The Structuring of the Vocabulary Related to the Institution of Slavery in Romani Ćhib

Fragment of a donation deed for the largest number of Gypsies given as slaves to a monastery in the Danubian Principalities (17th-century copy based on the original deed of 1388, ANIC, ms. 209, 25v).

by Julieta Rotaru

Although acknowledged, notably by nineteenth-century French historiography, as a form of social freedom deprivation for the “last slaves in the heart of Europe” (Regnault 1855: 329), Roma slavery is not anchored in extensive slavery studies. There is no dedicated chapter in reference works such as The Historical Encyclopaedia of World Slavery (1997), the Dictionnaire des esclavages (2010), Les Mondes de l’esclavage. Une histoire comparée (2021), etc. The crux of the issue lies in the lack of a cohesive definition of Roma slavery, encompassed by the Romanian term robia, loosely interpreted as “slavery”.

It is widely recognised that there is insufficient study of Roma slavery. However, available historiography unanimously agrees on one point, namely that Roma were only enslaved in the Danubian Principalities (Wallachia and Moldavia). Without diachronic lexicological studies, one can cautiously conclude that Romani dialects spoken outside Romania reflect the absence of the institution of Roma slavery in those regions.

Romani dialects lack inherited words for “slave” or “slavery”: instead, they borrow terms from contact languages, particularly Romanian through Slavic:1 robija /robija/ (feminine), ropstvos (masculine), or use neologisms like sklavipe (masculine). The Indo-Aryan etymon dās- (in Vedic, dās- refers to a class of non-Aryan, likely indigenous, “enslaved” population)2 appears in an ethnonym found among the Balkan Roma, das (masculine), dasni (feminine), which means:

  1. “a non-Roma, specifically an individual from the surrounding population, such as a Serb (in Bugurdži, Macedonian Džambazi, Kalderash, and Gurbet Sremski), a Croat (in Gurbet and Veršend), or even a Bulgarian (in Sofia Erli)”;
  2. “Christian” (used in all the above-mentioned dialects and others that have only this meaning, cf. dasipe ‘Christianity’).

Some Roma have also retained the concept of “slave” in their language even after leaving India, particularly evident in terms like dasi ‘housemaid’ (in Crimean Romani) and dešniben (masculin) ‘servitude’ (in Welsh Romani).3 It is plausible that upon reaching the Balkans, Indian Roma translated the term “Slav” (likely stemming from or confused with Byzantine sklavenos ‘slave’ since 1136, see Kłosowska 2020: 185–186) into their own language as das ‘slave’, with this meaning eventually expanding to encompass ‘Christian’ as well, given that the Slavs of that era were predominantly Christian.

The words rob and robija also emerged as neologisms in the Roma language of the Danubian Principalities, likely influenced by French abolitionist ideals. These terms are not found in any dictionary or grammar, except for those of the French-Romanian abolitionist J. A. Vaillant (1868: 121), who defined rob as ‘slave, patient, resigned person’, and robim as ‘I am patient’. Additionally, another abolitionist, a Romanian historian and a friend of Vaillant, penned an impassioned poem in Romani on Gypsy emancipation. This composition represents an attempt at Romani interpretation by a non-native speaker. The outcome is a nineteenth-century Romani “Esperanto” where the translator endeavours to incorporate non-existent Romani words such as “emancipation”, “slavery”, “sovereign”, etc.: Iubizov sare gajo/ Te robiea pagherdes/…. Htagar gajo cherdes4 ‘Love all Romanians/ That they broke slavery/… The Romanian sovereign did it’ (Istrati 1855: 128).

Another abolitionist intellectual, a Romanian educated in France, does not mention any words alluding to slavery apart from the phrase o drom le çiorengoro /o drom le ʧoreɳgoro/, modelled after Romanian drumul robilor ‘the path of the slaves’, i.e. ‘the Milky Way’, where ćořengoro /ʧoReɳgoro/ ‘the poor’ or ćorengoro /ʧoreɳgoro/ ‘thieves’ (depending on the adopted spelling) lexicalise the Romanian word rob (Rotaru, Tirard & Šapoval 2022: sub voce).

The term rob first appears in Wallachia around 1406, denoting ‘slave’ in a Slavic document where Serbian tsar Stefan Lazarević lists “slaves purchased with money” among those deemed undesirable in his kingdom. The document does not specify whether the word “slaves” refers to the Țigani (the term used for Roma individuals in official documents since their initial presence in Wallachia during the fourteenth century). Within Wallachia between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Romanian expression rob al lui Dumnezeu, translating to ‘slave of God’, was employed to convey ‘servant of God’ in biblical translations. Similarly, the term rob ‘slave’ was used exclusively to denote concepts of devotion, prisoners of war and kidnapped individuals during this period.

Although historical records fail to explicitly mention the Roma being captured as prisoners of war or kidnapped, it seems improbable given their inability to afford ransom. The institution of slavery (Romanian robia) is first documented in a 1445 Moldovan document referring to a Tatar and his family. Interestingly, the terms rob/robie, denoting ‘slave/slavery’, only resurface in Wallachia 300 years later (Rotaru and Gaunt 2023: 93–107).

From a geopolitical standpoint, the Danubian Principalities serve as a meeting point between Christian and Muslim civilisations, the Catholic West and Orthodox Byzantium. Within this context, various political, economic, and social institutions intersect and undergo adaptation. Robia potentially represents a localised synthesis distinct from both the sin-induced slavery described in the Bible and the historical Roman slavery within the Principalities. This form of servitude imposes significant restrictions on social freedom, ranging from serfdom and outright slavery to the subjugation of the peasantry and to the categorisation of the Țigani as rob slaves.

A recent study in historical demography reveals that just 20 years prior to the Liberation, 98% of Roma in Wallachia were documented with the status of rob, with the majority of them living in greater precarity compared to the surrounding population, despite the already low standard of living in the Principality (Gaunt and Rotaru 2021).

The scarcity of documents in the Romani language within the Romanian geographical region (including Transylvania) poses a challenge in analysing Roma institutions and slavery. Instances of deprivation of liberty, such as imprisonment following a judicial conviction, are expressed through terms like phandel ‘to tie’, phandado ‘tied’ and phandaimo ‘prison, lit. restrictive’. References to state arbitrariness and legal abuses are prevalent in Gypsy songs, notably in a ballad featuring a young married couple, Masha and Armanka (Rotaru 2016: 3–6). In this narrative, the groom is wrongfully imprisoned, and during a visit to the prison, the bride engineers his escape by disguising him in her attire. Demonstrating remarkable cunning, persuasive abilities and bilingualism, she successfully pleads for her own release the following day, arguing that the sentence was not issued in her name. Thus, the rob slaves were able to defend themselves in court, as the state endeavoured to uphold the appearance of a fair trial.

A Romani linguist and activist reports that within the Kalderash communities of the United States, which are historical communities dating to the nineteenth century, the term o robija is used to mean ‘prison’ (Hancock 1995: 151). This knowledgeable Romani individual, faced with the scarcity of documentary sources on Roma slavery (which seems as evident to him as a hidden truth), is also credited with creating and widely distributing the famous 1852 poster depicting the sale of Gypsy slaves in Wallachia (Hancock 1987, see photo). This poster has been repeatedly cited as historical evidence or illustration in dozens of books and hundreds (if not thousands) of websites and media publications (Marushiakova et Popov 2021), despite later being proven to be a forgery (Ungureanu n.d.).

A poster for the sale of Romani slaves in Wallachia, 8 May 1852. Source: Ian Hancock. The Pariah Syndrome, 1987, reproduced in Patrin.


1 For the semantic evolution of slavery and servitude vocabulary in the Danubian Principalities, see the chapter “Considerations on the Terminology of Slavery, rob and țigan” (Rotaru & Gaunt 2023: 93–107).

2 For a summary of the proposed etymologies and a new advanced etymology, see Parpola (2012).

3 For all these entries, see ROMLEX lexical database.

4 Transcribed phonetically: /jubizov sare gaʒo te robija pagerdes thagar gaʒo kerdes/.

Cited bibliography

Dictionnaire des esclavages. 2010. Pétré-Grenouilleau, Olivier, ed. Paris: Larousse.

Kłosowska, Anna. 2020. “The Etymology of Slave.” In: Catherine E. Karkov & Anna Kłosowska & Vincent W. J. van Gerven Oe, eds. Disturbing Times. Medieval Pasts, Reimagined Futures, Punctum Books, 150–214.

Gaunt, David & Rotaru, Julieta. 2021. “The Living Conditions of Gypsy Slaves in Early Nineteenth Century Wallachia.” Romani Studies. Continuing Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, series 5, 31 (1): 30–55.

Hancock, Ian F. 1987. The Pariah Syndrome. An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Karoma Publishers.

Hancock, Ian F. 1995. A Handbook of Vlax Romani. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica.

Istrati, Nicolae. 1855. “Cântecul Țiganilor în ziua emancipării lor. Steaua Dunării,” 13 déc. 1855, nr. 32, 128.

Les Mondes de l’esclavage. Une histoire comparée. 2021. Ismard, Paulin, ed. Paris: Seuil.

Marushiakova, Elena & Popov, Vesselin. 2021. Roma Voices in History: A Source Book. Roma Civic Emancipation in Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe from the 19th Century until World War II, Brill: Ferdinand Schöningh.

Parpola, Asko. 2012. “The Dāsas of the Ṛgveda as Proto-Sakas of the Yaz I-related cultures: With a revised model for the protohistory of Indo-Iranian speakers.” In: Martin E. Huld & Karlene Jones-Bley & Dean Miller, eds. Archaeology and Language: Indo-European Studies Presented to James P. Mallory. Institute for the Study of Man, 221–264.

Regnault, Ėlias. 1855. Histoire politique et sociale des Principautés danubiennes. Paris: Paulin et Chevalier.

ROMLEX lexical database.

Rotaru, Julieta. 2016. Barbu Constantinescu. Cântece țigănești. Romané ghilea. Gypsy Songs; Critical edition, Introduction, Chronological table and Indices by Julieta Rotaru, forward Viorel Cosma. Bucarest: Editura Muzeul Literaturii Române.

Rotaru, Julieta & Tirard, Aurore & Šapoval, Viktor. 2022. Romani Lexicography in the Nineteenth Century. Vol. 1: Lexicon Româno-Ţigănesc/Romanian-Gypsy Dictionary. Lincom Series in Romani Linguistics. Munich: Lincom Academic Publishers.

Rotaru, Julieta & Gaunt, David. 2023. The Wallachian Gold-Washers. Unlocking the Golden Past of the Rudari Woodworkers, Brill Schöningh: Leiden, Boston.

The Historical Encyclopaedia of World Slavery. 1997. Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Santa Barbara, California.

Ungureanu, Dan s.d. “A forged poster about the sale of Gypsy slaves and Ian Hancock.”

Vaillant, Jean-Alexandre. 1868. Grammaire, dialogues et vocabulaire de la langue des Bohémiens ou Cigains. Paris: Typographie Pilloy.

Julieta Rotaru, Gypsy Lore Society, editor-in-chief of Romani Studies

Julieta Rotaru holds a Ph.D. in Philology from the University of Bucharest, earned in 2008, and is a specialist of Sanskrit and Romani Ćhib. Her research focusses on the Roma/Gypsy community, with particular interest in history, historical demography, migration, discrimination, and slavery. She also teachers Vlax Romani at ILARA.

Cite this blog post
ILARA (2023, October 29). The Structuring of the Vocabulary Related to the Institution of Slavery in Romani Ćhib. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from

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