Back to Main Category

Roma 36:46-49 (1992) and Lacio Drom, 44:17-23 (1993).
Revised and expanded version.


Ian Hancock

The Romani Archives and Documentation Center
The University of Texas at Austin

It has become established lore in Romanological Studies that the discovery of the Indian affiliation of the Romani language should be attributed to Vályi István, a Hungarian theological student who is said to have attended the University of Leiden in the early 1760s. Vályi was the son of a landowning family living in Komora County that employed numbers of Romani labourers on its estate, from whom he had learnt some of the Romani language.  There is no account of this directly from Vályi himself, however; the story is ultimately traceable instead to a printer named Stephan Pap Szatmar Nemeth, who had evidently come into possession of Vályi’s handwritten notes.  In a conversation in late 1763 Nemeth told one Count Szekely von Doba, an army captain and amateur archivist about Vályi and his discovery, and presumably gave, or sold, those notes to him. Szekely was also an amateur philologist and recognized the value of the discovery, and eventually passed it along to the Austrian academician Georg Pray.  Pray in turn published it as a short notice that finally appeared in the Vienna Gazette (the Wiener Anzeigen or Gazette de Vienne) in 1776, in Latin, and in Szekely’s own words, as follows:

Die 6 novemb. visitauerat me Stephanus Pap Satmar Nemethi, Typographus Karoliensis, habito ad inuicem discursu mihi retulit: Est in Comitatu Comaromiensi, in villa Almas, Pastor Reformatus, Stephanus Vali, is eidem retulit; dum Lugduni Batauorum studiorum academicorum caussa suisset constitutus , se usum suisse familiaritate trium iuuenum Malabaricorum, qui simper terni ibi solent studere, nec nisi aliisternis venientibus redire possunt ad suos.  Ex horum amicitia hunc fructum hansit Stephanus Vali, quod mille et plura vocabula eorum linguæ, cum significatione eorumdem, adnotauerat, obseruando plura notris Zingaris esse communia.  Ipsis enim Malabaribus afferentibus, in Insula Malabaria, esse prouinciam vel districtum (qui tamen in mappa non conspicitur) quæ Czigania vocatur.  D. Vali redux a Zingaris Jaurinensibos perquisiuit, eas voces a Malabaribus sibi dictatas quarum significations Jaurinenses Zingari absque vila difficultate eidem dixerunt; vnde Czinganos seu Czinganos ex prouincia Malabarica, Czigania, ortos conclude potest.
Velim autem scias, dulcis amice, Stephanum hunc Pap Nemethi esse vnum ex eruditis Patriæ nostræ, qui, antequam, ad academias Belgicas exiuisset fuerat ciuis, et ex post senior Colegii Lebrezinensis, nec ita credulum, vt fibi passus fuisset imponi a Valio Pastore Almassiensi.

 The story, however, only became widespread following the publication of Heinrich Grellmann’s 1783 book Die Zigeuner.  That account was translated from the Vienna Gazette as follows:

Im Jahre 1763 den 6ten November, sagt der lirheber dieser Nachticht, besuchte mich ein Buchdrucker, Nahmens Stephan Pap Szathmar Nemethi.  Indem wie so von Allerley plauderten, kamen wir auch auf die Zigeuner; und bey dieser Gelegenheit erzählte mir mein Gast, aus dem Munde eines Reformierten Predigers, Stephan Vali, zu Almasch im Komorner Komitat, folgende Anecdote: Als er, dieser Vali, auf den hohen Schule zu Leiden studiert habe, sey er mit den Malabarischen jungen Leuten, dergleichen beständig drey daselbst studiren müssen, und die nicht eher in ihr Vaterland zurückkeren dürfen, bis wieder andere drey an ihrer Stelle da sind, in genauer Bekanntschaft gestanden.  Weil er nun bey ihrem Umgange bemerkt habe, daß ihre Muttersprache derjenigen, die unseren Zigeunern eigenthümlich ist, überaus ähnlich sey; so habe er diese Gelegenheit benutzt, sich mehr aus tausend Wörter, nebst ihrer Bedeutung, aus ihrem Munde aufzuzeichnen.  Dabey hätten auch diese Jünglinge versichert, daß sich auf ihrer Insel ein Strich Landes, oder eine Provinz, Czigania genannt (die man aber auf der Charte vergeblich sucht) wirklich finde).  Nachdem nun Vali von Universitäten wieder zu Hause gewesen wäre, habe er sich über die Bedeutung der mitgebrachten Malabarischen Wörter bey den Raber Zigeunern erkundigt, und diese hätten ihm jedes ohne Mühe und Anstoß zu dolmetschen gewußt.

In the English edition (1807: 170-171) the text is:

In the year 1763, on the 6th of November, a printer, whose name was Stephen Pap Szathmar Nemeth, came to see me. Talking upon various subjects, we at last fell upon that of the Gipseys; and my guest related to me the following anecdote, from the mouth of a preacher of the reformed church, Stephen Vali, at Almasch in the county of Komora.  When the said Vali studied at the university of Leyden, he was intimately acquainted with some young Malabars, of whom three are obliged constantly to study there, nor can they return home till relieved by three others.  Having observed that their native language bore a great affinity to that spoken by the Gipseys, he availed himself of the opportunity to note down, from themselves, upwards of one thousand words, together with their significations.  They assured him, at the same time, that upon their island was a tract of land, or province, called Czigania, but it is not laid down on the map.  After Vali was returned from the university, he informed himself, among the Raber [i.e. from Raab, now called Győr] Gipseys, concerning the meaning of his Malabar words, which they explained without trouble or hesitation.

Several of Grellmann’s contemporaries (Pallas, Rüdiger, Pauer, Büttner, Marsden) undoubtedly also read the same report that appeared in the Vienna Gazette. The possibility that he concocted his own story based upon it in order to claim a “first” has to be discounted, for just one year before, the same story appeared, in very similar wording, in a lengthy two-part treatise by Samuel ab Hortis (1775:85-96).  It is that Hungarian-Slovak scholar from Gross-Lomnitz, rather than Grellmann, who must be credited as being the first to write a detailed ethnographic study of the Romanies.  Grellmann does refer to the journal in which it appeared (the Anzeigen aus Sämtlichen Kaiserlich Königliche Erbl@nderen) on page 102 of his own book, but does not mention ab Hortis as its author.  Ab Hortis’ text (1775:82) is as follows:

Im Jahre 1763 den 6ten November besuchte mich ein gelehrter Buchdrucker, Nahmens Stephan Pap Nemethi, welcher mir bey unseren Unterredung zugleich entdeckte, wie ihm ein Protestantischer, in dem Kormornerkomitat dazumal zu Almasch befindlicher Prediger Stephan Vali erzählet habe: Als sich nämlich dieser Vali auf der hohen Schule zu Leyden befand, so hätte er mit dreyen malabarischen Jünglingen daselbst genaunen Umgang und Fdreundscheft gepflogen; indem es gewöhnlich ist daß beständig dreye von dieser Nation daselbst studerum andre drey an ihrer Stelle da sinb.  Weil nun Vali merkte daß ihre Muttersprache mit der Sprache unserer Zigeuner nicht eine geringe Verwandschaft  haben möchte, so suchte er aus diesem Umgang den Vortheil zu gewinnen, daß er aus ihrem Munde mehr den tausend malabarische Wörter nebst ihrer Bedeutung aufzeichnete.  Vali wurde in seiner Muthmassung noch mehr gestärket, nachdem ihn Czigania genannt (die man aber auf den gewöhnlichen Landkarten vergäblichen suchen wird) wirklich vorhanden sey.  Als nun Vali, daer sich wiederum in seinem Vaterlande befand, sich bey denen Raber Zigeuneren wegen der Bedeutung dieser malabarischen Wörtererkundigte, so wusten ihn die Zigeuner die Bedeutung aller dieser Wörter ohne alle Mühe und Schwierigkeit heruaszusagen.

Certainly over the years since then, precise details of the episode have become quite muddled.  Sampson (1911) provided strong arguments that it was in fact Jacob Bryant who made the Indian connection earlier than, and independently of Grellman, and Matras (1999) has made similar claims for Jacob Rüdiger.  Another of Grellmann’s contemporaries, the cartographer James Rennell, must surely have read the 1776 account in the Vienna Gazette which mentions “Czigania” as being an actual place near the home of the three students, because he inserted it (as Cingana, adjusting the spelling even more closely to Cingan) into his map of India that appeared six years later—though he removed it from subsequent editions.

Given the findings below, we must question whether Vályi was even registered at Leiden University.  No evidence has come to light so far demonstrating that he was, and the only details we have of the story are those found in ab Hortis and in Grellmann—and Pray’s short piece in the Vienna Gazette lacks any linguistic material. Vályi’s supposed thousand-word list has never been found.

In Grellmann’s day Malabari, the language of the Malabar Coast, referred to Tamil rather than to Malayalam, as it does now (Caldwell, 1856:4n).  But like Malayalam, Tamil is a Dravidian language and therefore quite unconnected with Romani.  Grellmann created the Indian students’ identity as the sons of Brahmins, in order to be able to say that the language they were discussing was not their own but the “Shanscritt” from which Romani does descend.  Nevertheless, while Romani certainly has its source in Sanskrit, in no sense has it remained so unchanged that it can be understood by a Sanskrit speaker “without trouble or hesitation.” Even Swadesh’s basic 100-item lexical checklist for Romani demonstrates only an 80% correspondence with contemporary Indic languages, and comparisons for sound-alike forms are better made with New Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi or Punjabi rather than with Sanskrit, and it could well be that the students were in fact discussing Hindustani rather than Sanskrit if the words were so readily recognized as being similar to Romani; presumably neither Vályi nor Szatmari had the expertise to identify any specific Indian language.  The following comparisons illustrate the proximity of Sanskrit, Hindustani, Romani and Sinhala, the Indic language spoken in Sri Lanka:



















































In 1990 I visited the students’ common room at the University of Leiden, the most likely venue for this supposed historic encounter to have taken place, and I attempted, during my stay in that city, to locate 18th century records which might have provided further details. I also shared my interest with Dr. Harm Beukers of the Faculteit Sociale Wetenschappen, and he promised to pursue the matter himself as time permitted.  Some months later, I received a report from Dr. Beukers on his findings, and have incorporated them into this report.

According to the university records for that period of time, students entering the university were obliged to register their names at the Office of the Chancellor (the rector magnificus) on the same day that they arrived in Leiden.  Furthermore, for as long as a student remained at the university, he had to renew his matriculation, i.e. his registration application, each year around February 8th.  His name would then appear in a directory known as the Recentzelissten.  Dr. Beukers examined both the Recentzelissten and the Volumina Inscriptzo numbers for the years 1750 to 1763 (when—according to Grellman—the report of this event was first made), looking for the name István Vályi or Stephen (or Stefan) Vali, but found nothing.  He did, however turn up a clue to a possible line of further investigation.

Nearly every year, two students from Hungary were given the opportunity to apply to the university’s Staten College, which had originally been founded by the Estates of Holland to enable students from poor Dutch families to acquire a higher education.  The registrar’s entry for May 16th, 1761, noted that twenty-three year old Michael Pap Szathmari, “Transsylvano Hungarus,” (i.e. from Hungarian Transylvania) was admitted as a theology student.  Further investigation, this time of the Register of Examinations, listed two students with the family name Szathmari. For September 28th, 1758, there was a Daniel, Hungarus, extra ordinem ab Ill. Curatoribus et Consilibus commendatus, and for June 4th, 1761, the same Michael Pap, commendatus a Professoribus Collegii Reformati Claudio-polotani in Transsylvanio.  But an examination of this particular register for the entire ninety-year period between 1700 and 1790 failed to indicate any entry for a Vályi István or anything similar.

Upon first consideration it would seem that, without any actual evidence of the existence of Vályi István at Leiden University, the story might have been a fabrication on the part of Baron von Doba’s acquaintance Szathmari. However, the printer’s claims are strengthened by the fact that one of the Hungarian students, a theologian, also bore his somewhat uncommon family name, and may have been a relative who passed the story along.  Furthermore, three students from the south of India—in fact from the island of Ceylon—had been admitted during the 1750s and were “obliged constantly to study” in the Netherlands.  Their names were Johannes Jacobus Meyer, admitted on September 4th, 1750, Petrus Cornelissen, on October 7th, 1752, and Antonius Moyaars, on September 23rd, 1754, all listed as Ceylonensis, that is as being from Sri Lanka, then a Dutch colony, and which, like the homeland described in von Doba’s account, is an island. The languages spoken there at the time were Tamil, which is Dravidian, Dutch, Lusoasian Creole and Sinhala, which is distantly related to Romani but which is radically different from it, as the above comparisons indicate.  The names of the students suggest that they were Ceylonese burghers, who were probably Christian and who spoke Dutch or Portuguese Creole as their native language(s).  There is no way of knowing whether they spoke in addition any Indian language.  Their descendants today, who live in the area of Batticaloa, speak Tamil as well as Creole.

It is also true that Vályi was not registered at Leiden but at the University of Utrecht, not in 1763 but ten years earlier in 1753 (contemporary with the three Sri Lankan students who were at Leiden), and furthermore he was not listed there as Vályi István but as Stephanus Waali.  We can only guess that he visited Leiden from time to time, perhaps to meet with other divinity students.  It is also possible of course that it was not Vályi at all who should be credited with this discovery, but one of the Szatmaris, who were also Hungarian, and who may also have known some of the Romani language. 

As a final note, I should mention that much of this original information, which was first published in 1992, has been reproduced unreferenced in Willems (1997:57-9). In the same book Willems reproaches Grellmann for not acknowledging his sources.


ab Hortis, Samuel Augustini, 1775-6.  “Von den heutigen Zustande, sonderbaren Sitten und Lebensart, wie auch von den übriben Eigenschaften und Umständen der Zigeuner in Ungarn,” Zeitschrift Kaiserlich Königliche Allergnädigste Privilegierte Anzeigen aus Sämtlichen Kaiserlich Königliche. Erbländer, 1:159-416, 2:7-159
Büttner, C., 1771.  Vergleichungstafeln der Schriftarten Verschiedener Völker in der Vergangenen und Gegenwärtigen Zeiten.  Göttingen.
Caldwell, R., 1856.  A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages.  London: Harrison.
Grellmann, Heinrich, 1783.  Historischer Versuch über die Zigeuner.  Göttingen: Dietrich Verlag.  English translation, 1807.
Marsden, William, 1785.  “Observations on the language of the people commonly called Gypsies,” Archæologia, 7:382-386.
Matras, Yaron, 1999.  “Johann Rüdiger and the study of Romani in 18th century Germany,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 5(9):89-116.
Pray, Georg, 1775-1776.  “Anzeigen aus sämmtlich-kaiserlich-königlichen Erbländeren,” Wiener Anzeigen, 6:87-8.
Pallas, Peter, 1781-1796.  Neye Nordische Beyträge zur Phisikalischen und Geographischen Erd- und Völkerbeschreibung.  Vol. 3.  Saint Petersburg.
Rüdiger, Johann, 1782.  Neuester Zuwachs der Teuschen, Fremden und Allgemeinen Sprachkunde in Einigen Aufsatzen, Bücheranzeigen und Nachrichten.  Vol. 1.  Leipzig.
Sampson, John, 1911.  “Jacob Bryant; being an analysis of his Anglo-Romani vocabulary, with a discussion of the place and date of collection and an attempt to show that Bryant, not Rüdiger, was the earliest discoverer of the Indian origin of the Gypsies,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, new series, 4:162-194.
Willems, Wim, 1997.  In Search of the True Gypsy.  London: Frank Cass.