The meaning of Irish Traveller Cant

A brief look at Ireland lesser understood linguistic sibling by Oein DeBhairduin

GammonCant for the Travelling community a language is called various names and titles, influenced mainly by which family line or cluster a Traveller comes from. Some title it Gammon (Gamin) or Cant (Minceirtoiree / Traveller Talk) and it is known as ‘Shelta’ within academic circles. Since 2019 it has been listed on the UNESCO (The United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisations) Irish Inventory of intangible culture as a means of both recognise its importance towards the cultural fabric if Ireland but also a means of safeguarding it’s preservation and future use.

This history of the language is both complex and plain and for the same reason; one that is that largely that the history of the language is yet to be written.

What we do however have in abundance are theories, theories of origins, or adaptation, of social changes and of secrecy, theories of trade carriers and ancient bards as well as theories of more recent deliberate linguistic construction.

What I would stress however as we take a slight exploration through a beautiful inheritance and form of communication is that these theories should not be used as tools of validation, of implications pf worth and the weight that words can and indeed does have within the community but as a means to navigate those spaces, when and why they may of arisen and allow us to embrace the reality that regardless of specific and identifiable resource points, that the language is here, it does exist and is intrinsically entwined with the identities, heritage and expressions of the community – acting as both a custodian of understandings and a way to remain linked, not just with each other but so many who have come before us.

Let’s first look at when the language was ‘discovered’ and you may notice the word discovered a lot through research on the language and it’s recordings. This will I am sure also alter you to one of the main principles that we have within the language, that rightly or wrongly the language was mostly recorded, be it for cultural voyeurism or thankful preservation, by the wider community, rather than the community itself.

Like the fallacy of being a secret language, rather than one that is mostly used as an internal, closed community practice, it gives the platform of the language to one that is settled-normative in nature rat her then aware that to the people using it, it was neither a surprise to them that they were speaking it nor a secret that they possessed it amongst themselves.

The first known recordings of the language comes from 1874 when a folklorist known as Charles Godfrey Leland met with an Irish Traveller on a beach in Bath in England, who was busily grinding and sharpening knives and was surprised to discover he spoke a language that Leland had not come across before. He believed at the time that he had discovered a fifth Celtic language and news of his discovery quickly spread gaining much interest within the linguistic spaces.

These discussions should also be viewed via the lenses of the period and the socio-economic status of the speakers and those who had interest, or at least theory of the language, its use, origins and at times, worth.

Father early studies commenced on the language, Lealand (1874, 1907) Sampson’s (1891) folksongs and Meyer (1909) lists of words, along with Padraig Mac Greine who also recorded and published his work (1936) in the state funded Irish folklore commission as well as his local newspaper. This interest and process ahs continued to modern day, including a PhD thesis and study by Maria Rieder ‘An ethnographic exploration of the Irish Travellers and their Cant language’.

Much of the early studies and recordings bring about fractious spaces and irregularities for many reasons. Most of the early recordings were direct word transcriptions, which lack the nuances and subtleties of language and meaning(s), those who were recording were not familiar or able to speak Irish, in which was the context in which the language arose from and that there was not then, nor now, a sense of standardisation of recording.

Intergenerational use and the foundations on how the language was used and might be used in a contemporary setting was also only lightly considered – the application of approach, that considered the language a secret one, used mostly in the dealings with the wider community, rather something of the community with its own cultural heritage and belonging, gave much credence to the idea that Gammon-cant, the language of Travellers was in fact, considered, mostly to be about those of the wider community and the spaces in which both communities interacted.

This understanding, hat has been preserved in the theories of the origins of secrecy has done the language a great disservice and shifts the ownership from the Traveller collective to that of the wider community. Continued research, debate and review amongst Travellers continue to unravel this idea.

We must also consider that no language is static and unaffected by both the world around those who speak it, but also the languages of others in which they interact with – and this is the same for Gammon-cant, which shows Irish loan words, reclaimed Old Irish words and even those found in carved Ogham script.

  • Examples

    • Gópa ‘a pocket’ (Irish; póca)
    • Ngeacca/neaca ‘a tin can’ (Irish; canna)
    • Niukal ‘a candle’ (Irish; coinneal)
    • Gloch/gleoch ‘a (young) man’ (Irish; óglach ‘a hero/champion/soldier’)
    • Karb ‘Old woman’ (Old Irish; Carb ‘Grandmother)
    • Olomi ‘Night’ (Ogham script; Olomi ‘Night’)

To do the language justice I feel we must also see it within the wider language context and history of Ireland. Due to colonization and the shifting perceptions of English being the language of progression and Irish being that of the lesser classes, alongside a whole punitive education system that restricted and punished forms and uses of Irish, the use of indigenous language use within the country was greatly affected with a large amount of the population shifting from primary Irish languages to that of a singular English use.

This lead to a deliberate and sustained campaigns from the Irish government, and Irish speaking communities, since the foundation of the state in the support of the Irish languages and sadly Gammon-cant has not traditionally being among this movement or consideration of support and fortification.

We also lack a comprehensive and community led reviews, collections and state supported platform for debate, engagement, and teaching, as often when in a state of crisis and oppression, the objectives of cultural inheritance is secondary to the basic life preservation factors such as accommodation and access to health care. This however does not mean that we are without resources and opportunities.

In 2018 at the Irish Traveller Movements AGM a motion was passed in support of the celebration, use and teaching of the language and early the next year it was used during the speech of then Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the recognition of Traveller Ethnicity. From the ITM motion a small working group entitled ‘Tome Tari’ was formed that met on several occasions to explore the use and share co-operatively in a Traveller only space. There is much hope that post pandemic that the group will reform and continue the much needed work.

There exists a growing amount of Travellers who are seeking to reclaim the elder traditions, including an increased fluency within the language, it’s presence on social media is increasing as is it use within the wider community and several policy papers. We stand at a threshold where a more ingrained revival can take place and I do believe will through the enduring strength and veracity of the Travelling people.