texts from one writing system to another. By incorporating professional programmers as well as linguists into the consultation process, procedures can be developed to facilitate the adaptation of texts to different regional and local dialects and spelling conventions, thus enlarging the pool of materials.

    The potential for wider distribution of texts, through format and style conversion and local printing and publishing-on-demand, is likely to create further incentives for writers to produce quality material in Romani. Needless to say, this requires proficiency and consistency in electronic production of texts. It is vital to invest all the available resources to allow those who assume managerial and authorship roles in the production of teaching materials and other texts to undergo appropriate training in basic information technology skills, and to benefit from a pool of expert technicians and programmers.

    These expert technicians might be hired at one or several locations and be available for consultation by email and at occasional workshops, entrusted with the task of consulting a network of co-opted writers, authors, and publishers of Romani material. Electronic dictionaries and other learning tools can offer users similar advantages and support flexibility and pluralism in writing conventions.

    This has been demonstrated already by Romlex, an international collaborative project based at the universities of Graz, Manchester, and Aarhus, with joint funding from the Open Society Institute and the Austrian Chancellary Romlex is an online multidialectal dictionary, covering 25 varieties of Romani and up to 15 target languages.

    As a resource that is committed to pluralism, it is both symbolic and practical in allowing the user to choose among numerous different dialectal variants when keying in a search word in order to obtain a dictionary definition. The resource also enables the user to access separate entries for new vocabulary, and to choose his or her own preferred spelling conventions in the key-in window, while the application searches the database for approximations. Romlex also offers a pool of dialect-to-dialect as well as Romani-to-target language dictionaries which can be printed and distributed on demand.

    Even in the short term, taking into account poor access to electronic resources in many regions where Romani is already part of the primary school curriculum, the incorporation of new technologies into a close-knit international network devoted to the production of teaching and learning materials in Romani will have great advantages: Electronically produced manuscripts can be edited at a designated location for the benefit of collaboration partners across the continent, and converted into the appropriate regional variants upon demand.