Gypsies (Anthropology)

The term ‘Gypsy’ is used in Anglo-American anthropology for endogamous communities who refer to themselves variously as Rom, Sinti, Manush, Kale, etc. and live scattered throughout Europe and North America (Salo 1990), in parts of Southern and Central America, Northern Africa and Southern Africa. ‘Gypsy’ derives from the misnomer ‘Egyptian’, which resulted from the erroneous notion that ‘Gypsies’ originally came from Egypt. Philologists examining the dialects of the Romanes language spoken among these communities in the eighteenth century discovered their Indic structure. Lexically the six to seven major contemporary dialects of Romanes have been largely influenced by diverse European languages, in addition to Persian, Greek, Armenian and probably Arabic. This points to a westward migration from South Asia at an as yet unknown period. Although some Gypsies such as the Kale of Spain (the ‘Gitanos’) no longer speak Romanes, for most groups some Romanes dialect is mother tongue.

There has been much speculation about the early history of Gypsies. From the fifteenth century onwards their presence in Western Europe is attested in documents, and they probably entered the Balkans around the thirteenth century. It is difficult to affirm their presence here earlier, since they were often confused with local peripatetic communities (Rao 1987). Individuals from the so-called ‘dangerous classes’ in Europe probably joined Gypsy bands time and again, yet the latter have by and large valued and defended their separate identity. Pollution taboos whose violation implies expulsion from the group still help preserve this identity. These relate as much to activities like eating and washing as to behaviour towards the dead, and are essential to Gypsy religious belief and practice (Okely 1983; Piasere 1985). Yet everywhere Gypsies also share the religious denomination of their non-Gypsy neighbours, and in Christian areas they are Christian, in Muslim areas Muslim.

The Gypsy economy traditionally corresponded with their peripatetic niche, and seasonal nomadism has been used to engage in petty trade and provide various services and crafts to a wide range of clients. In Western Europe many are no longer nomadic, or only sporadically so, and in countries such as Spain they have been sedentary for generations. While in socialist Eastern Europe many were forced into wage labour in generally low-status, unskilled jobs (Kaminski 1980; Mirga 1992), some from Southern Europe are employed as migrant labour in the more industrialized countries of Western Europe. The hallmark of Gypsy economy is extreme flexibility, and both within the socialist and capitalist systems many communities have managed to retain some degree of independence (Stewart 1997).

The social and political organization of Gypsies is community-specific. Kinship systems range from bilaterally reckoned kindred to an absence of formalized kin groups; kinship terminology also varies between groups, and examples of both Eskimo type (e.g. ‘Vlach Gypsies’) as also of the Sudanese type (e.g. ‘Slovensko Roma’) may be found. Most communities are characterized by the acephalous nature of small, local groups, accompanied by a strong gender hierarchy.

Most Gypsies now live in caravans or houses in underprivileged areas. This is symptomatic of their low social status and of the discrimination and harassment they have been subjected to, and still are especially in Europe, where most of them live. Over the centuries they have been banished, imprisoned, tortured, hanged, enslaved or deported to European colonies overseas. This persecution culminated in the Holocaust in which more than half a million were exterminated. Estimates of the contemporary Gypsy population in Europe range between 2 and 5.5 million (Vossen 1983).

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