|Native to||Ireland, by Irish Travellers, also spoken by Irish Traveller diaspora|
|Region||Spoken by Irish Travellers|
Shelta (//; Irish: Seiltis) is a language spoken by Rilantu Mincéirí (Irish Travellers), particularly in Ireland and the United Kingdom. It is widely known as the Cant, to its native speakers in Ireland as De 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 overemphasised. The exact number of native speakers is hard to determine due to sociolinguistic issues but Ethnologue puts the number of speakers at 30,000 in the UK, 6,000 in 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, it is hard to determine the extent of the Irish substratum. The Oxford Companion to the English Language puts it at 2,000–3,000 words.
Names and etymology
The language is known by various names. People outside the Irish Traveller community often refer to it as (the) Cant, the etymology of which is a matter of debate. Speakers of the language refer to it as (the) Cant, Gammon or Tarri. Amongst linguists, the name Shelta is the most commonly used term.
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 word's etymology has long been a matter of debate. Modern Celticists believe that Irish siúl [ʃuːlʲ] "to walk" is at the root, either via a term such as siúltóir [ˈʃuːl̪ˠt̪ˠoːɾʲ] "a walker" or a form of the verbal noun siúladh (cf. an lucht siúlta [ənˠ ˌl̪ˠʊxt̪ˠ ˈʃuːl̪ˠt̪ˠə], "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". Since Shelta is a mixture of English and Irish grammar, the etymology is not straightforward. The language is made up mostly of Irish lexicon, being classified as a grammar-lexicon language with the grammar being English-based.
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 undergoing anglicisation, while American Irish-Traveller's Cant, originally also synonymous with Shelta, has by now been almost fully anglicised.
Irish Travellers 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 – 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 Romanian (the language of the Romanian people) words have been incorporated. The grammar and syntax are English. The first vocabulary collected from Irish Travellers was published in 1808, indicating that Gammon dates at least back to the 1700s. But many early Celtic scholars who studied it, including Kuno Meyer, concluded it was much older.
Thus, by design, it is not mutually intelligible with either English or Irish.
Shelta is a secret language. Travellers do not like to share the language with outsiders, named “Buffers”, or non-travellers. When speaking Shelta in front of Buffers, Travellers will disguise the structure so as to make it seem like they aren't speaking Shelta at all.
While Shelta is influenced by English grammar, it is also a mixture of Gaelic and Irish words as well. The word order itself is altered, syllables are reversed, and many of the original words are Irish that have been altered or reversed. Many Shelta words have been disguised using techniques such as back slang where sounds are transposed (for example gop "kiss" from Irish póg) or the addition of sounds (for example gather "father" from Irish athair). Other examples include lackin or lakeen "girl" from Irish cailín, and the word rodas "door" from Irish doras. The word for “son” is changed from the Gaelic mac to the Shelta kam.
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:
|De Gyuck||The man|
|De Byor||The woman|
|Sooblik (Also spelled as: Subla, subleen, sublick)||Boy, Lad|
|Innic||Innic can mean just about anything. Used similar as 'thing' or 'gizmo'|
|Gayge||To be persistent about wanting something|
|carb||To hit something or someone|
|thary||Talk or speak|
|Wisht||Shut up/Stop talking|
|Tack||Usually ones possessive items|
|Crudgy||To leave somewhere in a hurry|
There is not as much importance put on gender in Shelta. Plurals are shown with the English suffix /–s/ or /-i/, such as gloχ for “man” becomes gloχi for “men”.
Shelta has 27 consonants and 10 vowels.
Many words are complex by incorporating numerous consonants within, as in the word skraχo for “tree, bush’ with the consonant /χ/ being a hissing sound that is held in the back of the throat, and is held longer than other consonants.
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 lósped 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.
|Shelta (old)||Shelta (current)||English||Irish|
|Mwilsha's gater, swart a manyath,||Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch,||Our Father, who art in heaven,||Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh,|
|Manyi graw a kradji dilsha's manik.||We turry kerrath about your moniker.||Hallowed be thy name.||Go naofar d'ainm,|
|Graw bi greydid, sheydi laadu||Let's turry to the norch where your jeel cradgies,||Thy kingdom come, Thy 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 it is 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 inniú,|
|Geychel aur shaaku areyk mwilsha||And turri us you're nijesh sharrig for the eyniks we greydied||And forgive us our trespasses,||Agus maith dúinn ár bhfiacha|
|Geychas needjas greydi gyamyath mwilsha.||Just like we ain't sharrig at the needies that greydi the same to us.||As we forgive those who trespass against us.||Mar a mhaithimid ár bhfiachóirí féin|
|Nijesh solk mwil start gyamyath,||Nijesh let us soonie eyniks that'll make us greydi gammy eyniks,||And lead us not into temptation,||Is ná lig sinn i gcathú|
|Bat bog mwilsha ahim gyamyath.||But solk us away from the taddy.||but deliver us from evil.||ach saor sinn ó olc.|
|Diyil the sridag, taajirath an manyath||Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory|
|Gradum a gradum.||For ever and ever|
- Shelta at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022)
- Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
- "tearma.ie - Dictionary of Irish Terms - Foclóir Téarmaíochta". tearma.ie. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
- McArthur, T. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-214183-X
- Kirk, J. & Ó Baoill (eds.), D. Travellers and their Language (2002) Queen's University Belfast ISBN 0-85389-832-4
- "Shelta". Ethnologue. 2009. Retrieved 9 March 2010.
- Dolan, Terence Patrick (ed.) A Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2004) Gill & MacMillan ISBN 0-7171-3535-7
- Collins Irish Dictionary, HarperCollins 2006
- Velupillai, Viveka (2015). Pidgins, Creoles and Mixed Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 381. ISBN 978-90-272-5271-5.
- Meyer, Kuno. 1909. The secret languages of Ireland. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, New Series, 2: 241–6.
- Gmelch, Sharon (1986). Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman. London: Souvenir Press. p. 234. ISBN 0-285-62785-6.
- Velupillai, Viveka (2015). Pidgins, Creoles and Mixed Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 80. ISBN 978-90-272-5271-5.
- Harper and Hudson, Jared and Charles (1971). "Irish Traveler Cant". Journal of English Linguistics. 5: 80. doi:10.1177/007542427100500105. S2CID 144672161.
- Velupillai, Viveka (2015). Pidgins, Creoles and Mixed Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 382. ISBN 978-90-272-5271-5.
- Oxford Dictionary – etymology
- Hancock, I. (1986). "The cryptolectal speech of the American roads: Traveller Cant and American Angloromani". American Speech. Duke University Press. 61 (3): 206–220 [pp. 207–208]. doi:10.2307/454664. JSTOR 454664.
- 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)