The Language of the Gypsies

The following article about the Gypsy Language is from The Romano Lavo-Lil by George Borrow, written in 1841. Times change, and language changes with the times, and this explanation of the language of the Gypsies is, I’m sure, applicable to the language in the 1800’s, but probably not so much the gypsy language of today. I did, however, find it interesting and I hope you will too.

p236bThe Gypsies of England call their language, as the Gypsies of many other countries call theirs, Romany or Romanes, a word either derived from the Indian Ram or Rama, which signifies a husband, or from the town Rome, which took its name either from the Indian Ram, or from the Gaulic word, Rom, which is nearly tantamount to husband or man, for as the Indian Ram means a husband or man, so does the Gaulic Pom signify that which constitutes a man and enables him to become a husband.

Before entering on the subject of the English Gypsy, I may perhaps be expected to say something about the original Gypsy tongue.  It is, however, very difficult to say with certainty anything on the subject.  There can be no doubt that a veritable Gypsy tongue at one time existed, but that it at present exists there is great doubt indeed.  The probability is that the Gypsy at present exists only in dialects more or less like the language originally spoken by the Gypsy or Zingaro race.

Several dialects of the Gypsy are to be found which still preserve along with a considerable number of seemingly original words certain curious grammatical forms, quite distinct from those of any other speech.  Others are little more than jargons, in which a certain number of Gypsy words are accommodated to the grammatical forms of the languages of particular  countries.

In the foremost class of the purer Gypsy dialects, I have no hesitation in placing those of Russia, Wallachia, Bulgaria, and Transylvania.  They are so alike, that he who speaks one of them can make himself very well understood by those who speak any of the rest; from whence it may reasonably be inferred that none of them can differ much from the original Gypsy speech; so that when speaking of Gypsy language, any one of these may be taken as a standard.  One of them–I shall not mention which–I have selected for that purpose, more from fancy than any particular reason.

The Gypsy language, then, or what with some qualification I may call such, may consist of some three thousand words, the greater part of which are decidedly of Indian origin, being connected with the Sanscrit or some other Indian dialect; the rest consist of words picked up by the Gypsies from various languages in their wanderings from the East.

It has two genders, masculine and feminine; o represents the masculine and i the feminine:  for example, boro rye, a great gentleman; bori rani, a great lady.  There is properly no indefinite article:  gajo or gorgio, a man or gentile; o gajo, the man.

The noun has two numbers, the singular and the plural.  It has various cases formed by postpositions, but has, strictly speaking, no genitive.

It has prepositions as well as postpositions; sometimes the preposition is used with the noun and sometimes the postposition: for example, cad o gav, from the town; chungale mannochendar, evil men from, i.e. from evil men.

The verb has no infinitive; in lieu thereof, the conjunction ‘that’ is placed before some person of some tense.  ‘I wish to go’ is expressed in Gypsy by camov te jaw, literally, I wish that I go; thou wishest to go, caumes te jas, thou wishest that thou goest; caumen te jallan, they wish that they go. Necessity is expressed by the impersonal verb and the conjunction ‘that’:  hom te jay, I must go; lit. I am that I go; shan te jallan, they are that they go; and so on.

There are words to denote the numbers from one up to a thousand.  For the number nine there are two words, nu and ennyo.  Almost all the Gypsy numbers are decidedly connected with the Sanscrit.

After these observations on what may be called the best preserved kind of Gypsy, I proceed to a lower kind, that of England.  The English Gypsy speech is very scanty, amounting probably to not more than fourteen hundred words, the greater part of which seem to be of Indian origin.  The rest form a strange medley taken by the Gypsies from various Eastern and Western languages:  some few are Arabic, many are Persian; some are Sclavo-Wallachian, others genuine Sclavonian.  Here and there a Modern Greek or Hungarian word is discoverable; but in the whole English Gypsy tongue I have never noted but one French word–namely, tass or dass, by which some of the very old Gypsies ccasionally call a cup.

Their vocabulary being so limited, the Gypsies have of course words of their own only for the most common objects and ideas; as soon as they wish to express something beyond these they must have recourse to English, and even to express some very common objects, ideas, and feelings, they are quite at a loss in their own tongue, and must either employ English words or very vague terms indeed.

They have words for the sun and the moon, but they have no word for the stars, and when they wish to name them in Gypsy, they use a word answering to ‘lights.’  They have a word for a horse and for a mare, but they have no word for a colt, which in some other dialects of the Gypsy is called kuro; and to express a colt they make use of the words tawno gry, a little horse, which after all may mean a pony.

They have words for black, white, and red, but none for the less positive colours–none for grey, green, and yellow.  They have no definite word either for hare or rabbit; shoshoi, by which they generally designate a rabbit, signifies a hare as well, and kaun-engro, a word invented to distinguish a hare, and which signifies ear-fellow, is no more applicable to a hare than to a rabbit, as both have long ears.

They have no certain word either for to-morrow or yesterday, collico signifying both indifferently.  A remarkable coincidence must here be mentioned, as it serves to show how closely related are Sanscrit and Gypsy.  Shoshoi and collico are nearly of the same sound as the Sanscrit sasa and kalya, and exactly of the same import; for as the Gypsy shoshoi signifies both hare and rabbit, and collico to-morrow as well as yesterday, so does the Sanscrit sasa signify both hare and rabbit, and kalya tomorrow as well as yesterday.

The poverty of their language in nouns the Gypsies endeavour to remedy by the frequent use of the word engro.  This word affixed to a noun or verb turns it into something figurative, by which they designate, seldom very appropriately, some object for which they have no positive name.  Engro properly means a fellow, and engri, which is the feminine or neuter modification, a thing.  When the noun or verb terminates in a vowel, engro is turned into mengro, and engri into mengri.

I have already shown how, by affixing engro to kaun, the Gypsies have invented a word to express a hare.  In like manner, by affixing engro to pov, earth, they have coined a word for a potato, which they call pov-engro or pov-engri, earth-fellow or thing; and by adding engro to rukh, or mengro to rooko, they have really a very pretty figurative name for a squirrel, which they call rukh-engro or rooko-mengro, literally a fellow of the tree.  Poggra-mengri, a breaking thing, and pea-mengri, a drinking thing, by which they express, respectively, a mill and a teapot, will serve as examples of the manner by which they turn verbs into substantives.

This method of finding names for objects, for which there are properly no terms in Gypsy, might be carried to a great length–much farther, indeed, than the Gypsies are in the habit of carrying it:  a slack-rope-dancer might be termed bittitardranoshellokellimengro, or slightly-drawn-rope-dancing fellow; a drum, uicoshtcurenomengri, or a thing beaten by two sticks; a tambourine, angustrecurenimengri, or a thing beaten by the fingers; and a fife, muipudenimengri, or thing blown by the mouth.  All these compound words, however, would be more or less indefinite, and far beyond the comprehension of the Gypsies in general.

The verbs are very few, and with two or three exceptions expressive only of that which springs from what is physical and bodily, totally unconnected with the mind, for which, indeed, the English Gypsy has no word; the term used for mind, zi–which is a modification of the Hungarian sziv–meaning heart.

There are such verbs in this dialect as to eat, drink, walk, run, hear, see, live, die; but there are no such verbs as to hope, mean, hinder, prove, forbid, teaze, soothe.

There is the verb apasavello, I believe; but that word, which is Wallachian, properly means being trusted, and was incorporated in the Gypsy language from the Gypsies obtaining goods on trust from the Wallachians, which they never intended to pay for.

There is the verb for love, camova; but that word is expressive of physical desire, and is connected with the Sanscrit Cama, or Cupid.  Here, however, the English must not triumph over the Gypsies, as their own verb ‘love’ is connected with a Sanscrit word signifying ‘lust.’  One pure and abstract metaphysical verb the English Gypsy must be allowed to possess–namely, penchava, I think, a word of illustrious origin, being derived from the Persian pendashtan.

The English Gypsies can count up to six, and have the numerals for ten and twenty, but with those for seven, eight, and nine, perhaps not three Gypsies in England are acquainted.  When they wish to express those numerals in their own language, they have recourse to very uncouth and roundabout methods, saying for seven, dui trins ta yeck, two threes and one; for eight, dui stors, or two fours; and for nine, desh sore but yeck, or ten all but one.

Yet at one time the English Gypsies possessed all the numerals as their Transylvanian, Wallachian, and Russian brethren still do; even within the last fifty years there were Gypsies who could count up to a hundred.  These were tatchey Romany, real Gypsies, of the old sacred black race, who never slept in a house, never entered a church, and who, on their death-beds, used to threaten their children with a curse, provided they buried them in a churchyard.  The two last of them rest, it is believed, some six feet deep beneath the moss of a wild, hilly heath,–called in Gypsy the Heviskey Tan, or place of holes; in English, Mousehold,–near an ancient city, which the Gentiles call Norwich, and the Romans the Chong Gav, or the town of the hill.

With respect to Grammar, the English Gypsy is perhaps in a worse condition than with respect to words.  Attention is seldom paid to gender; boro rye and boro rawnie being said, though as rawnie is feminine, bori and not boro should be employed.

The proper Gypsy plural terminations are retained in nouns, but in declension prepositions are generally substituted for postpositions, and those prepositions English.  The proper way of conjugating verbs is seldom or never observed, and the English method is followed.  They say, I dick, I see, instead of dico; I dick’d, I saw, instead of dikiom; if I had dick’d, instead of dikiomis.  Some of the peculiar features of Gypsy grammar yet retained by the English Gypsies will be found noted in the Dictionary.

I have dwelt at some length on the deficiencies and shattered condition of the English Gypsy tongue; justice, however, compels me to say that it is far purer and less deficient than several of the continental Gypsy dialects.  It preserves far more of original Gypsy peculiarities than the French, Italian, and Spanish dialects, and its words retain more of the original Gypsy form than the words of those three; moreover, however scanty it may be, it is far more copious than the French or the Italian Gypsy, though it must be owned that in respect to copiousness it is inferior to the Spanish Gypsy, which is probably the richest in words of all the Gypsy dialects in the world, having names for very many of the various beasts, birds, and creeping things, for most of the plants and fruits, for all the days of the week, and all the months in the year; whereas most other Gypsy dialects, the English amongst them, have names for only a few common animals and insects, for a few common fruits and natural productions, none for the months, and only a name for a single day–the Sabbath– which name is a modification of the Modern Greek.

Though the English Gypsy is generally spoken with a considerable alloy of English words and English grammatical forms, enough of its proper words and features remain to form genuine Gypsy sentences, which shall be understood not only by the Gypsies of England, but by those of Russia, Hungary, Wallachia, and even of Turkey.

Ask any yes or no question, and Auntie Moss be givin' you an answer. The old witch woman is wiser than you think. Go ahead, give it a go.

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