“LANGUAGE is more than blood”, in the words of theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. Languages truly decide the glory, survival or defeat of nations on the battlefields of time, where not a single drop of blood is shed. When ethnic groups give up their language, though words might occasionally survive in linguistic studies or folk songs, they can easily be reduced to fragile, dusty museum-pieces.
So June 29, 2008, should certainly go down in the history of Slovakia’s 300,000-strong Roma – what is more, the entry should be written in the now standardised, and officially recognised, Roma language. Because on that day the representatives of the Roma communities formally signed the Declaration of the Roma of the Slovak Republic on the Standardisation of the Roma language.
By this act, the language of Slovakia’s Roma has joined the family of standardised European languages.
Though the news made few headlines in Slovakia, it is a very important step from which generations of Roma could benefit in the future if both the Roma communities and the non-Roma population understand the importance of supporting the use of the language as a way to strengthen Roma identity.
Hopefully, a standardised language that the Roma community can agree on will open a window to education, which is one of the most important ways to escape the circle of deprivation.
The Roma publication Romano Nevo l'il quotes Miroslav Gergeľ, a young Roma poet, who says “Te haľon, hoj kamav but, avka dikhen ando gendala” - “if you think I demand too much, look into your mirrors”.
Yet, language is a potential source of pride not only for poets and writers but also for Roma children, who need to learn much more about their culture than just a couple of references and paragraphs from some non-Roma textbooks.
The non-Roma majority might not realise the importance of this day because most have never known the feeling of having their language fade away.
At the same time, the European Union released a special Eurobarometer survey on discrimination in EU countries, which shows that around a quarter of Europeans would feel uncomfortable having a Roma neighbour: according to the survey this is a striking difference to comfort levels with people of other ethnic origins.
In the Czech Republic, as well as in Italy, almost half of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable with a Roma neighbour, while in Slovakia 38 percent said so. A paltry 17 percent of Slovaks said they had no concerns about the company of Roma. The findings of the survey are disturbing.
Obviously it will take many years before journalists find more Roma politicians in parliament or before the public see more Roma journalists appearing regularly on their television screens.
In Slovakia there is also a continuing and acute lack of Roma teachers, according to Erika Adamová, spokesperson of the deputy prime minister for human rights and minorities, Dušan Čaplovič.
The mistreatment of Roma criminal suspects and routine discrimination against Roma remain blemishes on Slovakia's human rights record, according to the annual report on human rights practices released by the US State Department on March 11.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has also noted in its annual report, published on May 28, that discrimination against Roma remains a human rights problem in Slovakia.
In 2007, the Roma minority faced discrimination in Slovakia in its access to education, housing, healthcare and other services, as well as persistent prejudice and hostility, said Amnesty International.
In light of the fact that many Roma in Slovakia still live on the margins of society and in poverty, and that many Roma children are still being needlessly shunted into special classes for children with mental disabilities and learning difficulties, the standardisation of the Roma language is a positive achievement for Slovakia to show to the world.
Some Roma are sceptical, saying that their community might not be ready to accept or use the standardised language.
However, a former cabinet proxy for the Roma community, Klára Orgovánová, said that it was crucial for the Roma to say “we have a language, which is correct and this is how we are going to use it”.
And, as Orgovánová pointed out, the act also helps Slovakia to fulfil its commitments under the Charter of Minority Languages.
7. Jul 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová