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Roma, Sinti, Gypsies, Travellers...The Correct Terminology about Roma

Roma, Sinti, Gypsies, Travellers: Correct Terminology

Which is the correct term to use? A Focus on: the Correct Terminology About Roma

This article aims at bringing some clarifications regarding three issues that monitoring of the way media presents Roma reveals as most controversial across Europe:

  • The use of Gypsy and related terms, instead of Roma
  • The designation as Roma of people from Central and Eastern Europe
  • The association of Roma with nomadism

Its content is largely based on the recommendations published by the Council of Europe in the Descriptive Glossary of terms relating to Roma issues (last update in May 2012).

Heteronyms Versus Autonyms

In all European languages there are terms used by the non-Roma to designate Roma people. There are two main categories:

  • Terms with root in "Egypt" (in the Middle Ages, Roma were falsely believed to come from Egypt): Gypsy (English), Gitano (Spanish), Gitans (French)
  • Terms with root in "atsiganos" (meaning "untouchable" in old Greek): Tigani (Romanian), Cigány (Hungarian), Tsiganes (French), Ciganos (Portuguese), Zigeuner (German and Dutch), Zingari (Italian), cikany (Czech), cigani/cigane (in various Slavic languages).

Rom is an autonym and means "man of the Roma ethnic group" or "husband". The feminine of Rom in the Romani language is Romni. However, in most cases, in other languages Rom is now used for both a man and a woman. In some variants of Romani and certain institutions (such as the INALCO Institute in Paris), the "r" in Rrom is doubled; this spelling is also sometimes used for political reasons in certain countries, e.g. Romania (to distinguish Rroma from Romanians).

In English both Roma and Romani are used as adjectives: a Roma(ni) woman, Roma(ni) communities. However, it is recommended that Romani be restricted to the language and culture: Romani language, Romani culture.

The terminology used by the Council of Europe (CoE) has varied considerably since 1969, the date of the first text relating to the Roma communities:

Gypsies and Other Travellers,

Nomads (1975 and 1983),

Populations of Nomadic Origin (1981),

Gypsies (1993),

Roma (Gypsies) (1995),

Roma (1997, 2002),

Roma/Gypsies (1995, 1998, 2000),

Roma/Gypsi and Travellers (2001),

Roma and Travellers (between 2004 and 2010),

and Roma since 2010.

In most languages, the above listed heteronyms have very negative connotations and are rejected by Roma organisations, who ask for the autonym Roma to be used. This request has been made at European level since the 1970s and stronger after 1990 when Roma could create independent organisations in Central and Eastern Europe. In Romania, the term Roma has been publicly used by Roma organisations since the 1930s.

In 2010 the Council of Europe used "Roma"For many years the Council of Europe used Gypsies, before the decision was taken, in 2005, to no longer use it in official texts, in particular at the request of International Roma associations who found it to be an alien term, linked with negative, paternalistic stereotypes which still pursue them in Europe. Consequently, in the majority of European states, it is recommended that the word Gypsy or its equivalent no longer be used, as it is felt to be pejorative and insulting by most of the people concerned (although it is true that it may depend significantly on the context in which it is used).

There are indeed some countries where the term Gypsies or its national equivalent does not have strong negative connotations, is sometimes accepted by the people concerned, and may occasionally be appropriate. 

For instance, in France, the word Tsiganes (spelt with an "s" rather than a "z", in particular because the letter "Z" was tattooed on the arms of the Roma and Sinti held in the Nazi camps) has the advantage of encompassing in one term the Roma, Gypsies/Gitans and Sinti/Manush,

in the United Kingdom, Gypsy (with capital G) is assumed by various organisations,

in Portugal (Ciganos)

or Spain (Gitanos) are also used by local organisations,

and in Russia and the former Soviet republics, Tsyganye is not so strongly loaded with negative meaning and prejudice.

In some countries, NGOs that had been established by Roma, Sinti and Kale use the word Gypsy or its equivalent (Tsigane, Zingari, etc) in the name of their organisation. Nonetheless, in each of these countries, the word Roma is accepted when it is used to designate the Roma community as a whole, especially in the international bodies.

In 2010, several texts were adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which simply used the term Roma, with a footnote giving a definition.

This change in terminology was approved on 20 October 2010 at the high-level meeting on the Roma with the adoption of the "Strasbourg Declaration on Roma", signed by representatives of all Council of Europe member states.

"Roma" as a Generic Term

Research shows that the ancestors of the Roma left India around the 9th century and migrated via Persia, Armenia and Byzantine Asia Minor, gradually ma
king their way to the whole of Europe.

The European Roma can be sub-divided into three main branches: Roma, Sinti (also referred to as Manush) and Kale (or Spanish Gypsies). Besides the European Roma, there are also two other related branches: the Dom (who settled in the countries of the Middle East and Turkey) and the Lom (who remained in the countries of the Caucasus).1

The term
Roma, as used internationally, denotes all groups sharing a common Indian origin (Roma, Sinti, Kale), and the communities who refer to themselves as Roma, found mainly in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe, but also throughout the world.

The Roma branch strictly speaking constitutes up to 87 to 88% of the total Roma population (in the generic sense) in Europe. The Roma themselves are divided into sub-groups (Kelderash, Lovari, Gurbeti, Churari, Ursari, etc.). They speak variants of Romani (romani chib).

In certain national contexts in Western Europe, and particularly in France, the term Roma is used in official language exclusively to refer to the Roma populations who have migrated from Central and Eastern Europe and is distinct from other terms used to refer to the indigenous Roma/Manush/Gypsies (for whom the administrative term in France is Gens du voyage (Travellers) – see below).

Sinto comes from the word Sind (an ancient Indian name). The Sinti are to be found primarily in the German-speaking regions (Germany, Switzerland, Austria) where they settled in the 15th century, and in Benelux and Sweden. In France, they are also called Manush (Manouches) from the Romani word Manus, meaning "to be human/a man".

The Sinti/Manush speak a Germanised version of Romani (called Romnepen) which is significantly more different from Romani than other variants of the language. There is a southern sub-branch of the Sinti in Northern Italy (Piedmont, Lombardy) and in South-Eastern France (Provence), whose language comprises a partly Italian-based vocabulary.

Sinti/Manush represent 2 to 3% of the total Roma population (generic sense) in Europe.

Roma as a generic termThe Kale (more commonly called Gitanos or "Spanish Gypsies") form the third main branch of European Roma (in the generic sense), who crossed the Pyrenees in the 15th century. The Kale/Spanish Gypsies live in the Iberian Peninsula and in Southern France (in particular families who crossed the Pyrenees in the opposite direction to flee the Franco and Salazar regimes).

They have almost totally lost the use of Romani, a consequence of the severe repression suffered under the Catholic Kings. They speak Kaló which derives from Spanish (vocabulary and grammar) with some Romani borrowings. Today, there are two variants (Spanish Kaló and Catalan Kaló). It is spelt with a "c" in Spanish (Caló, Calé) but "k" is the recommended international version.

There is also a Kaalé group in Finland, which is striving to preserve its traditions, and there are Kale in Wales (who arrived from Spain via France and Cornwall), who have no longer spoken Kaló since the 1950s.
The Kale represent about 10% of the total Roma population (generic sense) in Europe.

Roma became the generic term used internationally since the first World Congress in London in 1971, when representatives of these communities also adopted 8 April as International Roma Day, an anthem (Gelem, Gelem2) and a flag 3.

The Council of Europe’s Glossary of terms related to Roma specify the following:


  • The term "Roma" used at the Council of Europe refers to Roma, Sinti, Kale and related groups in Europe, including Travellers and the Eastern groups (Dom and Lom), and covers the wide diversity of the groups concerned, including persons who identify themselves as Gypsies.


  • Le terme « Roms » utilisé au Conseil de l’Europe désigne les Roms, les Sintés (Manouches), les Kalés (Gitans) et les groupes de population apparentés en Europe, dont les Voyageurs et les branches orientales (Doms, Loms) ; il englobe la grande diversité des groupes concernés, y compris les personnes qui s’auto-identifient comme « Tsiganes » et celles que l’on désigne comme « Gens du voyage ».

The OSCE is using “Roma and Sinti” in official documents, although some texts mention only "Roma", while in recent years the institutions of the European Union (European Parliament, European Commission, European Council or the Fundamental Rights Agency) have adopted “Roma” as a generic term at European level.

Roma and Travellers

The majoritty of Roma are sedentaryIt should be borne in mind that the vast majority of Roma in Europe (80-85%) are today sedentary. Those who maintain an itinerant lifestyle are now mainly to be found only in France, the Benelux countries, Switzerland, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Many are also moving towards a sedentary lifestyle.

Proper "travellers" are found in Ireland and Great Britain and are ethnically distinct from the Roma/Sinti/Kale.

In Ireland, they are officially regarded as an indigenous community, which is not distinct from the majority in terms of race, colour, ancestry or ethnic origin. Irish Travellers call themselves Pavee in their own language. This language, known as Cant, Shelta or Gammon, has an essentially English and Irish vocabulary (with a few Romani borrowings) and grammar close to that of English. Many words are formed by reversing syllables.

For a long time, Travellers were also known as Tinkers or Tinklers (which they regard as pejorative). In England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the terms "Irish Travellers" and "Scottish Travellers" are used.

In Scotland, the "Scottish Gypsies/Travellers" (some accept the term "Gypsies", others do not) have sometimes been called "Nawkins", or "Nachin" – both pejorative.

The various Traveller groups nonetheless have one point in common. They are not necessarily itinerant. Originally, the Travellers in Ireland were itinerant, but 80% are now sedentary. In France, one third of people termed Travellers are sedentary. For people who identify themselves as Travellers, the term corresponds to an ethnic identity, distinguishing them from the rest of the population. Lastly, in Norway, Travellers are nowadays sedentary while the Roma move around.

The French term for Travellers is not so straightforward. "Gens du voyage" used in France is an administrative term which has been used since the 1970s to refer both to the Roma, Sinti/Manush and Gypsies/Gitans and other non-Roma groups with a nomadic way of life. This term actually refers to French citizens (as opposed to the term “Roma” which at official level is improperly used to refer exclusively to the Roma immigrants from Eastern Europe).

The term "Voyageurs" (closer to the English "Travellers") is used in Belgium and Switzerland. It is sometimes used by associations in France, but not in official texts. Like “Gens du voyage”, it can cover various ethnic groups.

In recent years, Roma from Central and Eastern Europe migrating to France, UK or Italy, have been wrongly considered as travellers and have been assigned places in camping sites or have been accepted to settle in or near camps used by local Roma and Sinti. In reality, in their country of origin, they have a sedentary way of life for at least a few generations although, in many cases, their housing conditions are very bad.


From the above, it clearly results that "Roma" is the correct term referring to all related groups, regardless of their country of origin, and heteronyms ("Gypsy" or equivalent terms), as well as administrative terms such as "Gens du Voyage" (referring in fact to an ethnic group but not acknowledging ethnic identification) are not in line with European recommendations.


1 For further details on their migration path and the first written traces of their settlement in each country, and also on the policies pursued regarding the Roma, see Roma in Europe, by Jean-Pierre Liégeois (Council of Europe Publishing); see also the Roma history factsheets published by the Council of Europe and available online at: 

2 The lyrics of the anthem, together with an English translation can be found on

3 Source: Council of Europe factsheets on the Roma:

Roma flag