Τheme: Community studies concerning majority-minority linguistic and social inter-relations

(X ICML, Trieste)

 

Antonios Liapis

 

 In the area of Thrace (northern-eastern Greece), near the borders οf Bulgaria and Turkey, exists a Muslim minority (about 100.000 people) consisting of Turkish-speaking, Pomac-speaking and Romani-speaking populations.

The Gypsies (self-appellation Roma) have lived in Greek lands for centuries. Most historians think that the first big settlements of Gypsies on the Balkans (or Hemus peninsula), and more specifically in Thrace, can be dated back to the beginning of the 9th century. Abundant historical evidence points to the presence of Gypsies in the Byzantine Empire and their entry into Serbia, Wallahia and Moldova in the period 11th-14th century.

There is a wealth of information about Gypsy presence in Thrace (Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish parts) at the time of Ottoman Empire. They were mentioned in many laws and other official documents, mostly tax registers, under the names Cengene or Kipti. Gypsies in the Ottoman Empire were actively setting in towns and villages. A new type of semi nomadic way of life was established too- the Gypsies had a permanent winter residence and an active nomadic season in the respective region. Often some Gypsies would break away from the traditional Gypsy occupations and take up farming or menial labour in the cities.

Gypsies had a special place in the overall social and administrative organization of the Ottoman Empire. They were differentiated according to the ethnic principle (some rather unusual for the Ottoman Empire), with no sharp differentiation between Muslims and Christians in social status. There were some small privileges for Muslim Gypsies of taxes payment.

The Muslim Romas of the Greek Thrace are a remarkable exception worldwide, as since 1923 judging by the religion, they have legally belonged to the homo-religious Muslim community, that has a totally different language (Turkish) and different cultural characteristics.

The education provided to the Muslim community overall, according to Greek-Turkish agreements, obliges the Gypsies to learn a foreign language (Turkish) apart from the official state language which is Greek.

The Gypsies today are roughly numbered in 20.000 people and in their vast majority they use the Turkish language and only a mere percentage of 10-15% actually uses the Gypsy language, (Romani). The two basic cores of the gypsy language in the Greek Thrace is the quarter at the end of Andrianoupoleos street in Komotini and in the village Drosero in Xanthi. In quite a big extent the gypsy language is familiar to the generation that is around forty years old, however it is less and less used in the community, whereas their children mainly speak Turkish, since they attend classes in Turkish in the schools of the minority where they are taught both Greek and Turkish.

The dwellers of the two settlements mentioned above have been permanently situated in the area during the 20th century and still maintain many aspects of their former nomadic life. However their permanent habitation had serious social and financial consequences. All their traditional occupations gradually became extinct and together with that came the loss of the freedom they had when they had been wandering around. This decay has reflected upon the language as well. The Gypsy songs and tales were gradually replaced by the Turkish and Greek ones. Moreover they lost their self-respect, as a result of the social and financial exclusion they were subjected to, and some of them even felt shame to declare in public their own identity and found it preferable to often borrow foreign identities, such as the ones of the coreligionist Turks.

 

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