What is a culture without a language? A culture has very little standing in the place of its birth if it cannot be identified with its own form of communication. In many cultures that is what makes them complete. 

In the UK, Travellers and Gypsies have for centuries communicated throughout their individual groups with a language that has no historical date because it has never been recorded. It has moved comfortably from one generation to another and I believe that, in the far distant past, it was a complete language. But like an ancient building it has fallen into disrepair through the ravages of time.

From early times, Church and State together dictated how people in general lived their lives, honoured their ceremonies, and even constructed their speech. Dialects are acceptable so long as the common language of the land is also spoken when within the land. Gypsies and Travellers learned to speak whatever language was spoken within the areas they travelled, but they continued to communicate to each other in their own way. 

When our parents saw a stranger approach, they would say, ‘bing avree’ (come here, and not be seen) and we knew to hide because that was what they were saying to us, it was their words of protection. And when the stranger had left our parents would say, ‘nae paggering frae the gadji’ (this person means us no harm).

When schools were not just the educational system of those who could afford it, the ordinary child was given an education, and this included Gypsy Travellers. Although not wishing to embrace change, it was inevitable that a form of assimilation took place. Permanent homes replaced the tent and caravan as many Travellers opted to put a halt to the travelling ways. It was not normal to speak their own tongue, and to be accepted by mainstream society the language would be shelved and replaced with the English vocabulary. Apart from meeting at weddings and funerals the Travellers seldom heard their ancient language. In small groups the words are still spoken, but the language is certainly not anywhere near as fluent as it was fifty years ago.

I believe that this fine compilation of work in reference to Traveller and Gypsy language is crucially important. It paints pictures of a once vibrant lifestyle that was commonplace in our countryside and at market stalls selling their wares.  

This very important book is long overdue. 

Jess Smith 

Author, Scottish Traveller