Final Word

My good pals and language as the DNA of history

DNA.jpg

Language often carries some of the hidden and surprising DNA of the history of mankind, good old pals of mine revealed the other day.

And it all started with the word ‘pal’, a word whose origin intrigued me. I turned to my regular pals in this regard, the wonderful etymological sources and other dictionaries nowadays available on the internet.

As it turns out, ‘pal’ itself is a piece of linguistic DNA testifying to a particular phenomenon in the history that saw Sanskrit from India establishing an influence on the languages of Europe and eventually English.

‘Pal’ was first recorded in English in the late1780s as an alternative term for ‘Gypsy’, to describe the nomadic people of Romani descent. The term, however, existed on the European continent at least a century earlier as pral, plal and phral from the Sanskrit word bhrātṛ or bhrātā, which means ‘brother’.

In modern parlance ‘pal’ has taken on the meaning of a “very close, intimate friend, comrade or chum” (which in turn dates from 19th century Oxford University slang for ‘chamber mate’).

Pal’s travels

It is generally said that ‘pal’ is one of the few common English words said to derive from the old Romani (or Gypsy) language.

The BBC recently reported: “The previous edition of the OED dated the word from 1682, in a manuscript document held in the Hereford Diocesan archives. There was a troubling gap in the evidence then …”

On further research the BBC found a “document containing the use of ‘pal’ in a sworn statement made in a court case of 1682 involving Mary Ashmoore and her lover Ed Broughton”.

But where did the Romani (sometimes also spelled Romany) people, or Roma, come from? They are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, originating from the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, presumably from the area where the states Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab exist today.

They arrived in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe via Persia or Iran between the 6th and 11th century. Originally they were mistakenly thought to have come from Egypt and from there the name ‘Gypsies’, (from the early 17th century) as a shortening of originally Gipcyans or Gypcian, which became ‘Egyptians’.

As happens today, migrants arriving en masse, were received with much suspicion and prejudice. Their origins “have always been shrouded in myth and mystery”, among other reasons because they have kept no written records of their early history.

“Many saw them (and continue to do so in many cases) as dirty, thieving and undesirable, others as artistic, romantic and carefree. In France, they are referred to as gitanes, in Spain they are called gitanos, and in Germany, Zigeuner.”

Tainted image

Through the ages the Romanis’ image has been tainted by a legend, recorded in the Shahnameh – a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi and repeated by several modern authors – which tells a story from the reign of the Sasanian king Bahrām V Gōr.

Towards the end of his reign (421–39) Gōr realised that the poor could not afford to enjoy music. He asked the king of India to send him ten thousand luris, men and women, lute playing experts.

When the luris arrived, Bahrām gave each an ox and a donkey loaded with wheat so that they could live on agriculture and play music for free for the poor. But the luris ate the oxen and wheat.

A year later they came back with cheeks hollowed by hunger. The king, angered by their wasteful behaviour, ordered them to pack up their bags and go wandering around the world.

Language DNA lead the way

In one online article we learn that “linguistic evidence has indisputably shown” that the roots of the Romani language lie in India. It has grammatical characteristics of the Indian languages Hindi and Punjabi, sharing with it large parts of basic lexicon, for example, regarding body parts or daily routines.

In fact, from linguistic evidence linguist one could make the deduction that there were two different migration waves westwards out of India, separated by several centuries.

It is also interesting that numerals in Romani are comparable with those in Hindi and Persian.

Then, only in 2012, genetic research found indications that the Roma did indeed originate from north-western India.

The study suggests that the ancestors of present scheduled tribes and scheduled caste populations of northern India, traditionally collectively referred to as the Ḍoma, are the likely ancestral populations of modern European Roma.

And additional findings appeared to confirm that the “Roma came from a single group that left north-western India about 1,500 years ago.” They reached the Balkans about 900 years ago and then spread throughout Europe.

The genetic evidence now available supports the notion of a mediaeval migration from India to Europe, about which the linguist can rightfully say: “We told you so.”

Final word

For the sake of my real-life close Romanian pals, and because of the prejudice that to this day is directed at the Roma or ‘Gypsies’, let me put it on record that the name of the state of Romania does not come from the Romani or Roma.

There is, however, confusion regarding the origin of the name Romania, given that it has long appeared as Rumelia (or Romania or Romaio) in history books and on maps in reference to an area currently encompassed by Bulgaria.

The name Byzantium for this Chuatesame area was derived from the Greek Basileia Romaion – Empire of the Romaioi or Romans.

The country, as we know it today, consists of three primary regions or provinces, Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia, (the latter two at one stage in history existed as principalities), which were briefly united in 1599-1600 by Mihai the Brave (Mihai Viteazul).

In more recent centuries Transylvania fell under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, only to finally become united again with the other two provinces into modern Romania after World War I.

It came after some turbulent times during the days of Napoleon III in the second half of the 19th century. However, on 24 January 1862 it officially gave us the establishment of a state with the name Romania, with the beautiful city of Bucharest in Wallachia as its capital.

by Piet Coetzer

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