I consider myself a well-educated person, with a solid liberal arts education. And over the course of my education I've learned multiple languages: French (starting, officially, in third grade); Spanish (one year in middle school); Latin (one year in high school); German (two years in college); and most recently, Irish (three years and counting). So I thought I knew about languages.
I was wrong.
Recently a friend e-mailed me about a book she was enjoying, and asked some questions about Irish words used in it. I was happy to tell her what little I knew, and between us we worked out from context what the author meant. No problem. Then she asked me about Irish Travellers. If you're not familiar with the term, Travellers, also known as tinkers, are an ethnic minority group, which may number as many as 25,000, who live, with no fixed location, in Ireland. No one seems to know their origins, which may go back to the middle ages. No, they're not Gypsies or Romany, although they share many of the same cultural characteristics. The native Irish population (the ones who live in houses and stay in one place, that is) don't like them much. In my trips to Ireland, I've seen a few Travellers on the road, and I've also seen local residents curl their lip at the sight of them, camped out in a field.
But what I hadn't known was that they have their own language: Shelta. I had never heard of it.
Shelta is also called Shelter, Shelteroch, Sheldru, Gammon, Tarri, the Cant, Bog Latin, Tinkers' Cant, and the Ould Thing. Supposedly it's derived from Irish, but there's a lot of English thrown in, plus a lot of what we (uninformed people) might see as nonsense words. It has its own rules: noun and verb forms are interchangeable (their meaning is determined by context), future tense is created by adding "misli-in too" before the verb; a continuing state for an adjective is created by adding the suffix "-ath". Curiously, the verb "to be" is missing several forms, and there are no definite articles or demonstrative pronouns (this, that). I won't bore you with more details, but let me give you a sample. Here is the modern Irish Traveller Cant version of the Lord's Prayer:Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch,>br> We turry kerrath about your moniker,
It is estimated that there may be as many as 85,000 Shelta speakers worldwide; estimates for those in Ireland vary widely, from 6,000 to 25,000. To put this in perspective, there are perhaps 1.8 million people in the world who speak Irish. In the Republic of Ireland, with a population of just over four million (above the age of three–that is, those who speak), it is said that 41% consider themselves "competent" in Irish–but that's because it's compulsory in school these days. Outside of schools, maybe 30% consider themselves Irish speakers, and only 85,000 or so speak Irish on a daily basis.
So Shelta is a "secret" language, used among Travellers to conceal their meaning from outsiders–all non-Travellers. In this modern world, filled with publications and television programs and Internet access, all of which are bringing us closer to everyone, here is a group of people who are still talking to one another in code, shutting out the world. Shutting out even their neighbors in Ireland. Makes you think, doesn't it? We as writers try to communicate with as many people as possible, yet in Ireland we find a small group within a small country, speaking only to each other.
I was looking on the Internet for a fitting term with which to end this post, but it appears that Shelta is secretive even in cyberspace. So I'll make do with "solk us away from the taddy."