The Sinti and Roma settled in the countries of modern-day Europe centuries ago. The term ‘Sinti’ designates the members of an ethnic minority that settled in Germany and neighbouring countries in the early 15th century. The term ‘Roma’ refers to the ethnic minority that has lived in eastern and south-eastern Europe since the Middle Ages. Outside German-speaking countries, the term ‘Roma’ is also used as a collective term for the ethnic minority as a whole.
The terms ‘Sinti’ and ‘Roma’ designate ethnic groups, but they are also masculine plural forms. The masculine singular forms are ‘Sinto’ and ‘Rom’; the feminine singular forms are ‘Sintiza’ (or ‘Sintitsa’) and ‘Romni’. The feminine plural forms are ‘Sintize’ (or ‘Sintese’) and ‘Romnja’.
The Roma came to Germany relatively recently, unlike the German Sinti, who have long been established in Germany. A small number of Roma families emigrated to the German Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century; they are referred to as ‘deutsche Roma’, or ‘German Roma’. But the vast majority of Roma only arrived after the Second World War: as ‘guest workers’ in the 1960s, as refugees fleeing civil war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and, most recently, as part of the enlargement of the European Union since the turn of the millennium.
In the second half of the 18th century, linguists realised that the Sinti and Roma in fact originated in India, a finding based on the similarity between the Romani language and Sanskrit, the learned language of ancient India. Their common origin notwithstanding, national Sinti and Roma communities are characterised by the history and culture of their respective native countries and by a significant heterogeneity.
The common German term ‘Zigeuner’, which is usually translated into English as ‘gypsy’, is an exonym (external name) originating in the majority society of Germany. With its connotations of prejudice and clichés, it is rejected by most Sinti and Roma as pejorative and discriminatory. At the core of the ‘Zigeuner’ [‘gypsy’] construct is the attribution of a non-sedentary lifestyle that differs radically from the set of values of one’s own ethnic group or nation. And although Sinti and Roma have been settled in many regions for generations, the centuries-old myth of the ‘travelling people’ or ‘travellers’ lives on to this day.
Establishing the self-designated terms ‘Sinti’ and ‘Roma’ in the public discourse was pivotal to the civil rights movement that emerged in the Federal Republic of Germany in the late 1970s. It was also designed to make people aware of the structures of prejudice and the exclusion mechanisms that are intrinsically rooted in the stereotype of the ‘gypsy’.