Langauge shift in Romani-speaking communities in Hungary — Combining macro and micro interpretations

Csilla Bartha

1: Research Institute for Linguistics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences 2: Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary


Large-scale representative surveys or census data linguistically doubted by sociolinguists working with linguistic minorities do not seem to be sufficient. Macro-sociological factors are in fact important in explaining language shift, but as Fasold (1984: 217; Kulick 1992: 8) points out: ‘there has been little success in using any combination of [them] to predict when language shift will occur’.

Until recently, sociolinguistic research on linguistic practices or language shift patterns of linguistic minorities, especially the Roma, the largest and extremely marginalized ethic group has been a barely studied scientific area in Hungary.

Between 2001 and 2004 the author conducted the first sociolinguistic survey on linguistic and social change in two Romani-speaking communities in Northern Hungary focusing on local models of language shift. Our research (101 informants) combines theories and methods of quantitative sociolinguistics, linguistic ethnography and the language ideology approach. Among the main objectives were to develop powerful multidisciplinary research tools, which have predictive power with respect to future linguistic assimilation processes. Other objectives included giving a detailed analysis of the dynamics of language shift focusing on the process as well as studying the architecture of “ethnic identity” and the role of the minority language in construction and negotiation of identities.

The first part of the paper provides an overview of the current situation of autochtonous communities in Hungary with a special focus on the Roma. After an introduction of a socio-demographic and linguistic profile, the paper will briefly discuss the extremely complex state of Roma population in Hungary, linguistically divided into at least three, completely separate groups. Special attention has been paid to the existing discrepancies between minority rights and their implementation in the educational practices, as well as to the mainstream attitudes (prejudice, racism) which have negative consequences on the future of Romani language maintenance in Hungary. Sources of evidence come from the ongoing FP6 SSA DILING project and the Budapest Sociolinguistic Interview (BSI Version II) corpus.

The second part focuses on some results of the research on community-specific as well as common tendencies in linguistic practices, attitudes, ideologies and identity negotiation within the local Romani-speaking communities. Even though data demonstrate a gradual decrease in the use of the Romani language, the present study revealed that the speed of the process is much slower, more complex, and each community has its own local interpretations and beliefs about the new political-economic and ideological context.

Analysis also highlights that macro-social factors do not directly weaken language retention efforts: they correlate strongly with other factors like attitudes towards the minority language and with ideologies constructed by the community members.

The paper attempts to clear out that comparative multilevel analysis not only broadens our understanding of the dynamics of language shift, but it also makes it easier to determine the appropriate techniques and technologies proposed to decelerate the process.


Fasold, Ralph. 1984. The Sociolinguistics of Society. Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell

Kulick, Don. 1992. Language shift and cultural reproduction. Cambridge: CUP.

Session: Paper session
Shift 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 07