Traveler Speak: Shelta or Cant

There are two shows on American television right now about travelers that I sometimes get hooked on. Gypsy Sisters and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

A travelers' site typical of 70's and 80's Ireland.

A travelers’ site typical of 70’s and 80’s Ireland.

I grew up in Ireland, as you know, and having traveling families come and go in school was a common thing. The travelers themselves have a great history and a unique culture. Not all of their practices are to be praised however, some are known for “double dipping” into social welfare payouts in Ireland and England. But for the most part, and I have to be very honest here, I have never known a traveling family like the ones parodied in the two shows mentioned above.

Rows of caravans on the side of the road, with campfires burning and clothes hanging to dry on the hedges was a normal sight in the Ireland I grew up in during the 70’s and 80’s. Most traveling families stayed for a few weeks and then moved on. A few families stayed a little longer than that and some settled into houses.The two families that I knew were the D*** and the W***. I sat beside N* D* when I was eleven years old. She couldn’t read at an appropriate age level back then, so I brought in books of girls comics we called “annuals” and she discovered she could tell what was happening by looking at the pictures.

Irish Traveler Girl

Irish Traveler Girl

N* was a beautiful little girl, reddish, blonde hair and she was splattered with freckles. Her voice was grainy and hoarse because she inhaled smoke constantly from the open fire which was lit outside the caravan, her home, and burned to keep the family warm. She smelled of smoke and spoke in an accent that was different to mine. N* spoke in Cant, sometimes called Shelta or also known as Gammon. I understood most of what she said, it was a very heavy accent, and I was fascinated by her nomadic lifestyle.

The W*** family, also a traveling family, settled in my hometown. Two sisters in particular were very friendly with me. Two lovely girls, whose names are now a distant memory, and I have often wondered where they are now. Both girls and my twin sister and I would meet up at Lough Derg and go swimming when we were 12 or 13 years old. Their mother and father were also two very nice people.

The travelers have been called Gypsies, Pikeys, Itinerants or Knackers, all derogatory terms, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to use them, never ever. The history of the Irish traveler goes back to Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

Cromwell who instituted plantation farming in Ireland decided that the worst land was in the west of Ireland, also called Connaught. His famous phrase, “To hell or to Connaught,” meant that anyone who did not hand over their land to the British government and who would only be allowed to remain if they worked the land for the government, would have to go to the west of Ireland or be killed. The Irish traveler of today is the ancestor of those people who walked away from their lands during the Cromwellian plantation era: Forced homelessness due to expansion of the British Empire.

I’ll return to the language spoken by the travelers and its origins. Shelta, Cant or Gammon is similar to the Jamaican’s Patois, a language born out of suppression and spoken deliberately to provide meaning to others who knew it but confusion to those who did not. Shelta, Cant or Gammon is a rapid fire vocabulary of both Irish and English words that was developed to allow conversations between travelers in front of authority figures such as policemen. Here’s a small sample, although it ends up making fun of the Irish travelers’ language, provided by Brad Pitt in the movie Snatch.

And here is Johnny Depp’s attempt at emulating a refined Irish traveler’s accent in Chocolat.

The Our Father as per Wikipedia: and myself reading it in Shelta, as best I can.

Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch, We turry kerrath about your moniker.Let’s turry to the norch where your jeel cradgies,And let your jeel shans get greydied nosher same as it is where you cradgie.Bug us eynik to lush this thullis,And turri us you’re nijesh sharrig for the gammy eyniks we greydiedJust like we ain’t sharrig at the gammi needies that greydi the same to us.Nijesh let us soonie eyniks that’ll make us greydi gammy eyniks,But solk us away from the taddy.

To read more about Shelta read The Secret Languages of Ireland by R.A. Stewart Macalastair
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8 thoughts on “Traveler Speak: Shelta or Cant

  1. What wonderful clips you found! And I love your personal story of the “travelers.” I’ve seen Chocolate — good movie. Now I plan to rent Snatch in the future. Keep up the interesting posts, they are so unique and fascinating.

  2. Irish travellers did not originate from Cromwells invasion.hey have a much longer history.
    The word tinker is used as far back as the 13th century.and many famous irish stories including tain Bo refer to irish travelers as the walking people who possess a unique identity an culture plus there was a law but out in the 16 th century by queen Elizabeth I that any person that dressed like a Egyptian would be prosecuted referring to the irish travelers who they thought came from Egypt

    • Martin, Thanks very very much for this. I had no idea of this history. So rich!!! Now would you be related by and chance to Ellie Ward and she had a sister also, but can’t remember the name. I went to school with both of those girls and they were lovely. If you are related please tell them Loretto Horrigan says hello?

    • My mother is gypsy but my father is not. When my parents divorced I was of the age 5 because my father got custody Iwas not rraised in the gypsy culture, but did get some exposure when I was able to visit my mother. My grandfather (I was told) was very well known Charlie Smith…..any way long story short I want my children to learn more of there culture than I was able too. I also want them to be able to speak the language. I can speak some but not all. I have taught them what I know, I understand more than I can speak) but how can I teach them the cant/shelta & romani…..I know they are different and I know I little from both and tend to mix them when I talk to my family

      • Hi Lisa. I don’t know where you can learn shelta or cant and I wish I did. Maybe contact Martin Ward who has started an historical website about travellers. But Gypsies are of Roman descent I believe so the culture will be different.

  3. Actually, the Roma (gypsies) are a dispora from Rajasthan India and are completely, and ethnically different then Irish Travellers who have their Origins in Ireland. We have a different language and culture but can share similar lifestyles.

    Roma are darker skinned and we speak rromanes. Europeans thought we were from Egypt because of that… hence gypsies.

    Most of us find that term pretty offensive.

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