Over the weekend the class read Dr. Ian Hancock’s article “Duty and Beauty, Possession and Truth: The Claim of Lexical Impoverishment as Control,” on Romano Kopachi, an excellent website on “Romani culture from a Romani viewpoint” by Ronald Lee, Romani activist, author, lecturer, and journalist. Dr. Hancock, a linguist at The University of Texas, Austin, reveals a startling amount of falsified claims about the Romani language by writers and even other academics, including criminology and anthropology textbooks.
A number of authors have claimed that because of our character as a people, we lack certain virtues, and that this is reflected in our Romani language which cannot even express them. Those which have been discussed by different writers include ‘duty’, ‘possession’, ‘truth’, ‘beautiful’, ‘read’, ‘write’, ‘time’, ‘danger’, ‘warmth’, ‘quiet’, ‘God’, ‘soul’ and ‘immortality’. How negatively must the non-Gypsy world regard our people, to think that we cannot express such basic human concepts and skills, or that we don’t even know the difference between good and evil! Eleanor Smith (1943: 59) wrote that ‘in the gypsy language the words ‘divine’ and ‘devilish’ are the same’. On a Geraldo Rivera Show which dealt with Gypsy confidence crimes broadcast on CBS Television in April 1990, one invited ‘Gypsy expert’, former Associate Professor John Dowling of Marquette University in Wisconsin, asserted in all seriousness that “Gypsies don’t know the difference between right and wrong, like the rest of us” – a man who has never met a Romani and whose qualifications originate with statements such as Eleanor Smith’s.”
— Hancock, bold emphasis added
Can you imagine falling in love without any concept of ‘duty,’ ‘possession,’ ‘truth,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘time,’ ‘danger,’ ‘warmth,’ ‘quiet,’ ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ and ‘immortality’? Love is one of the most humanizing emotions or states-of-being. When we love, we are relatable– we are understood. Of course, those words and concepts do exist in the Romani language, but people outside the culture continue to deny this. Read the rest of Hancock’s article for more about that.
Maybe Harry Potter doesn’t seem like the obvious choice here, but stay with me. The film that this clip is excerpted from, part two of The Deathly Hallows, deals mainly with the terror of genocide (the eradication of muggle-born witches and wizards) at the hands of a militant, Fascist uprising (the Death Eaters and Voldemort). And at the most crucial moment of Harry’s quest to defeat Voldemort, his mentor, Dumblebore appears to remind him that “words are… our most inexhaustible source of magic.” And its true. Nations rise and fall on words, religions and cultures are built and lost through words, every civilization takes shape through language, stories, and beliefs. And now, coming back to the topic du jour, what people write about other cultures matters, and it matters quite a lot. Just as it is harmful and dehumanizing to present Romani characters in film and TV as functional criminals or spell-casters time after time, it is dehumanizing (and incorrect) to suggest that the Romani people have no concept of truth, beauty, possession, and time. When these stereotypes and misconceptions are perpetuated by the media, in pop culture, and by authors, it implies that Gypsies are somehow inherently deficient, and Romani persecutors have used that as an excuse to justify antigypsism for centuries.
The films you’ve chosen to analyze probably deal with “impoverishment” in the Romani culture/community in some way. It could be “lexical impoverishment,” as discussed in the article, or it might be moral, intellectual, or emotional impoverishment. It could even be economic impoverishment. Write down all of the implied Romani “impoverishments” in the film you’ve chosen and think about what it implies about the Romani community and/or the non-Romani community in the film. Does it make Romani people seem more or less sympathetic? More or less human? More or less stereotypical? How or why?
For this week’s blog post, write a 300 word analysis of the impoverishments that you’ve noticed and relate it to your argument. If you are working on refining your thesis statement, this post could help you revise it.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” –Keats, from Ode on a Grecian Urn”
If “truth and beauty” are the cultural pillars of Western civilization, the false accusation that Romanies don’t have these concepts is particularly dehumanizing.