(also known as Gammen
or simply "The Cant
") is a language
spoken by the Irish Traveller
people. It was often used to conceal meaning from those outside the group. The language is found throughout Ireland, but is more concentrated in the south-east part of the country.
Shelta is a cant originally based on Irish with some English influences. Because Shelta originates from older versions of Irish, it was originally part of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic language family. However, its syntax is now primarily English based and has been heavily influenced by other non-Celtic languages. As a result, Shelta has a character very different from other Goidelic Celtic languages.
Origins and history
It has been suggested that the word "Shelta" derives from the Irish word "siúlta
", meaning "of walking", possibly referring to the Traveller lifestyle. The word “Shelta” first appeared in 1882 in the book The Gypsies
by “gypsiologist” Charles Leland
, who claimed to have discovered it as the “fifth Celtic tongue”. Shelta is the term still preferred by some today, more so amongst academics than the Travellers themselves. Linguists
have been documenting Shelta since at least the 1870s. Celtic language expert Kuno Meyer and Romany
expert John Sampson both assert that Shelta existed as far back as the 13th century
. There are now approximately 86,000 worldwide speakers of Shelta, with anywhere from 6,000-25,000 in Ireland itself according to various sources. The language is spoken almost exclusively by Travellers.
Much of Shelta's vocabulary is based loosely on Irish, with many words inverted in a style not unlike French verlan slang
. For example, the Sheltan word for “girl” is “laicín
”, from the Irish “cailín
”, and the word “rodas
”, meaning “door”, has its roots in the Irish “doras
”. The language's structure also contains many grammatical similarities with English. It also contains elements of Romany languages (such as the term "gadje
”, meaning "non-Traveller"), though the Travellers are not actual Roma
An example of a Shelta word that now has common usage in everyday speech in Britain
is the word “bloke” meaning “a man”, originating in the mid-19th century. It probably derives from the Irish word "buachaill
", meaning “boy” or "lad".
Sociologist Sharon Gmelch describes the Travellers' language as follows:
Irish Travelers use a secret argot or cant known as Gammon. It is used primarily to conceal meaning from outsiders, especially during business transactions and in the presence of police. Most Gammon utterances are terse and spoken so quickly that a non-Traveler might conclude the words merely had been garbled. Most Gammon words were formed from Irish Gaelic by applying four techniques: reversal, metathesis, affixing, and substitution. In the first, an Irish word is reversed to form a Gammon one - mac, or son, in Irish became kam in Gammon. In the second, consonants or consonant clusters were transposed. Thirdly, a sound or cluster of sounds were either prefixed or suffixed to an Irish word. Some of the more frequently prefixed sounds were s, gr, and g. For example, Obair, work or job, became gruber in Gammon. Lastly, many Gammon words were formed by substituting an arbitrary consonant or consonant cluster in an Irish word. In recent years, modern slang and Romani (the language of the gypsies) words have been incorporated. The grammar and syntax are English. The first vocabulary collected from Irish Travelers was published in 1808, indicating that Gammon dates at least back to the 1700s. But many early Celtic scholars who studied it, including the eminent Kuno Meyer, concluded it was much older.
Below are reproductions of the Lord's Prayer in Shelta as it occurred a century ago, Irish Traveller Cant, and modern English and Irish versions for comparison. The 19th century Shelta version shows a high Shelta lexical content while the Cant version a much lower Shelta lexical content. Both versions are adapted from Hancock who notes that the Cant reproduction is not exactly representative of actual speech in normal situations.
- Mwilsha's gater, swart a manyath, (Shelta)
- Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch, (Cant)
- Our Father in heaven, (English)
- Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh, (Irish)
- Manyi graw a kradji dilsha's manik.
- We turry kerrath about your moniker.
- Hallowed be your name.
- Go naofar d'ainm,
- Graw bi greydid, sheydi laadu
- Let's turry to the norch where your jeel cradgies,
- Your kingdom come, your will be done,
- Go dtaga do ríocht, Go ndéantar do thoil
- Az aswart in manyath.
- And let your jeel shans get greydied nosher same as it is where you cradgie.
- On earth as in heaven.
- ar an talamh, mar a dhéantar ar neamh.
- Bag mwilsha talosk minyart goshta dura.
- Bug us eynik to lush this thullis,
- Give us today our daily bread.
- Ár n-arán laethúil tabhair dúinn inniu,
- Geychel aur shaaku areyk mwilsha
- And turri us you're nijesh sharrig for the gammy eyniks we greydied
- And forgive us our sins,
- Agus maith dúinn ár bhfiacha
- Geychas needjas greydi gyamyath mwilsha.
- Just like we ain't sharrig at the gammi needies that greydi the same to us.
- As we forgive those who sin against us.
- Mar a mhaithimidne dár bhféichiúna féin
- Nijesh solk mwil start gyamyath,
- Nijesh let us soonie eyniks that'll make us greydi gammy eyniks,
- Save us from the time of trial,
- Ach ná lig sinn i gcathú
- Bat bog mwilsha ahim gyamyath.
- But solk us away from the taddy.
- and deliver us from evil.
- saor sinn ó olc.
- Diyil the sridag, taajirath an manyath
- [no Cant]
- For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
- Mar is leatsa an ríocht, an chumhacht, agus an ghlóir
- Gradum a gradum.
- [no Cant]
- now and forever.
- Trí shaol na saol.
- [no Shelta]
- [no Cant]