Jean Véronis

Se connecter à moi sur LinkedIn Me suivre sur Twitter Facebook RSS

mercredi, octobre 13, 2010

Lexis: Roma and Romanians

I have just returned from a few days in Barcelona, where Pompeu Fabra University had invited me. As nothing prevents combining the pleasant with the useful, I took advantage of the occasion to go hear Bizet’s Carmen at the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house. It was a superb performance. Roberto Alagna (Don José) did Roberto Alagna, but Beatrice Uria-Monzon was literally mind-boggling in the role of Carmen. Some say she is this role’s best interpreter today. They just might be right!

How ironic in these times of French Roma-phobia: the world's most-performed French work tells a gypsy story. Just like the Mérimée short novel from which it originates, the opera reflects the Romantic fascination with Roma (hm, Roma, Romantics… we’ll come back to this). Following perhaps in the footsteps of Cervantes (Little Gypsy), Bizet, Mérimée, Hugo, Borrow, Liszt and many others were charmed by this people living on the fringes of society, freedom incarnate - free to be on the move, free from work, free from fitting into society; all elements found in Carmen. This fascination did not lack its touch of condescendence (quite apparent, I think, in Mérimée's short novel), but all in all this 19th century tendency was doubtlessly preferable to what preceded it: Age of Enlightenment intellectuals were not very pleasant with Roms. The Encyclopaedia entry concerning them is rather revealing (see rest of article here [fr]):

Translation: EGYPTIANS, or rather BOHEMIANS, feminine, masculine, plural noun forms (Modern History). Types of disguised vagabonds, who, despite their bearing these names, nevertheless come not from Egypt, nor from Bohemia; who disguise themselves with coarse garments, dirty their faces and bodies, & make a certain jargon among themselves; who roam here & there, & exploit people by giving the pretext of telling fortunes & healing maladies, by making dupes of them, stealing & pillaging in the countryside.

When I speak of Romantic fascination with Roma, I think I am committing an anachronism. To my knowledge, the term was not in use at the time; one spoke rather of Bohemians. It is moreover the only word used in Bizet’s Carmen. Unless I'm mistaken, the French term gitane, the first that comes to the Gallic mind and which translates into the English gypsy, does not appear in his work. It would however have been more appropriate for designating the Roma from southern Spain. This word, however, does not seem to have been in common usage in 19th century language. Mérimée, an informed connoisseur of Roma culture (as shown especially in his short novel’s last chapter), used the word gitan, but in its forms gitano, gitana, which leads one to think it had not yet truly become part of the French language. Hugo used it once in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the rest of the time he spoke of “the Egyptian”, and “Bohemians”). I don’t know when it came into common use - probably in the early 20th century (the Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé [fr], the French equivalent of the OED, mentions its use in the writings of Loti and Montherlant).

No matter, these denominations are a good indication of the confusion surrounding the origins of the Roma people. The word Bohemian recalls that they were thought to have come from Bohemia. The French gitans is (like its English counterpart gypsy) a deformation of Egiptano, because they were also believed to have come from Egypt. A third confusion seems to have come with the recent period of their controversial expulsion from France to Romania. The words Roma, Romanian seem to be six of one and half a dozen of the other, although there is no relation between the two words. The modern words Romania, Romanian come from the Latin romanus, which recalls that at a certain period (the 16th century, it seems to me), certain of the region's peoples wanted to set themselves and their linguistics apart from their Slav environment (Romanian being a romance language), and why not, perhaps also say they somehow were descended from the Romans... The word romantic has the same root, since it comes to us after a relatively complicated journey from the Old French roman, itself from the Latin romanus, which designates a work in the common language (as opposed to Latin).

The word rom however, means "man, husband" in the Rom language, that is in Romani (which is more a family of similar languages - a “macro-language” – rather than an actual single language). Mérimée knew this word:
Once we were alone she began to laugh and caper like a lunatic, singing out: “You are my rom, I am your romi

One of the names which the gypsies apply to themselves, Roma, or “the married couple”, seems to me a proof of their racial respect for the married state.
The Encyclopaedia extract shows that already in the 18th century it was suspected that the Roma were neither Egyptians nor Bohemians. Linguistics provided the first clues as to their origins. Indeed, Romani resembles the languages of northern India (see here). I don’t know if the French Wikipedia is going a little far in saying that the word Rom itself corresponds directly to the god Rama, one of Vishnu’s avatars, but it is certain that the connection between the Romani lexis and that of Sanskrit is very strong. As is often the case, linguistics and genetics come to the same conclusions (see here).

This new confusion which I seem to be finding between Roma and Romanian can easily be forgiven owing to the accidental link between these words. I don’t know if it is a completely innocent link. This is a very handy confusion [fr], between the majority of Roma who have been on French territory for centuries, and the not entirely legal minority of immigrants from Eastern Europe (see also here [fr])… The big melting pot is starting to bubble away. And the result doesn’t smell very good.

Further reading

Follow up

0 Commentaires:

Enregistrer un commentaire