The Traveller languages of the American roads - by Ian Hancock

11 April 2024
The Traveller languages of the American roads - by Ian Hancock


The Cryptolectal Speech of the American Roads:

Traveller Cant and American Angloromani

By Ian Hancock

"Two Romanichals were adrift in mid-ocean on a raft, after their ship went down. The first lifted his arms to the heavens and cried “Oh Lord, if you get me out of this, I’ll give you both my trailers, two piles of copper pipe and a whole set of Crown Derby.” The second, hearing this, then raised his own arms and said “Lord, if you save me, I’ll give you six trailers, ten piles of scrap, and seven sets of Crown Derby!” The first looked at him and said “Hang on, you haven’t got six trai-”, but the second cut in quickly and hissed “Kecker! Mandy’s jeein’ the gaira!

Only the punchline is in Rumnis and means ‘Shut up! I’m kidding him along!’—even God isn’t supposed to be able to understand the dialect."


Professor Ian Hancock, a Romani Scholar, is one of the founding members of the academic discipline Romani Studies. Now in his eighties, Ian was born in England but is now living and continuing to study in the USA.

Appalled by prevailing attitudes of Anti-Gypsyism in British society, and in particular an incident of police brutality that led to the deaths of three Romani children, Ian Hancock first became involved in Romani activism in the 1960’s. 

In this article, the first of a series that the TT will be publishing, Ian Hancock discusses the “language of the roads”, or the speech of Scottish Travellers, Irish Travellers and Rominachals who, at some point in their family history, have emigrated to the USA and who continue to live there.

So, dear readers, make a cup of tea – or even a whole pot – and sit down and immerse yourself in the first of a monthly series of eminently readable writings - some old and some new - of Professor Ian Hancock.



There exists a number of “languages of the roads,” which have received passing mention in the literature over the years, but which until comparatively recently have not been the subject of scientific investigation. All of the documentation of these originates from, and describes, the situation in the British Isles; hardly acknowledged at all is the fact that these modes of speech also exist in anglophone territories overseas, such as Australia and New Zealand, The Republic of South Africa and in Canada and the United States. Examined here is the origin and interrelationships of these “languages” and their current sociolinguistic status and use in the United States.

There are probably between 50,000 and 100,000 people in this country who refer to themselves as “Travellers” (“Travelers” in the USA), and who speak among themselves codes belonging to the type of language dealt with here. They consist of a number of distinct groups, the principal three being the Irish Travellers (Minceirs), the Scottish Travellers (Nawkins), and the Romanichals. It is to these three only that I am restricting my discussion. Typologically a number of other in-group registers in North America might be included here, such as that used by carnival employees (Elves 1977), confidence men (Maurer 1974) or itinerants (Flynt 1900), but these are purely socially defined populations, whose linguistic behaviour is only superficially like that of the Travellers, although they frequently are all classified together in media reporting. The term Traveller does not now mean, necessarily, that someone so identified is constantly on the road; many Travellers live in sedentary homes and have done so for many years. There are long-established, settled Traveller communities in a number of states; one such, near Augusta, Georgia, is described in Harper (1977). Still other families may live in motorized trailers, some of them very elaborately appointed, and follow established routes in various areas of the country undertaking such occupations as selling oilcloth or linoleum, painting roofs and barns, and so on.

All three of the principal groups of Travellers must be regarded as ethnic, not social, populations, on the basis of origins, patterns of descent, the function of their respective dialects and so on. Of these three groups, only the Romanichals are “Gypsies”—using the word in its non-general (but incorrect) sense—although like the Irish and the Scottish Travellers they also came to North America from the British Isles. While the original Gypsy language and core culture can be traced to India over a millennium ago, the specific histories of the other two groups are less abundantly documented or understood. A number of theories exist as to where these latter two groups and their dialects ultimately originated; suggestions ranging from the Picts to excommunicated clergy to families fleeing the potato famine to pre-Norman-Invasion British outlaws have been made at different times. Their respective dialects in North America contain, in addition to elements of Romani, features from Shelta, a related cryptolect based largely on Irish, and from Cant, a disguised English employed by those who lived outside the law in Britain from at least the late Middle Ages.

Today the ethnic speech of these groups consists of sets of non-English lexemes, to some extent overlapping but essentially distinct, within each of these three populations, in a wholly English grammatical framework.  It is because of this I have referred to them variously as “languages,” “dialects” and “modes of speech.” They may in fact be typed synchronically simply as registers of English, but the nature of their individual developments does not parallel the development of any of the English regional dialects.


Irish Traveller Cant


This register has drawn in the past upon a language known as Shelta (not a name used by its speakers themselves) for its cryptic lexical stock, but it has not yet been agreed upon whether it is a Shelta which has become diluted out of existence, or whether it has always been a kind of English which has drawn upon the Shelta which coexisted with it. Approaching its makeup componentially, a term I shall come back to, the latter seems the more likely.

Shelta itself, at least as it was recorded a century ago, incorporated an extensive vocabulary of non-English items. While its actual lexical stock was not large, it expanded its semantic resources in a number of ways reminiscent of the same processes in pidgin languages. For example, ‘summer’ was expressed by getch grimsher, literally ‘hot time’, and ‘sugar’ by innoch libis ‘sweet stuff.’ In an earlier essay which also presents a more comprehensive discussion of Irish Traveller Cant, I reproduced the Shelta version of the Lords Prayer by way of example (Hancock 1984b:389):


Mwilsha’s gater, swart a manyath, manyi graw a kradji dilsha’s manik. Graw bi greydid, sheydi laadu az aswart in manyath. Bag mwilsha talosk minyart goshta dura. Geychel aur shaaku areyk mwilsha geychas needjas greydi gyamyath mwilsha. Nijesh solk mwiil start gyamyath, bat bog mwilsha ahim gyamyath. Diyil the sridag, taajirath an manyath gradum a gradum.


This kind of speech has been recorded from New England from the same period, but no present-day examples of the language are available. Instead, a register with a much higher English content (or lower Shelta content) is what investigators typically encounter. This is known as Cant, or The Cant; the same prayer, utilizing lexical items current today, would run as follows:


Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch, we turry kerrath about your moniker. Let’s turry to the nortch where your jeel cradgies, and let what 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 greydied just 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.


While this would no doubt be understood by modern Cant speakers in the United States, it is quite contrived and not at all representative of the way the register is actually spoken in normal situations. In all of these dialects, such compositions, when they occur, are consciously devised linguistic exercises, though the creation of such “deep” speech does have a legitimate place in the speaker’s repertoire.

Shelta’s origins remain something of a mystery. There are two principal hypotheses as to its age, and two as to its origin: some scholars believe it to be several centuries old, and some think it has existed for less than two hundred years. And some have suggested that it was devised by “unsophisticated tinkers,” and others have said it was created by learned men—monks, in particular. Whatever its origins, it came to serve as a factor of linguistic cohesion for an oppressed population, identified by various names, whose descendants today are found in a number of English-speaking countries.


Scottish Traveller Cant


The speech of the so-called Scottish Travellers may represent the oldest of the components in the three dialects being discussed here. The earliest texts containing Cant go back to the sixteenth century, and it is likely that its origins are to be sought even earlier. Wilde (1889:306) believed that the dialect began developing at the time of the Norman Conquest, when displaced Saxons took to the roads as outlaws and thieves and disguised their speech intentionally as a means of protection. This may have happened in the late mediaeval period, but it is hard to imagine that it was necessary as early as the eleventh century, when few Normans knew any of the dialects of English. A sample of Cant given by Copeland (1535) runs as follows:


Ynow, ynow, with boozy cove maimed nace,

Tear the pattering cove in the darkman case,

Docked the dell for a copper make,

His watch shall feng a prounce’s nob-cheat.

Cyarum by salmon, and thou shalt peck my jerry

In thy gan, for my watch is nace gear.


Another early sample is found in Dekker (1609):


If we heave a booth, we’ll cly the jerk

If we niggle or mill a boozing-ken;

Or nip a bung that has but a win,

Or dup the jigger of a gentry cove’s ken,

To the queer cuffing we bing.


An example of modern Cant, which was recorded in the British Isles in 1975 by Peter Kennedy and reproduced in Acton (1985:19-20), is as follows:


I dicked a geddie playin’ steemers,

Oh my shannas, how he binged avree!

I spied a young dillie bingin’ doon the hellum,

And some pourin’, and nothin’ to eat.

As I binged near this dillie,

She dicked and gloored at me.

I said “shanish, shanish, manishi!

Can you bing avree wi’ me?”


American Angloromani


Angloromani is a term used by linguists to distinguish this variety from the Romani spoken in Britain until the early 20th century which had retained its native morphosyntax and phonology and is written Anglo-Romani in the literature. Like “Shelta” it is not a term used by its speakers themselves, who in the United States refer to it most commonly as Rumnis. In Britain, where there is more awareness of the earlier existence of the inflected dialect, it is called posh ’n’ posh (literally ‘half and half’) or pogadi-jib (‘broken language’), terms not so current in North America. I will not deal here with the status of inflected British Romani in the United States; a sample of it may be found in Brown (1929); at least two glossaries of the restructured variety as spoken in this country have also been published: Prince (1907) and Sinclair (1915). Another, extensive and still unpublished glossary from New Jersey is that of Frederick Arnold (1894). The contemporary situation of the dialect in its country of origin is discussed by various authors in Acton and Kenrick (1984).

Essentially, Angloromani differs from its lexifier language (i.e. inflected, unmodified Romani) in having a far smaller core vocabulary, and an almost entirely English-derived phonology and structure. What follows is a sample of Inflected Welsh Romani (taken from Smart and Crofton 1875:200) and its English translation:


Kana me shomas tikno, saw i phurane foki rakarde tache phurane Romane lavaw. Ninai kek si sikle odia kana, sar and’i palane beshaw. Kana, i tarne foki n’astis te rakeren taches.


(“When I was a small child, all the old people spoke real old Romani words. People aren’t taught like that now, the way they were years ago. Now, the youngsters don’t know how to speak properly”).


Here is the same passage in Basilectal English Romani (based upon Smart and Crofton 1875:200, using Sampson 1926):


Kana sas mandi a tikno, saw o puro foki rokerde tacho puro Romani lavaw. Kek nanai si jaw siklo konaw, si sas beshaw dusta palal. Konaw, o tarno foki kek yon rokerena tacho.


Finally, the following translation of the same passage into the author’s own Angloromani:


When mandi was a bitta chavvi, doasters of pura foki rockered tacha pura Romani lavs. Foki’re kekker sikkered how to rocker these days like leddi used to doaster beshes ago. Tudivvus, the bitta foki kekker jins how to rocker kushti.


Arrival of the Groups in North America


Hall (1915, 247) noted that “Thickly sprinkled with Gypsy names are the ‘transportation lists,’ 1787-1867, reposing on the shelves of the Public Records Office in London”; Brown (1929:148) quotes verbatim from a Romanichal who told him that he remembered his grandfather telling him how his great-uncle fought for America in the Revolutionary War. From Cromwell’s time on, large numbers of British Travellers, including the Irish Travellers, were transported to the Americas, though genealogical investigation such as that being carried out by Salo (1984) indicates that the largest period of immigration took place in the mid-nineteenth century. Simson (1865:418-25) deals in some detail with the arrival of Romanichals and Scottish Travellers in North America; the arrival of Continental groups is documented in Hancock (1986).

An order dated 1654 sent to various Irish County Governors required them to “arrest all wanderers, men and women, and such other Irish within their precincts as should not prove they had a settled course of industry as yielded a means of their own to maintain them, all such children as were in hospitals or workhouses, all prisoners, men and women, to be transported” (Williams 1932, 12). “Henry Laurens, a Charleston slave dealer, claimed, “I never saw an instance of cruelty to the Negro slaves in ten or twelve years’ experience equal to the cruelty exerted upon these poor Irish [transportees]” (quoted in Mannix 1983:148). Further details of transportation are found in Beier (1985).

Many Irish came to the United States following the potato famine in the 1840s; this period of their history is dealt with in Sowell (1981:17-42). According to Niles (1980:21-22)


The immigration of Scots came generally later than that of the Irish. The bulk of the former were prisoners of war shipped over during the (Scottish) Civil War, but conditions in Scotland accounted for later transportations. . . . Between 1678 and 1685, more than 800 Scots were again sentenced to transportation; the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745 later furnished a number of Scots prisoners who too were shipped.


These shipments were to the West Indies, in particular Barbados, and to Virginia, though an unspecified number of these individuals came into Carolina via Barbados as well. Some Travellers were transported simply for being Travellers, and their numbers were certainly augmented by non-Traveller transportees who joined them; only a tiny fraction of those transported to the American colonies would have been Travellers before transportation; it is not easy to identify such people from names in the shipping lists.

            The migration of Travellers into the United States has by no means stopped, and the distinctions among the different groups are many and complex. The earlier stock of Irish Travellers, known as Sawries, is in two separate groups centred in the Southeast and the South Midlands respectively, and both are different from a third group, consisting of the more recently arrived Irish Travellers, or “Greenhorns” who live principally in the North. There is little socializing among the three. The Scottish Travellers in Britain include Romanichal and non-Romanichal groups, although in this country that distinction doesn’t seem to be maintained as sharply as in Canada, according to information provided by Lee (1969:94) in his survey of different “Gypsy” groups in North America. It is generally accepted, however, that there has been a certain amount of intermarriage over the years, and that more or less Romani blood is represented in the histories of some Irish and Scottish Traveller families, and vice versa.

This earlier contact is evident in the dialects. Thus, for Scottish Cant in Britain, Clement (1981:20) found between twenty-five and thirty-five percent Romani-derived lexicon, and almost the same proportion is evident in this country. The phonology, however, differs in some respects from that of Angloromani, and there are items of Romani origin in Scoto-Romani, as Russell (1915) has called it, which have not been recorded in English Angloromani at all, suggesting a different earlier history for the Scottish Romani population. Irish Cant also contains a fair number of Angloromani adoptions, and American Angloromani in turn contains some Cant words—dancers ‘stairs’, for example. It is evident, however, that this dialect mixing is far less common in North America than it is in the British Isles, and it is also the case that although speakers of each may use words from the other two dialects, they are usually quite well aware that they are doing so. An Irish Traveller will readily tell you that although he may use the word kushti ‘nice’, it is Romani and not Cant.


Age and Characteristics of the Dialects


The arrival of speakers of inflected Romani in Britain, and hence their initial contact with English, probably took place in the late 1400s. The first reference to it was by Borde in 1547, and a few years later, in 1566, Harman referred to the Gypsies’ use of “peddlars French or canting,” which, he said, had become established some time during the previous thirty years. All the samples we have of this are in fact Cant and not any kind of Romani, and one possibility is that an earlier English Cant provided the model for all of the dialects being discussed here (see Hancock, 1984c). We find in that dialect, for example, the use of nominal phrases functioning pronominally as early as Copeland (1535): his watch ‘him’, my watch ‘I’, and others such as his nabs, his nibs. The latter has survived into modern English, along with a few other Cant words like booze, queer, rum, cheat, and gear. In Irish Cant the same construction is found: my jeel for ‘I’, your jeel for ‘you’ and so on; Shelta has also created two pronouns on the same pattern: mwilsha ‘I’ and dwilsha ‘you’, from mo ‘my’ and do ‘thy’ plus dyil (which has no traceable source in Gaelic but which seems to mean something like ‘self’) plus sha, which is the Gaelic -sa, an emphatic particle following the noun possessed (cf. the Gaelic mo mhac-sa ‘my son’ [Dillon 1961:49]). In Gaelic, féin means ‘self,’ and forms such as se féin ‘him-self,’ or more accurately he self’, can occur as a non-reflexive pronoun, as in Hiberno-English ‘himself did it’, or ‘will you give this to himself.’ A parallel with the Black English (and U.S. slang) use of ass (arse in British English) might tentatively be drawn: ‘I fired his ass’; ‘your ass is in trouble’. In the Igbo language, spoken in eastern Nigeria, ike-m ‘my ass’, ike-gi ‘your ass’, and so on, are common in colloquial speech for ‘myself’, ‘yourself’, &c. Scottish Cant jeer, incidentally, means ‘backside’, also one of the interpretations of the English Cant jerry (cf. jerry can). Jeer and jeel are phonologically very similar. This nominal construction used pronominally does not occur in Angloromani, although Scottish Cant has my noggins, your noggins, etc., the word Noggins or Nawkins in fact being one of the names applied to the whole Scottish Traveller population here in North America. This is probably noggin in the sense of ‘head’, a word of untraced origin whose primary meaning is ‘pot’ (OED I:1934; cf. French tête ‘head’ from Latin testa, ‘pot’). ‘My head’ for ‘me’ is parallelled in some Creoles, e.g. Haitian m’ap tuye tet-mwen ‘I’ll kill myself’ (lit. I’ll kill my head’—a calque on a number of African languages, where the reflexivity marker is the word for ‘head,’ e.g. Fulani o vi ’n hore makko ‘he said to himself’ where makko means ‘head’). Given the occurrence of these constructions both in Gaelic and in English Cant, however, it cannot be determined conclusively on this basis alone which had the feature first, or whether indeed what we have is a case of parallel but independent development.     

An interesting semantic shift shared with the ELACs (English-lexifier Atlantic Creoles) is the use of the Common Romani word for ‘enough’ to mean ‘a lot of’ (CR dosta < Slavic), in Angloromani doasters ([ˈdoustə(r)z], with English plural {-s}: doasters o’ foki “lots of people,” in the ELACs nuff people.1

Essentially, as indicated above, each of the dialects is a set of non-English lexemes in the framework of English. The proportion of these in any given utterance differs according to circumstance, but in normal speech it is fairly low. A good many become part of the idiolects from the very beginning, and it is not uncommon for someone to discover only later that a word he has been using is not part of standard English. One seven-year-old girl recently translated chore the wongur as “chore the money,” not realizing that chore ‘steal’, was also Rumnis; another Romanichal remembers that when he first attended school, he put his hand up and asked the teacher if he could leave the room to go and “muter” (i.e. relieve himself).

In situations where information needs to be passed cryptically, again only the key words will be changed, since a whole sentence in dialect would be likely to attract attention and perhaps cause suspicion. Many of the words give the auditory impression of being English, for example, damper, pester, fig, kipper, bull, mandy, vasable, beezle, and crocus, and when inserted into an English sentence they cause the listener to think only that he didn’t quite catch what was said. This similarity, naturally, also serves as a source of puns and jokes within the Traveller community.

If the dialects are ever spoken with a high incidence of non-English lexicon, it is usually in situations where it is consciously the intention to do so. Individuals are admired for the extent of their vocabularies, and it is not unusual for speakers to play with the dialect and attempt dialect equivalents as a means of practice and diversion. Outsiders who have made efforts to learn any of these usually use too high a proportion of non-English words in their ordinary conversation, thereby sounding unnatural.

The extent of inclusion may be seen from the following three passages, one in each dialect, all of which were taken from the same issue of an evangelical newsletter produced by and for Travellers and distributed nationally. It is the Christmas story from St. Luke 2:20, and is given in the original spelling. In Angloromani, the passage is as follows:


And the goovel brought forth her first born chavvy and chivved the tickno in swaddling ejus and beshed him in a grais stall because there was keker room for them in the tan.


In Irish Traveller Cant this would be:


And the lacken brought forth her first born sobian and bugged the sobian in swaddling churk and bugged him in a manger because there was nejace room for them in the norch.


A Scottish Traveller Cant version:


And the manashe brought forth her first born chavvy and feeked the kinshun in swaddling tugs and feeked him in a grais stall because there was nockery room for them in the runk.


Speakers of Irish and Scottish Cant do not think in terms of their dialects being outgrowths of earlier, un-anglicized languages, although this may in fact be true for Irish Cant. Again we are faced with determining whether (1) we are dealing with earlier discrete languages which have eroded to the point where they are now, or (2) whether they are registers which have evolved componentially; that is, were they always English but with an introduced component drawn upon from either a coexisting language—Shelta or Romani—or from a lexical stock—Cant. Speakers of Angloromani, on the other hand, do encounter individuals who have retained at least some inflected forms, usually frozen and unanalyzable, and who are familiar in addition with a sometimes quite extensive passive vocabulary. Because of the age of the language and because of its roots in inflected Romani, songs and expressions from an earlier time are retained which contain terms and constructions no longer part of the current speech. To illustrate, here is the sentence “Go and ask your sister” in the various forms along the continuum:


1. jaw te puches tire phenya

2. jaw ta puch tiri pen

3. jaw and puch tiri pen

4. jal and puch tuti’s pen

5. jal and putch your pen

6. go and puch your pen

7. go and ask your pen

8. go and ask your sister


The first is in inflected British Romani; it incorporates a subordinated clause introduced with the complementizer te, the language having no infinitive mood, and expresses number, gender and case agreement. This is the kind of conservative dialect described by Sampson illustrating the speech of Romanies in Wales at the turn of the 20th century. The second and third are typical of the way the same language is spoken today by a diminishing number in Britain; case agreement is not carefully maintained, and conjoined imperatives replace the “deeper” complex construction. English intrusion into the vocabulary, especially of nonlexical items, is apparent. The fourth could qualify as basilectal Angloromani; the verbs are invariable, and derive either from third person singular inflected forms (such as jal) or from imperatives (puch); the non-English pronouns in Angloromani are likewise derived from specific inflected forms in the source language; in this case tuti retains the form of the prepositional case, although not the case function;2 tiri is lost, the possessive being the invariable tuti plus English inflected –’s. The phonemic distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated /p/ and /ph/ is lost since this is not a characteristic of English phonology. This is the kind of Angloromani sometimes idealized in published sources, rather like the contrived version of the Lord’s Prayer in ITC included above, but which is not typical of natural speech. The fifth, sixth, and seventh sentences are all possible, with the sixth and seventh most likely in an all-Traveller environment. The fifth might be used in the company of non-Travellers if for any reason the content of the message were to be kept from them.

The last, of course, is entirely English, and it is the fact that the discreteness (and the discreetness) of Angloromani, as well as of Irish and Scottish Traveller Cant, relies totally on their non-English lexicons, that lexical innovation remains productive. Speakers of all of these maintain that there is a way in their languages of saying anything at all without recourse to English words. Certainly there are equivalents for such contemporary items as telephone, aeroplane, petrol and so on.


Function of the Dialects


 These dialects serve two main functions: as a mark of ethnic identity and as a means of communicating in a way which is unintelligible to outsiders. The latter is nicely illustrated in a widely known joke:


Two Romanichals were adrift in mid-ocean on a raft, after their ship went down. The first lifted his arms to the heavens and cried “Oh Lord, if you get me out of this, I’ll give you both my trailers, two piles of copper pipe and a whole set of Crown Derby.” The second, hearing this, then raised his own arms and said “Lord, if you save me, I’ll give you six trailers, ten piles of scrap, and seven sets of Crown Derby!” The first looked at him and said “Hang on, you haven’t got six trai-”, but the second cut in quickly and hissed “Kecker! Mandy’s jeein’ the gaira!”


Only the punchline is in Rumnis and means ‘Shut up! I’m kidding him along!’—even God isn’t supposed to be able to understand the dialect.

It is evident that the need for such a protective device is diminishing, and that the extent of the vocabularies of each is also diminishing, perhaps as a result—a fact which Harper (1969) discusses in some detail.  But the value of each as a means of group identification continues to be a powerful factor in their survival and transmittance from generation to generation. With this changing emphasis on the reasons for maintaining these registers, the circumstances for doing so have also changed.

The situation in the case of Angloromani differs to some extent from that of the other two. First, although time has moulded the Scottish and Irish Traveller communities into distinct peoples, each characterized by its own speech, customs, genealogy and occupations, their respective cores of direct retention remain hard to identify; and they seem, on the basis of what we know, to have originated from the amalgamation of a number of both ethnic and social groups some time over the past few hundred years. The Romanichal population, on the other hand, has a strong sense of apartness from those who do not share Romani descent, and this is acknowledged by the other two populations, who refer to them as Kippeens, Gypsies, or the English, and who are not usually pleased to be associated with them—an attitude which is generally reciprocated by the Romanichal Travellers. This sense of apartness, probably more than any other factor, is typical of Gypsy populations everywhere, and may be the single most important criterion for identification: the notion that society is divided into those who are Romanies and those who are not. It does not matter that many Romanichals may have more non-Romani ancestry than Romani; what matters is that they are Romanies and the rest are not, and that includes the Irish and Scottish Travellers.  From the outsider’s perspective this might also serve as an important criterion for identification, since other Romani populations besides Romanichals have come to settle in this country, and it is not uncommon to hear, for example, one group maintaining that members of another group are not “real Gypsies,” whatever scholars know their shared ultimate history to have been. Perceptive classifications invariably differ from productive ones; while group A is different from group B in many and significant ways, both A and B are nevertheless not gadje ‘non-Gypsies” (gawjas or gorjers in Rumnis).  How this is interpreted, however, depends upon the very different perspectives of those doing the observing. One of the clearest boundaries separating different Romani groups in the United States is linguistic; because Romanichals cannot understand or be understood by speakers of Vlax Romani dialects unless both use English, socializing is not given a chance to develop. The group known as the Boyash on the other hand, which shares the same immediate origins with the Vlax Romanies but who descend from those who were house-slaves during the centuries of Gypsy slavery in southern Europe, and who as a result have lost the language, does socialize with the Romanichals, and cases of intermarriage between members of the two groups are not unusual.

Acquisition of the dialect of the Romanichals is also found among the Boyash, some of whom have even adopted Romanichal surnames. Romanichals and the Boyash are often confused by the Vlax Rom, who may refer to both groups as Boyash indiscriminately; the Vlax, on the other hand, are called Turks or Ragheads, and at one time Russians by the Romanichals, and Bonnajees3 by the Boyash.

The populating of North America, with the huge diversity of ethnic and national groups who have come here to live, has caused Travellers to become lost in the crowd. Americans tend to be very colour conscious, and it is hard for them to think of minority groups except in terms of race and complexion. More than once it’s been said that the Gypsies’ plight might receive more sympathetic attention if they had green skin.

Americans have also been fed a very imaginative diet of romantic nonsense about Gypsies, and most would not be able to recognize a genuine Gypsy if they saw one. As long ago as 1865, Simson commented upon the “very erroneous” popular perception of the Gypsy (1865: 8), and his remarks, by and large, still hold true today. The word Gypsy itself is often used as though it described a kind of behaviour; Irish and Scottish Travellers are referred to as Gypsies in the press not because of what they actually are, but because of how they are perceived to behave; and yet it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the [Irish] Travellers in no way consider themselves to be Gypsies. Newspaper reports that refer to the Travellers as Gypsies are highly resented. In fact, such reports have had a definite negative effect with regard to the Travellers’ openness with outsiders desiring to write about them . . . “to call us Gypsies is to misrepresent us” (Harper, 1977:38-39).

Members of a troupe of non-Gypsy actors who arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1985 in horse-drawn carts were called “Gypsies” in the local press (Rowlands 1985), although Gypsies don’t travel in horse-drawn carts in this country, and fewer than two percent do in Britain. It is the strength of this stereotype that protects the real population, and with so many non-Traveller Americans on the roads and in the KOA Camps in their Winnebagos, it is easy to understand why Travellers remain invisible to the rest of the population. Furthermore, Travellers will seldom reveal their identity in their contacts with the non-Traveller population.

This invisibility has also brought about a certain relaxation of attitudes towards protecting the community. In Britain, the situation is sharply distinct: Travellers, whether Romani or not, are a persecuted minority which [at time of writing] must travel from government reservation to government reservation and who will be fined or jailed if they stop anywhere in between. In May, 1985 in Yorkshire, one municipal council sought a court injunction to make it illegal for Travellers to trespass within city limits—a move which the press called “a policy of apartheid.” Such anti-Traveller legislation exists also in the United States, but it is not often enforced [the prejudice against Romanies is nevertheless strong here, particularly within law enforcement agencies.  See “Gypsy mafia, Romani saints” (Karanth, 2010).  When it is, it is usually against the more recently arrived, more identifiable Continental Gypsies. Harper (1977:64) writes of the profound effects one such law had on traditional means of livelihood for the Travellers; passed in the State of Georgia, it read in part:


Upon each company of traveling horse-traders, or traveling Gypsies . . . engaged in trading or selling merchandise or livestock of any kind, or clairvoyant, or persons engaged in fortune-telling, phrenology, or palmistry, $250 [is] to be collected . . . [from those who] live in tents or travel in covered wagons and automobiles, and who may be a resident of some country or who reside without the State, and who are commonly called traveling horse traders and Gypsies.

[Georgia Acts and Resolutions, 1927 Pt. I, Title II, §56, p. 73]


Something should be said about the secrecy of these dialects and ethics involved in discussing them in print. Most of their speakers have a very protective attitude about revealing details of their speech to outsiders or about admitting that such dialects even exist. Obviously, if the dialects were to become too well known, their whole function as cryptolectal registers would be invalidated. Almost all of the examples given here are already somewhere in print, and therefore already available to anyone interested enough to look for them. It should be added, however that speakers are still quite easily able to disguise the content of their speech even in the presence of outsiders who have learnt more or less of their dialects from printed sources.

An increasing number of works on Travellers is being written by Travellers themselves, and this is as it should be. The British and Foreign Bible Society has published a number of scriptures in some of these dialects, and at least one publishing house has produced several collections of materials, including word-lists and transcribed oral literature. The Internet now contains sites listing the vocabularies of Traveller speech, a fact which may serve to hasten their demise. Various scholarly treatments of the status and form of these dialects and on the sociological background of their speakers also exist. A number of these have been included in the References.

1enough” is expressed in the ELACs with “do,” cf. Krio i du (so), i nɔ du. In Angloromani it is managed by paraphrasis, e.g. mook it adoi, atch adoi, duvva’s kushti (“leave it there,” “stop there,”  “that’s fine”), &c.


2 Scando pns + refs

3 bonajee <





Including works cited in the text, and further sources on the Travellers.



Acton, Thomas, 1985. Gypsies in Great Britain: A Report for the Council of Europe

London: Silver.

Acton, Thomas, & G. Davies, 1979. “Among English Romanies and Irish Travellers

(Tinkers) in England and Wales”. In Hancock (1979), 91-110.

Acton, Thomas, and Donald Kenrick, eds. 1984. Romani Rokkeripen To-Divvus:

the English Romani Dialect and Its Contemporary Social, Educational and Linguistic Standing. London: Romanestan Publications.

Ainsworth, Harrison. 1851. Rookwood. London: Chapman and Hall. (Ch. 5 contains

            extensive examples of Cant, with discussion).

 Anon., 1894. “An Early Gypsey.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 2: 100.

Arnold, Frederick S., 1894.  Romany Vocabulary, Being a Ms. Collection of All the Forms and So forth of English-Gypsy Words, Now Current Amongst Gypsies in America. Unpublished typewritten ms.  Hudson River, New Jersey.

Beier, A.L. 1985. Masterless Men: the Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640London and New York: Methuen.

Betts, Paul. 1974. “Scottish Tinkers.” Observer Magazine 7 April: 56-58.

Bewley, Victor. 1974. Travelling People. Dublin: Veritas.

Borde, Andrew. 1547. The First Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge. London.

Brown, Irving. 1924. Gypsy Fires in America. New York: Harper.

Brown, Irving, 1929. “The Gypsies in America.” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society  8: 45-76.

Cahalane, D.C. 1904. “The Gypsies.” New England Magazine May: 321-30.

Clement, David. 1981. “The Secret Languages of the Scottish Travelling People.” Grazer Linguistische Studien: Sprachliche Sonderformen 15: 17—25.

Copeland, Robert. 1535. "The Hye Way to the Spittal Hous" Hazlitt (1864), np., quoted in H. Bauman, ed. Londonismen: Slang und Cant. Berlin: Schoneberg, 1887, xxxviii.

Dekker, Thomas. 1609. Lanthorne and Candle-light. London.

Dillon, Myles. 1961. Teach Yourself Irish. London: English Universities P.

Elves, Hazel. 1977. It’s All Done with Mirrors. Victoria: Sono Nis.

Flynt, Josiah. 1900. Tramping with Tramps. London: Unwin.

Gatlin, George. 1925. “Nomads of our American Highways.” Travel, June: 12-15.

Grierson, G.A. 1909. “A Note on Professor Prince’s Article on the English-

Rommany Jargon.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 29: 232—35.

Hall, George. 1915. The Gypsy’s Parson. London: Low, Marston.

Hancock, Ian, ed. 1979. Romani Sociolinguistics. International Journal for the

Sociology of Language 29. The Hague: Mouton.

Hancock, Ian, 1984a.’”Romani and Angloromani.” Trudgill (1984), 367-83.

Hancock, Ian, 1984b. “Shelta and Polari.” Trudgill (1984), 384-403.

Hancock, Ian, 1984c. “The Social and Linguistic Development of Angloromani.” in  Acton & Kenrick (1984), 89-122.  Also at

Hancock, Ian, 1986. The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and

Persecution. Ann Arbor: Karoma.

Harman, Thomas. 1566. A Caveat for Common Cursetors. London.

Harper, Jared. 1969. Irish Traveler Cant: An Historical, Structural and Socio-

linguistic Study of an Argot. Master’s thesis, U of Georgia.

Harper, Jared, 1973. “Irish Traveler Cant: Its Evolution and Classification.” Un-

            published essay.

Harper, Jared, 1977. The Irish Travelers of Georgia. Diss. U of Georgia.

Hazlitt, William C. 1864. Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England. LondonJ.R. Smith.

Jones, Alexander. 1834. “American Gypsies.” American Journal of Science and Arts, 26: 189-90.

Karanth, Dileep, ed., 2010.  Danger! Educated Gypsy: Selected Essays by Ian

Hancock.  Hatfield: The University of Hertfordshire Press.

Kennedy, Peter. 1975. Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. London: Cassell.

Kenrick, Donald. 1979. “Romani English.’ in Hancock (1979), 111-20.

Lee, Ronald. 1967-69. “The Gypsies in Canada,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 46: 38-51,47:12-28, 48: 92-107.

[MacRitchie, David?]. 1891. “Transportation of Gypsies from Scotland to America.” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 2: 60—62.

MacRitchie, David. 1894. Scottish Gypsies Under the Stewarts. Edinburgh: Douglas.

Mannix, Daniel P. 1983. The History of Torture. New York: Dell.

Maurer, David W. 1974. The American Confidence Man. Springfield: Thomas.

McCormick, Andrew. 1907. The Tinkler-Gypsies. Edinburgh: Menzies.

Muller, Edwin. 1941. “Roving the South with the Irish Horse-Traders.” Reader’s Digest 39: 59-63.

Niles, Norma. 1980. Provincial English Dialects and Barbadian English. Diss., U of Michigan.

Prince, J.D. 1907. “The English-Rommany Jargon of the American Roads.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 238: 271—308.

Rehfisch, Farnham, ed. 1975. Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers. London and New York: Academic.

Ribton-Turner, C.J. 1887. A History of Vagrants and Vagrancy, and Beggars and Begging. London: Chapman and Hall.

Rowlands, Penelope. 1985. “Gypsies of the Theater.” San Francisco Times-Tribune, 8 Aug.: Cl-2.

Russell, A. 1915. “Scoto-Romani and Tinkler’s Cant,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 8: 1.

Ryan, George E. 1967. “The Irish Travellers.” Ave Maria 18 Mar.: 16-18.

Salo, Matt. 1984. “Romničel Economic and Social Organization in Urban New England, 1850-1930.” Sixth Annual Meeting of the North American Chapter of the Gypsy Lore Society. New York, 24—26 Feb.

Sampson, John. 1926. The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales. Oxford UP.

Simson, Walter. 1865. A History of the Gypsies: With Specimens of the Gypsy

Language. London: Sampson, Low, Son, and Marston.

Sinclair, A.T. 1915. “An American-Romani Vocabulary.” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 10: 727-38.

Sinclair, A.T., 1917. “American Gypsies.” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 21: 299-315.

Smart, Barth C., and H.T. Crofton. 1875. The Dialect of the English Gypsies.

London: Asher. Rpt. Detroit: Gale, 1968.

Sowell, Thomas. 1981. Ethnic America: A History. New York: Basic.

Trudgill, Peter, ed. 1984. Language in the British Isles. Cambridge UP.

Vogel, Albert. 1976. Gypsies in America: A Bibliography. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico TechnologyApplicationCenter.

Wilde, W.C. 1889. “Some Words of Thief Talk.” Journal of American Folklore 2: 301-06.

Williams, J.J. 1932. Whence the ‘Black Irish’ of Jamaica? New York: Dial Press.

First published in American Speech, 61(3):206-220 

Photograph (c) Damian Le Bas