True Lithuania

Gypsies (Romani people)

Unlike in many southeastern European countries, Gypsies make up only a small portion of Lithuanian population (2 500 people) but they are very visible for those who seek. Next to Vilnius international airport there is a unique Gypsy district ("Taboras") full of illegally constructed wooden shacks whose owners refuse to pay any taxes.

This favela-like district (the only such in the Baltic States) of some 500 people is a major drug dealing spot and all attempts to curtail this activity or to resettle the Gypsies into social housing have failed so far (and there were many).

Due to the participation of a large part of Lithuania‘s Gypsies in criminal activities as well as the self-isolation of this community, the opinion polls usually show that the Gypsies are the least wanted neighbors.

Gypsy ethnicity formed after their ancestors departed northern India at 300 BC for reasons unknown. They reached Lithuania in 15th-16th centuries AD through Persia (passed by in 11th century) and Byzantium. Being the last nomads of Europe Gypsies used to migrate regularly with their entire villages ("Taboras") of related families, led by a baron or a king. Under the Soviet rule all Lithuanian Gypsies settled down and many traditional authorities disintegrated although the informal Gypsy law court still takes place.

Children playing at the Čigonų (Gypsy) street in Taboras of Vilnius. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Many Lithuanian Gypsies self-style themselves Christian but are not practicing. Unique unwritten moral code with its own taboos supplants both religious and secular morals. Exotic to an outsider it (for example) permits Gypsies to steal yet forbids them to have a toilet inside their home.

The family is of utmost importance and Gypsies have more children than any other Lithuania's community. Unregistered teenage marriages (14-16-year-old girls) are common. Some children attend school yet others do not as education is not valued. Money is however held in high esteem and the more affluent a Gypsy is the more honorable he is considered by his peers (disregarding the source of wealth). Most Gypsies are officially jobless although a few have successful musician careers.

Lithuanian Gypsies consist of traditional (pre-1940) communities and Soviet-era migrants from Ukraine and Moldova. These two groups speak different dialects of the Romany language. Taboras of Vilnius houses a quarter of total Lithuania's Gypsy population, the remainder spread among smaller communities in other cities and some towns.

After Lithuanian accession to European Union (2004) and the abolition of border control additional Gypsies immigrated from Southern Europe, some of them nomadic and seasonally moving between EU member states.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. They most call themself Cigani-dont belive the PC Speech.In germany they have even on Gravestones written Zigeunerkönig(Ciganking)or Ciganprincess etc. also you cann see a lot of videos on youube where they say that they are Cigans.

    Also there are much more Clans like Romani-a Sinti is a Gypsie but never a Romani.Also in ROmania they dont like the word because they have nothing to do with Romania….

    • Yes, it is like that in Lithuania as well. In Lithuania, the main word used to describe their ethnicity by the common Gypsy population (e.g. the one that lives in the Taboras) is “čigonai” (singular “čigonas”). In fact, even the main Lithuanian Gypsy association calls itself “Čigonų laužas” (“Gypsy Bonfire”).

      However, some Gypsies integrated into a wider society and with more international exposure may prefer Romani (in Lithuanian “romai”, singular – “romas”).

      Still, in Lithuania, this whole naming issue is imported (mainly through the European Union) in the 2000s. That is, it was never a local issue until some foreigners or Lithuanian people with long exposure to the Western European cultures (i.e. non-Gypsies) began to claim that just as the word “Gypsy” may be incorrect in some Western societies, so should the word “čigonas” be incorrect in Lithuania. This was part of the “Let’s copy the West” attitude prevailing in Lithuania of the 2000s.

      These claims that deprecated the word “čigonas” did not find an overwhelming support locally, however, and the word “čigonas” is still widely used, including in the street name, etc. However, in the institutions that are more exposed to foreign influence (e.g. EU, government institutions) “romai” is now nearly universally used. For example, while the Lithuanian census of 2001 used “čigonai”, the census of 2011 used “romai”. Still, the word “čigonas” was never used a slur in Lithuanian; rather, until the 20th century, it was the only known name for the ethnicity. Among the common people, both Gypsy and non-Gypsy, it still is.

      It should be noted that the entire notion of political correctness did not exist in the pre-2000s Lithuania. Even after Lithuania has joined the European Union, political correctness is generally limited to “importing” the “negative” meanings of some Western-language words into the Lithuanian language (as is the case with “čigonai”).

      Such importing makes little sense, however, as every language is different and has different word meanings and connotations. What is a slur in one language, may not necessarily be so in another (for instance, while “negro” is a slur in English, it is the most politically correct word to call a black person in Brazil, where “preto” may be used as a slur).

      Also, it is interesting to note that similar word-meaning-import from the East does not take place. For example, the Lithuanian word for the Jews “žydai” (singular “žydas”) is similar-in-sound to a Russian anti-Semitic slur “Zhid”. Some Russian Jews have called to change that, however, such calls fail to get a local support at all. In fact, the calls to modify the word meanings of Lithuanian language based on the Russian language are always controversial, given the past occupation and forced Russification. On the other hand, the calls to modify the Lithuanian language on the Western languages, especially English, often gets support as this is automatically seen as progressive.

      All in all, the promotion of the word “romas” over the word “čigonas” in Lithuania by some has nothing to do at all with any anti-Gypsy sentiments (such sentiments do exist, however, they have no correlation with the word usage). Instead, it is fully explainable by sociolinguistics. Namely, English is a prestige language in Lithuania (to a lesser extent, French, German and other major Western languages are also prestige languages). A group within Lithuanian society that considers itself the elite speaks English well and seeks to incorporate Engslish words, sayings, and word meanings into their regular speech (which they regard to be “cool”, “progressive”). This elite consists of people who work in the EU institutions, people who go to Western Europe for business purposes or university studies, returning expatriates, etc. Often, this elite also seeks to persuade the rest of the society also to adopt Western-language words and word meanings for the Lithuanian language, as is the case with “romas”. Typically, the rest of population is caught baffled as such language transformation is entirely top-to-down: some people high-up-in-the-society suddenly start requesting to change a word that was never used as a slur in Lithuania with the sole arguement that it supposedly *is* a slur (and “it is a slur” solely because some similar-sounding word is a slur in some unrelated foreign language, usually English).

      However, as in all such top-to-down linguistic changes, after the old word is replaced by a new one, it is sometimes so that the rest of the population begins to increasingly use the new word as well. We’ll see if this will be the case with “čigonas” and whether it will be replaced by “romas” in common speech, both Gypsy and non-Gypsy.

      P.S. Russian and Polish are not considered prestige languages by the ethnic Lithuanians, thus, despite being well-spoken in Lithuania, they no longer influence the Lithuanian language that much, as could be seen with the case of word “žydas” (in the past, however, when Polish was considered a prestige language, it used to be different). There was a detailed research “Miestai ir kalbos” on the language prestige in Lithuania.


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