They came to Europe from India in the Middle Ages. Their Romany language is flecked with words close to Hindi and is spoken in various dialects from Transylvania to San Francisco. To the outside world, they are known as “Gypsies,” with all the romanticism and prejudice that term connotes. But as Matras makes plain in this rich, colorful account, much of what people think they know about the Roma—their proper name, sometimes rendered as Roms—is wrong. Some Roma move about in caravans, but the vast majority are sedentary. Far from the sensuous Gypsy women of lore, Romany women live according to norms of extreme modesty. Romany attitudes toward cleanliness are far stricter than the attitudes in the wider societies that the Roma interact with at arm’s length. Matras, a professor of linguistics, punctures the distorted images of Roma and probes Romany beliefs and opinions about everything from gender roles, age, and work to marriage, shame, and religion. The reader comes away far less ignorant about this inward-looking and often persecuted group.
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