The English Gipsies and their Language
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Pages (PDF): 169
Publication Date: 1873
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A look into the culture, language and folklore of the English Roma in the mid-19th Century. Chapters include; Gipsy Cottage; The Gipsy Tinker; Gipsy Respect For The Dead; Gipsy Words Which Have Passed Into English Slang; Proverbs And Chance Phrases; Indications Of The Indian Origin Of The Gipsies; and, Rommani Gudli; Or, Gipsy Stories And Fables.
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For THE ROMMANY is the characteristic leaven of all the real tramp life and nomadic callings of Great Britain. And by this word I mean not the language alone, which is regarded, however, as a test of superior knowledge of “the roads,” but a curious inner life and freemasonry of secret intelligence, ties of blood and information, useful to a class who have much in common with one another, and very little in common with the settled tradesman or worthy citizen. The hawker whom you meet, and whose blue eyes and light hair indicate no trace of Oriental blood, may not be a churdo, or pāsh-ratt, or half-blood, or half-scrag, as a full Gipsy might contemptuously term him, but he may be, of his kind, a quadroon or octoroon, or he may have “gipsified,” by marrying a Gipsy wife; and by the way be it said, such women make by far the best wives to be found among English itinerants, and the best suited for “a traveller.” But in any case he has taken pains to pick up all the Gipsy he can. If he is a tinker, he knows Kennick, or cant, or thieves’ slang by nature, but the Rommany, which has very few words in common with the former, is the true language of the mysteries; in fact, it has with him become, strangely enough, what it was originally, a sort of sacred Sanscrit, known only to the Brahmins of the roads, compared to which the other language is only commonplace Prakrit, which anybody may acquire.
He is proud of his knowledge, he makes of it a deep mystery; and if you, a gentleman, ask him about it, he will probably deny that he ever heard of its existence. Should he be very thirsty, and your manners frank and assuring, it is, however, not impossible that after draining a pot of beer at your expense, he may recall, with a grin, the fact that he has heard that the Gipsies have a queer kind of language of their own; and then, if you have any Rommany yourself at command, he will perhaps rākker Rommanis with greater or less fluency. Mr Simeon, in his “History of the Gipsies,” asserts that there is not a tinker or scissors-grinder in Great Britain who cannot talk this language, and my own experience agrees with his declaration, to this extent—that they all have some knowledge of it, or claim to have it, however slight it may be.
So rare is a knowledge of Rommany among those who are not connected in some way with Gipsies, that the slightest indication of it is invariably taken as an irrefutable proof of relationship with them. It is but a few weeks since, as I was walking along the Marine Parade in Brighton, I overtook a tinker. Wishing him to sharpen some tools for me, I directed him to proceed to my home, and en routespoke to him in Gipsy. As he was quite fair in complexion, I casually remarked, “I should have never supposed you could speak Rommany—you don’t look like it.” To which he replied, very gravely, in a tone as of gentle reproach, “You don’t look a Gipsy yourself, sir; but you know you are one—you talk like one.”
Truly, the secret of the Rommany has been well kept in England. It seems so to me when I reflect that, with the exception of Lavengro and the Rommany Rye, I cannot recall a single novel, in our language, in which the writer has shown familiarity with the real life, habits, or language of the vast majority of that very large class, the itinerants of the roads. Mr Dickens has set before us Cheap Jacks, and a number of men who were, in their very face, of the class of which I speak; but I cannot recall in his writings any indication that he knew that these men had a singular secret life with their confrères, or that they could speak a strange language; for we may well call that language strange which is, in the main, Sanscrit, with many Persian words intermingled. Mr Dickens, however, did not pretend, as some have done, to specially treat of Gipsies, and he made no affectation of a knowledge of any mysteries. He simply reflected popular life as he saw it. But there are many novels and tales, old and new, devoted to setting forth Rommany life and conversation, which are as much like the originals as a Pastor Fido is like a common shepherd. One novel which I once read, is so full of “the dark blood,” that it might almost be called a gipsy novel. The hero is a gipsy; he lives among his kind—the book is full of them; and yet, with all due respect to its author, who is one of the most gifted and best-informed romance writers of the century, I must declare that, from beginning to end, there is not in the novel the slightest indication of any real and familiar knowledge of gipsies. Again, to put thieves’ slang into the mouths of gipsies, as their natural and habitual language, has been so much the custom, from Sir Walter Scott to the present day, that readers are sometimes gravely assured in good faith that this jargon is pure Rommany. But this is an old error in England, since the vocabulary of cant appended to the “English Rogue,” published in 1680, was long believed to be Gipsy; and Captain Grose, the antiquary, who should have known better, speaks with the same ignorance.
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