Academic journal article Romani Studies

Travellers and Their Language

Academic journal article Romani Studies

Travellers and Their Language

Article excerpt

Travellers and their language. Edited by John M. Kirk and Dónall P. Ó Baoill, 2002. [Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 4]. Belfast: Queen's University Belfast/ Cló Ollscoil na Banríona. 196 pp. isbn 0-85389-832-4.

The editors of this fascinating collection must be congratulated on a unique and groundbreaking achievement: not only is this the first volume that is devoted to Cant (or: Shelta, or Gammon, the special vocabulary of the Irish and Scottish Travellers), it also brings together, firstly, a range of contrasting points of view; secondly, academic contributors with participants and discussants who are users of Cant; and finally, scientific papers alongside discussion comments and personal narratives. Given the controversies and sensitivities surrounding the topic, one could not have chosen a better way of providing a platform for a renewed discussion about Travellers and their language.

Some of the contributions derive from papers presented at a symposium on Travellers' language held at Queen's University, Belfast, in August 2000. These are accompanied by extracts from the discussions and question-answer sessions that followed the presentations. There are several additional contributions, an appendix documenting Scottish Cant words, and a number of personal accounts from Travellers, one of them anonymous, documenting their views and feelings about their language. The altogether fifteen contributions are arranged in two parts: 'New studies on Travellers and their language', subdivided into 'Ireland' and 'outside Ireland', and 'Travellers on Travellers' language: Transcripts and responses'.

Considering the range of backgrounds and areas of expertise, as well as the language variants under investigation, it is not surprising that controversy is reflected already in the terminology that is adopted. The Travellers who are represented in the book appear to refer to their particular form of speech as either 'Gammon' or 'Cant', sometimes interchanging the two. (This is in line with my own observations on the terms used by Travellers of Irish and Scottish origin in England, who call their vocabulary 'Cant', but are also familiar with 'Gammon'; but some, it should be noted, have on occasion referred to it as 'our Romani', indicating a contrast between their own in-group vocabulary and that of the English and Welsh Romanies-so-called Angloromani-and thus adopting 'Romani' as a kind of generic term for the in-group speech forms used by travelling communities.) The academics, on the other hand, tend to use 'Shelta', at least to refer to the speech of the Irish Travellers (while 'Cant' is used in connection with Scottish Travellers and American Travellers of Irish and Scottish origins). Alice Binchy, who wrote the only Ph.D. thesis on Shelta (Binchy 1993), regards 'Shelta' as a useful, academically established cover-term for the different variants (p. 11). Sinéad ní Shuinéar by contrast regards 'Shelta' as a construction-a concept of the language that is not only remote, allegedly, from actual facts, but also based on a biased view of Travellers, though she admits that the term itself could be derived from an actual Irish word for 'Traveller', Siúltóir (p. 21).

Rather than introduce each contribution separately (see bottom of this review for the full list), it seems more useful to highlight some of the views represented in the book, focusing on a series of controversial questions: Is Shelta a 'language' in the full sense of the word? Is it used just like any other language, or only for specific functions? Does it share the formation principles of languages in general, or does its structure resemble a particular subset of speech varieties that are used in similar contexts? What is the origin of Shelta? What is its relationship with Irish, and with Romani? Is Shelta a 'secret' language? How should Shelta best be studied? And how should we evaluate previous research on Shelta?

Various contributors emphasise that Travellers view Shelta as their 'language'. …

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