Gurbet Romani is a dialect of Romani (Indo-Aryan language of Indo-European origin) spoken in the Western Balkans, including in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania. The Gurbet-speaking Roma, similarly to other Vlax Romani groups, are often characterised by their transient lifestyle. As a result of this, as well as following the Yugoslav wars (1991-2001), we find Gurbet-speakers today in several other, especially western, European countries. Well known are, for example, the Gurbet-speakers (called Xoraxane) in Italy, a number of whom migrated from Bosnia previously.
Gurbet Romani belongs to the South Vlax dialect group of Romani. Historically, the South Vlax dialects emerged in the Romanian-speaking territories, which is evidenced, on the one hand, by a strong Romanian influence on the Romani lexicon, phonology and morphology, and a number of shared linguistic innovations on the other. The migration of the South Vlax Romani speakers out of Romania dates back to at least the eighteenth century and was most likely expedited by the abolishment of the slavery of Roma in Wallachia and Moldavia in the middle of the nineteenth century. South Vlax Romani speakers are (still) present in southern Romania, as well as further to the south, namely in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. The South Vlax varieties in these areas are not of the Gurbet-type.
It is difficult to divide Gurbet Romani into sub-dialects because of the poor linguistic documentation in the majority of the countries in which it is spoken (unlike in Bosnia and Herzegovina, see the collection of folk tales by Uhlik 1939-58). In fact, the division of the South Vlax dialect group into subgroups (such as into Gurbet Romani) is not as clear as in the case of the North Vlax dialect group (see Boretzky 2003). However, we can identify some features shared by most, or at least by the lion’s share, of Gurbet varieties such as the differentiation between the third person singular (sasa/saha) and the third person plural (sesa/seha) past copula forms or the loss of the intervocalic and final /s/.
The use of the group name ‘Gurbet’ as a dialect name often creates difficulties for the classification of Romani dialects. By using the term ‘Gurbet Romani’, some linguists refer only to the Romani varieties spoken by those who identify themselves as Gurbet Roma, such as some Romani groups in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Others employ the term ‘Gurbet Romani’ or ‘Gurbet-type’ Romani to all South Vlax varieties spoken in the West Balkans, irrespective of self-denominations used by the speakers. The absence of a clear division of South Vlax Romani into sub-dialects also contributes to the ambiguous use of the term ‘Gurbet Romani’.
Gurbet Romani speakers may refer to themselves using various different names. As mentioned, the self-denomination ‘Gurbet’ (from Turkish gurbet ‘stranger, foreigner’) is used primarily in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Further common self-appellations used by Gurbet-speakers are Džambaz (from Turkish cambaz ‘horse dealer, acrobat, circus performer’) in Macedonia, Das (meaning ‘Slav; Christian’, from Old Indo-Aryan dasa ‘servant, slave’) in Montenegro and Xoraxane (meaning ‘Muslims’, of unclear origin) in Italy. The group name Čergar (meaning ‘tent-dweller’, of Turkish origin) is widespread throughout the Balkans, especially in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and used for the itinerant Roma of Christian faith that are mainly, but not exclusively, Gurbet-speakers.
Greek and Romanian represent the earlier, European, contact languages of all Gurbet varieties. Among the recent contact languages we find various South Slavic languages and/or Albanian.
Gurbet Romani is primarily an oral language used for intra-group communication. It has not been standardised or codified in any of the Balkan countries, though it has enriched the Macedonian Romani standard by adding a small number of lexicon and linguistic features to the language.
There is a lack of information on the overall sociolinguistic situation of Gurbet Romani in the Balkans. Regarding the Gurbet-speaking communities that migrated to Austria from the 60s onwards, Romani is relatively vital and still dominates the in-group communication.
Boretzky, Norbert (2003): Die Vlach-Dialekte des Romani, Strukturen - Sprachgeschichte - Verwandtschaftsverhältnisse - Dialektkarten. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Boretzky, Norbert and Birgit Igla (2004): KommentierterDialektatlas des Romani Teil 1; Vergleich der Dialekte. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Friedman, Victor A. (2017): Seven Varieties of Arli: Skopje as a Center of Convergence and Divergence of Romani Dialects. Romani Studies 5, 27(1): 29−45.
Friedman, Victor A. (1999): The Romani Language in the Republic of Macedonia: Status, Usage, and Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 46(3-4): 317−339.
Leggio, Daniele Victor. 2011. The dialect of the Mitrovica Roma. Romani Studies 21(1): 57–113.
Matras, Yaron (2005): The classification of Romani dialects: A geographic-historical perspective. In: Schrammel, Barbara and Dieter W. Halwachs (eds.) General and applied Romani linguistics. Munich: Lincom Europa. 7−26.
Uhlik, Rade (1939-58): Serbo-Bosnian Gypsy folk tales. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society [various issues].
© Zuzana Bodnarova 2019
[romani] PROJECT - Austrian Roma incl. Gurbet (University of Graz)
[romani] PROJECT - Austrian Romani incl. Gurbet Romani (University of Graz)
QUALIROM - Gurbet Romani teaching materials (University of Graz)
Romani Morpho-Syntax database (University of Manchester)
RomLex - Lexical database (University of Graz)