As part of my ambitious attempt to understand what happened in Russia in the years before 1917, I’m reading The Years by Vasily V. Shulgin, the memoirs of an aged reactionary looking back on his Duma days from a distance of half a century. I thoroughly disapprove of his principles, but he’s a charming writer and was probably a lot of fun to hang out with. In the chapter “War,” he describes how he heard about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand on June 15(28), 1914; he was interrupted by a telephone call from the newspaper he edited while he was in the middle of a drinking bout at a Kiev cabaret. He had just been having the following interaction with one of the gypsy singers:

Then the gypsy with the high cheekbones, who was awfully nice, a stranger, but already a close friend, would smile broadly and repeat something over and over in the gypsy language.
Ah, in the gypsy language? I’m no worse than she. And I answered her in the gypsy language with the only phrase I knew: “Tu nadzhinəs someə takə norakirava. A mə takə ser-so səu mussel.”
The first words mean: “You, dear friend, do not understand anything.”
The rest is in such an old dialect that many gypsies nowadays do not understand it. And it is better that the reader not understand it. But Ducia, the gypsy with the high cheekbones, understood it, and Niura also. And they, and the others after them, began to carry on so, that I decided I must put an end to it….

I, dear friends, do not understand anything. And you can imagine my frustration. I know it’s a long shot, between the “old dialect” and the octogenarian memory, but can anyone decipher those tantalizing sentences, with their oddly exact-looking schwas?


  1. You’re setting a very high bar today.
    “No, I know the 3 major gypsy dialects as well as several minor ones, but that sentence is a mystery to me…..”

  2. My wife is part Romanian gypsy and knows a few people who still speak the language. The odds are against it (different region, long time difference), but one of them might be able to make something out of it.

  3. Actually, I’m hoping zaelic will drop by. He’s the only person I know who could start a sentence “I know the 3 major gypsy dialects as well as several minor ones…”

  4. If he does I’d also like him to recommend a CD of XIXc gypsy music — not the “authentic” kind, but the kind that gypsy professional entertainers played for European audiences.

  5. It looks like the North Russian dialect “Xaladitka” or “Felditka” Romanes to me, based on my not grokking it either, and Tatiana Wentzel’s monograph “Die Ziguenersprache: Nordrussischer Dialekt” (Moskow 1964/Leipzig 1988) . It’s definately non-vlach: the negator here is “na” not “chi.” A romanian Rom would not have much luck with these sentences.
    I take it the boxy symbols are schwas… “Tu nadzhinəs someə takə norakirava. A mə takə ser-so səu mussel.”
    Tu na = you don’t
    zhinas = vlach “janas” know (2nd pers.)
    some = ?? “so ke” would be vlach “that which”
    tak.. = possible borrowing “tak” (like yiddish ‘take’???
    norakirava = Wentzel has rakirava ‘ich spreche” compared to vlach “vakerav”. Perhaps the n is a negation.
    Big guess on my part: “you don’t know what you are talking about”
    As for the second sentence… beats me. Maybe it has somethng to do with eating mussels? Could not find any cognates for mussel… and there is the ‘tak’ again…
    My guess is this is another case of a novelist taking a bit of secondhand linguistic info picked up in a bar or from a friend and turning it into a compelling phoneme salad.

  6. a few people who still speak the language
    I know about half a million of them :o) It’s one of the three languages spoken where I grew up. Alas, I am only familiar with Carpathian and Danube Romany and it seems that both are a bit different from the Russian dialects. My two cents:
    1. ‘rakirava’ or ‘rakerava’ is indeed “I speak, I say”, although in Carpathian ‘phenava’ is used more often. ‘no’ is almost certainly a cognate of the Carpathian ‘na’, a negative particle.
    2.’Mussel’ I don’t recognize, but the suffix ‘-el’ is either the infitinive or the 3rd person singular present indicative. E.g. ‘kerel’ would be “he does”.
    If it weren’t Russian, I would identify ‘mussel’ as “must”, derived from Slovak “musieť;” or Hungarian “muszáj”.
    3. ‘A-me’ could be a form of ‘amen’ = “we”.
    As for the rest, I find myself agreeing with zaelic: too little and too garbled to make any sense out of.

  7. One more thing: ‘sar’ is Carpathian for “how, as”. Sar – ser, could be the same thing. ‘Ser-so’ could then be the same structure as Russian како-што.

  8. I agree on that, looks like bulbul nailed it on the c’ero….

  9. Never underestimate the language hat disseminated intelligence. My cynicism in #1 was all wrong.

  10. I wonder why the translator spelled Дуся Ducia — it makes perfect sense but seems to be unconventional. Also, are readers expected to be informed well enough to know that Niura’s full name is Anna?

  11. Well,a few people who still speak the language,and even few people, i think, learn to speak it.
    As far as I know, there are less than 8 people who learn Gypsy as a foreign language in China.
    Actually I’am more interested in the history of this people who is named “le fils du vent” in french. What a amazing description.
    So I’m taking a course named the politics and diplomacy in Eastern Europe and Russia, which has some references to the role of Gypsy in the chorography of Balkan.

  12. Thanks, zaelic and bulbul, and take that, you cynical New Yorker!
    are readers expected to be informed well enough to know that Niura’s full name is Anna?
    The book seems to be published for a well-informed audience; the bits of poetry he quotes are given in (transliterated) Russian as well as English translation. (But the translator didn’t recognize one bit of misquoted poetry as by the famous Slavophile A.S. Khomyakov, which is relevant because it’s quoted in the context of meeting his granddaughter, Maria Khomyakova!)

  13. You have a great blog. How can you write such good articles ?

  14. well just to let you all know that im 100% pure gypsy thats Princess my grandfather is king aka Georgey bodo! the corect way of spelling our languege is inpossibel beacuse we mix in alot of words with sounds! therefor you can not spell out hardly anything
    tu chee dranes es contrey (you dont know nothing)
    thats the best your goingv to get trustme on that !

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