Shelta Thari
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
Shelta Thari Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1398
bring affinities to light and thus establish the theory of its nonAryan
origin, but its strong kinship with Gaelic seems likely.
Sources
Leland, Charles Godfrey. The Gypsies. Boston Houghton,
Mifflin, 1882.
MacRithie, David. Shelta The Cairds’ Language. Transactions
of Gaelic Society of Inverness 24 (1904).