An esoteric language spoken by the tinkers (a Gypsy -type people) of Britain and Ireland and possibly a descendant of an "inner" language employed by the ancient Celtic Druids or bards. It was in 1876 that the first hint of the existence of Shelta Thari reached the ears of Charles Godfrey Leland. It seems strange that George Borrow, the first authority on Romany and Gypsy lore, had never stumbled upon the language, and that fact may be taken as evidence of the jealousy with which the nomadic classes guarded it.
Leland related how he and E. H. Palmer were wandering on the beach at Aberystwyth in Wales when they met a wanderer who heard them conversing in Romany. Leland questioned the man as to how he made a living, and he replied, "Shelkin gallopas." The words were foreign even to Leland, and he asked what they meant. "Why," said the man, "it means selling ferns. That is tinker's language or minklers' thari. I thought as you knew Romany, you might understand it. The right name for the tinkers' language is Shelta."
"It was," said Leland, "with the feelings of Columbus the night before he discovered America that I heard the word Shelta, and I asked the fern-dealer if he could talk it." The man replied "A little," and on the spot the philologist collected a number of words and phrases from the fern-seller that gave him sufficient insight into the language to prove that it was absolutely different from Romany.
The Celtic origin of the dialect soon began to suggest itself to Leland, and he attempted to obtain from the man some verse or jingle in it, for the purpose of observing its syntactical arrangement. But all he was able to learn from his informant were some rhymes of no philological value, and he found he had soon exhausted the fern-seller's knowledge.
It was later on in the United States that Leland terrified a tinker by speaking to him in the lost dialect. The man, questioned as to whether he could speak Shelta, admitted that he could. He proved to be an Irishman, Owen Macdonald by name, and he furnished Leland with an invaluable list of several hundred words. But Leland could not be sure upon which of the Celtic languages the dialect was based. Owen Macdonald declared to him that it was a fourth language that had nothing in common with old Irish, Welsh, or Gaelic and hazarded the information that it was the idiom of the "Ould Picts," inhabitants of Scotland, but this did not convince the philologist.
Shelta is not a jargon, for it can be spoken grammatically without using English, as in the British form of Romany. Pictish in all probability was not a Celtic language, nor even an Aryan one, however intimately it may have been affected by Celtic speech in the later stages of its existence.
Leland's discovery was greeted in some quarters with laughter. The Saturday Review jocosely suggested that he had been conned and that old Irish had been palmed off on him for a mysterious lingo. Leland put this view of the matter before his tinker friend, who replied with grave solemnity, "And what'd I be after makin' two languages av thim for, if there was but wan av thim?"
Since Leland's time, much has been done to reclaim this mysterious tongue, chiefly through the investigations of John Sampson and professor Kuno Meyer. The basis of these investigations rested on the fact that the tinker caste of Great Britain and Ireland was a separate class—so separate indeed as almost to form a "race" by itself. For hundreds of years, possibly, this caste existed with nearly all its ancient characteristics, and on the general disuse of Celtic speech had conserved its language as a secret dialect.
The peculiar thing concerning Shelta is the extent of territory over which it is spoken. That it was known rather extensively in London itself was discovered by Leland, who heard it spoken by two small boys in the Euston Road. They were not Gypsies, but Leland found out that one of them spoke the language with great fluency. Since Leland's discoveries Shelta has been to some extent mapped out into dialects, one of the most important of which is Ulster. The Ulster dialect of this strange and ancient tongue differed from that in use in other parts of Britain and Ireland.
John Sampson, the successor to Borrow and Leland, and a linguist of repute, published in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (new series, vol. 1, 1908), a number of sayings and proverbs that he had collected in Liverpool from two old Irish tinkers—John Barlow and Phil Murray. Sampson stated that these were in the Ulster dialect of Shelta.
Some of these may be quoted to provide the reader with specimens of the language: "Krish gyukera have muni Sheldru" (Old beggars have good Shelta). "Stimera dhi-ilsha, stimera aga dhi-ilsha" (If you're a piper, have your own pipe). "Mislo granhes thaber" (The traveler knows the road). "Thom Blorne mjesh Nip gloch" (Every Protestant isn't an Orangeman). "Nus a dhabjon dhuilsha" (The blessing of God on you). "Misli, gami gra dhi-il" (Be off, and bad luck to you).
There seems to be considerable reason to believe that the tinker (or more properly "tinkler") class of Britain and Ireland sprang from the remnants of its ancient Celtic inhabitants and differed as completely from the Gypsy or Romany as one people can well differ from another. This is strongly suggested by the criterion of speech, for it is now generally believed that Shelta is a Celtic tongue and that Romany is a dialect of Northern Hindustan. Those who now speak Romany habitually almost invariably make use of Shelta as well, but that only proves that the two nomadic groups, having occupied the same territory for hundreds of years, gained a knowledge of each other's languages. Who, then, were the original progenitors of the tinkers? Whoever they were, they were a Celtic-speaking people and probably a nomadic one. Shelta has been referred to as the language of the ancient bards of Ireland and the esoteric tongue of an Irish priesthood.
Leland put forward the hypothesis that the Shelta-speaking tinker is a descendant of a prehistoric guild of bronze-workers. This, he thought, accounted in part for the secretiveness as regards this language. In Italy, to this very day, the tinker class is identified with the itinerant bronze workers. The tinker fraternity of Britain and Ireland existed with perhaps nearly all its ancient characteristics until the advent of railroads. But long before this, it had probably amalgamated to a great extent with the Gypsy population, and the two languages had become common to the two peoples.
It seems to be highly probable that Shelkta originated in Ireland, for in no other part of these islands during the later Celtic period was technology sufficiently advanced to permit of the existence of a close corporation of metalworkers possessing a secret language. Moreover, the affinities of Shelta appear to be with old Irish more than with any other Celtic dialect. One other theory that presents itself in connection with the origin of Shelta that it is the modern descendant of the language of the "Ould Picts" mentioned by Owen Macdonald, Leland's tinker friend. But there are great difficulties in accepting the hypothesis of the Pictish origin of Shelta, the chief among them being its obvious Irish origin. There were, it is known, Picts in the north of Ireland, but they were almost certainly a small and primitive colony and a very unlikely community to form a metalworking fraternity that possessed the luxury of a private dialect.
It still remains for the Celtic student to classify Shelta in a definitive way. It may prove to be "Pictish," strongly influenced by the Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland. A comparison with Basque and the dialect of the Iberian tribes of Morocco might bring affinities to light and thus establish the theory of its nonAryan origin, but its strong kinship with Gaelic seems likely.
Leland, Charles Godfrey. The Gypsies. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882.
MacRithie, David. Shelta: The Cairds' Language. Transactions of Gaelic Society of Inverness 24 (1904).