Shelta: Wikis


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Spoken in Ireland, Irish diaspora
Region Used by some Irish Travellers
Total speakers 6,000 in Ireland; 86,000 world-wide
Language family mixed language based on English with a significant Irish component
  • Shelta
Writing system Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2
ISO 639-3 sth

Shelta is a language spoken by Travellers, particularly in Ireland but also other parts of Britain.[1] It is widely known as the Cant, to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon and to the linguistic community as Shelta.[2] Although this aspect is frequently over-emphasized[2], it was often used as a cryptolect to exclude outsiders from comprehending conversations between travellers.[1] The exact number of native speakers is hard to determine due to sociolinguistic issues[2] but Ethnologue puts the number of speakers in Ireland at 6,000 and 86,000 worldwide.[3]

Linguistically Shelta is today seen to be a creole language that stems from a community of travelling people in Ireland and Scotland that was originally predominantly Irish and Gaelic speaking which went through a period of widespread bilingualism that resulted in a language based heavily on Hiberno-English and/or Scots with heavy influences from Irish and Gaelic.[2] As different varieties of Shelta display different degrees of anglicization (see below), it is hard to determine the extent of the Irish/Gaelic substratum but the Oxford Companion to the English Language puts it as 2,000-3,000 words.[1]


Names and etymology

The language is known by a large number of names. People outside the community often know the language as (the) Cant, the etymology of which is still a matter of debate.[2] Speakers of the language also refer to it as (the) Cant[1], Gammon[1][2] or Tarri[1]. Amongst linguists, the name Shelta is the most commonly used term.[2]

Variants of the above names and additional names include: Bog Latin[1], Caintíotar[citation needed], Gammen[citation needed], Sheldru[1], Shelter[1], Shelteroch[1] Pavee[citation needed], the Ould Thing[1], Tinker's Cant[1].



The word Shelta appears in print for the first time 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: [ʃuːlʲ] "to walk" is at the root, either via a term such as siúltóir Irish pronunciation: [ʃuːlˠt̪ˠoːrʲ] "a walker" or the verbal adjective siúlta (cf an lucht siúil "the walking people" Irish pronunciation: [ənˠ lˠuxt̪ ʃuːlˠt̪ˠə], the traditional Irish term for Travellers).[2]

Origins and history

Linguists have been documenting Shelta since at least the 1870s, with the first works published in 1880 and 1882 by Charles Leland.[2] Celtic language expert Kuno Meyer and Romani expert John Sampson both assert that Shelta existed as far back as the 13th century.[citation needed].

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).[2] 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.[2]

Within the diaspora, various sub-branches of Shelta exist. English Shelta is increasingly suffering from anglicization whereas American Traveller's Cant, originally also synonymous with Shelta, has by now been almost fully anglicized.[1]

Linguistic features

Sociologist Sharon Gmelch describes the Travellers' language as follows:[4]

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 Gaelic 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.


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).[1] Other examples include lackeen "girl" from Irish cailín, and the word rodas "door" from Irish doras.

It also contains a certain number of lexical items from Romani such as the term gadje "non-Traveller" or "kushti" (from the Romanichal word for "good"), though the Travellers are not actually Romani.[5]


Shelta shares its main syntactic features with Hiberno-English and the majority of its morphological features such as -s plurals and past tense markers.[2] Compare:

Shelta English
the gawlya beeged the greid the child stole the money



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".[6]


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.[2]

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 a much lower Shelta lexical content. Both versions are adapted from Hancock[7] 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 is in heaven, Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh,
Manyi graw a kradji dilsha's manik. We turry kerrath about your moniker. Hallowed be your name. Go naofar d'ainm,
Graw bi greydid, sheydi laadu Let's turry to the norch where your jeel cradgies, Your kingdom come, your 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 inniu,
Geychel aur shaaku areyk mwilsha And turri us you're nijesh sharrig for the gammy eyniks we greydied And forgive us our sins, Agus maith dúinn ár bhfiacha
Geychas needjas greydi gyamyath mwilsha. Just like we ain't sharrig at the gammi needies that greydi the same to us. As we forgive those who sin against us. Mar a mhaithimidne dár bhféichiúna féin
Nijesh solk mwil start gyamyath, Nijesh let us soonie eyniks that'll make us greydi gammy eyniks, Save us from the time of trial, Ach ná lig sinn i gcathú
Bat bog mwilsha ahim gyamyath. But solk us away from the taddy. and deliver us from evil. saor sinn ó olc.
Diyil the sridag, taajirath an manyath For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, Mar is leatsa an ríocht, an chumhacht, agus an ghlóir
Gradum a gradum. now and forever. Trí shaol na saol.
Amen. Amen.



  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Kirk, J. & Ó Baoill (eds.), D. Travellers and their Language (2002) Queen's University Belfast ISBN 0-85389-832-4
  3. ^ "Shelta". Ethnologue. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  4. ^ Gmelch, Sharon (1986), Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman, London: Souvenir Press, p. 234, ISBN 0285627856 
  5. ^ "Travellers". Retrieved 2008-07-19. 
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionary - etymology
  7. ^ Hancock, I. (1986), "The cryptolectal speech of the American roads: Traveller Cant and American Angloromani", American Speech 61 (3): 206–220 [pp. 207–208], 

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

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Proper noun




  1. (Irish) A cant used by members of the Travelling Community, based on older versions of the Irish language with modern English influences.

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