Shelta /ËÊÉltÉ/ is a language spoken by Irish Travellers, particularly in Ireland, but also parts of Great Britain. It is widely known as the Cant, to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon and to the linguistic community as Shelta. It was often used as a cryptolect to exclude outsiders from comprehending conversations between Travellers, although this aspect is frequently over-emphasised. The exact number of native speakers is hard to determine due to sociolinguistic issues but Ethnologue puts the number of speakers at 6,000 in Ireland, 30,000 in the UK (including Northern Ireland), and 50,000 in the US. The figure for at least the UK is dated to 1990; it is not clear if the other figures are from the same source.
Linguistically Shelta is today seen as a mixed language that stems from a community of travelling people in Ireland that was originally predominantly Irish-speaking. The community later went through a period of widespread bilingualism that resulted in a language based heavily on Hiberno-English with heavy influences from Irish. As different varieties of Shelta display different degrees of anglicisation (see below), it is hard to determine the extent of the Irish substratum but the Oxford Companion to the English Language puts it at 2,000â"3,000 words.
Names and etymology
The language is known by various names. People outside the Traveller community often refer to it as (the) Cant, the etymology of which is still a matter of debate. Speakers of the language also refer to it as (the) Cant, Gammon or Tarri. Amongst linguists, the name Shelta is the most commonly used term.
Variants of the above names and additional names include: Bog Latin, CaintÃotar, Gammon, Sheldru, Shelter, Shelteroch, Pavee, the Ould Thing, Tinker's Cant.
The word Shelta appears in print for the first time in 1882 in the book The Gypsies by the "gypsiologist" Charles Leland, who claimed to have discovered it as the "fifth Celtic tongue". The etymology of the word has long been a matter of debate but modern Celticists are convinced that Irish siÃºl Irish pronunciation:Â [ÊuËlÊ²] "to walk" is at the root, either via a term such as siÃºltÃ³ir Irish pronunciation:Â [ÊuËlË tÌªË oËrÊ²] "a walker" or a form of the gerund siÃºladh (cf. an lucht siÃºlta Irish pronunciation:Â [ÉnË lË uxtÌª ÊuËlË tÌªË É], "the walking people" (lit. the people of walks), the traditional Irish term for Travellers). The Dictionary of Hiberno-English cites it as possibly a corruption of the word "Celt".
Origins and history
Linguists have been documenting Shelta since at least the 1870s. The first works were published in 1880 and 1882 by Charles Leland. Celtic language expert Kuno Meyer and Romani expert John Sampson both assert that Shelta existed as far back as the 13th century.
In the earliest but undocumented period linguists surmise that the Traveller community was Irish speaking until a period of widespread bilingualism in Irish and Hiberno-English (or Scots in Scotland) set in, leading to creolisation (possibly with a trilingual stage). The resulting language is referred to as Old Shelta and it is suspected that this stage of the language displayed distinctive features, such as non-English syntactic and morphological features, no longer found in Shelta.
Within the diaspora, various sub-branches of Shelta exist. English Shelta is increasingly suffering from anglicisation whereas American Irish-Traveller's Cant, originally also synonymous with Shelta, has by now been almost fully anglicised.
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 by applying four techniques: reversal, metathesis, affixing, and substitution. In the first, an Irish word is reversed to form a Gammon one â" 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.
Thus, it is not mutually intelligible with either English or Irish, out of design.
Many Shelta words have been disguised using techniques such as back slang where sounds are transposed (for example gop "kiss" from Irish pÃ³g) or the addition of sounds (for example gather "father" from Irish athair). Other examples include lackeen "girl" from Irish cailÃn, and the word rodas "door" from Irish doras.
It also contains a certain number of introduced lexical items from Romani such as the term gadje "non-Traveller" or "kushti" (from the Romanichal word for "good"). Ten percent of the Gammon language comes from Romani.
Shelta shares its main syntactic features with Hiberno-English and the majority of its morphological features such as -s plurals and past tense markers. Compare:
Some Shelta words have been borrowed by mainstream English speakers, such as the word "bloke" meaning "a man" in the mid-19th century, originally likely to have been derived from the Irish word buachaill "boy".
The Cant/Gammin word for man is fean and the word for boy is sueblik.
There is no standard orthography. Broadly speaking, Shelta can either be written following an Irish-type orthography or an English-type orthography. For example, the word for "married" can either be spelled lÃ³sped or lohsped, a "woman" can either be spelled byohr or beoir.
Below are reproductions of the Lord's Prayer in Shelta as it occurred a century ago, current Shelta, and modern English and Irish versions for comparison. The 19th century Shelta version shows a high Shelta lexical content while the Cant version shows 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.
- Irish Travellers
- Snatch (film)
- R. A. Stewart Macalister (1937) The Secret Languages of Ireland: with special reference to the origin and nature of the Shelta language, partly based upon collections and manuscripts of the late John Sampson. Cambridge University Press (reissued by Craobh Rua Books, Armagh, 1997)
- Shelta lexicon and pronunciation guide