World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article


Article Id: WHEBN0000196295
Reproduction Date:

Title: Shelta  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Irish Travellers, Irish people, Languages of Ireland, Celtic languages, Isle of Man
Collection: Cant Languages, Irish Travellers, Languages of Ireland, Languages of Northern Ireland
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Native to Ireland, Irish diaspora
Region Used by some Irish Travellers
Native speakers
unknown (undated figure of 90,000)[1]
Mixed language based on English with a significant Irish component
  • Shelta
Language codes
ISO 639-3 sth
Glottolog shel1236[2]
Linguasphere 50-ACA-a

Shelta [3] is a language spoken by Irish Travellers, particularly in Ireland, but also parts of Great Britain.[4] It is widely known as the Cant, to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon, and to the linguistic community as Shelta.[5] It was often used as a cryptolect to exclude outsiders from comprehending conversations between Travellers,[4] although this aspect is frequently over-emphasised.[6] The exact number of native speakers is hard to determine due to sociolinguistic issues[7] but Ethnologue puts the number of speakers at 6,000 in the Republic of 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.[8]

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.[9] As different varieties of Shelta display different degrees of anglicisation (see below), 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.[4]


  • Names and etymology 1
    • Etymology 1.1
  • Origins and history 2
  • Linguistic features 3
    • Lexicon 3.1
    • Grammar 3.2
    • Phonology 3.3
      • Vowels 3.3.1
  • Loanwords 4
  • Orthography 5
  • Comparison texts 6
  • Sample phrases 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10
  • External links 11

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.[10] Speakers of the language also refer to it as (the) Cant,[4] Gammon[4][11] or Tarri.[4] Amongst linguists, the name Shelta is the most commonly used term.[12]

Variants of the above names and additional names include: Bog Latin,[4] Caintíotar, Gammon,[13] Sheldru,[4] Shelter,[4] Shelteroch,[4] Pavee, the Ould Thing,[4] Tinker's Cant.[4]


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 siúl Irish pronunciation:  "to walk" is at the root, either via a term such as siúltóir Irish pronunciation:  "a walker" or a form of the gerund siúladh (cf. an lucht siúlta Irish pronunciation: , "the walking people" (lit. the people of walks),[14] the traditional Irish term for Travellers).[15] The Dictionary of Hiberno-English cites it as possibly a corruption of the word "Celt".[13]

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.[16] Celtic language expert Kuno Meyer and Romani expert John Sampson both assert that Shelta existed as far back as the 13th century.[17]

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).[18] 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.[19]

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.[4]

Linguistic features

Sociologist Sharon Gmelch describes the Travellers' language as follows:[20]

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 – 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 póg) or the addition of sounds (for example gather "father" from Irish athair).[4] Other examples include lackeen "girl" from Irish cailín, 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.[21]


Shelta shares its main syntactic features with Hiberno-English and the majority of its morphological features such as -s plurals and past tense markers.[22] Compare:
Shelta English
the gawlya nawked the greid the child stole the money
crush into the lawk get into the car
you smell conya you smell nice



Front N.-front Central Back
Close i u
Near-close ɪ
Close-mid e o
Mid ə
Open-Mid ɛ ɔ
Near-open æ
Open ɑ ɒ


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".[23]

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 lósped or lohsped, a "woman" can either be spelled byohr or beoir.[24]

Comparison texts

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[25] 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
Amen. Amen.

Sample phrases

Shelta English
Grāltʹa Hello
Slum hawrum Good morning
Slum dorahōg Good evening
Lʹesk mwīlša a hu? How are you?
Mwī'lin topa, munʹia du hu I'm doing well, thank you
Yoordjeele's soonee-in munya It's good to see you
Muni kon Good night
Dhalyōn munʹia God bless you
Stafa tapa hu Long life to you!
Bin lar't ang lart Good health

See also


  1. ^ Shelta at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n McArthur, T. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-214183-X
  5. ^ Kirk, J. & Ó Baoill (eds.), D. Travellers and their Language (2002) Queen's University Belfast ISBN 0-85389-832-4
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b Dolan, Terence Patrick (ed.) A Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2004) Gill & MacMillan ISBN 0-7171-3535-7
  14. ^ Collins Irish Dictionary, HarperCollins 2006
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Meyer, Kuno. 1909. The secret languages of Ireland. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, New Series, 2: 241–6.
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ Jean-Pierre Liégeois, Roma in Europe, Council of Europe, 2007, p. 43
  22. ^
  23. ^ Oxford Dictionary – etymology
  24. ^
  25. ^


  • 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)

External links

  • Shelta lexicon and pronunciation guide
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.