Romany Language

Abridged and edited extracts from the chapter 'The English Romany Language'

It is worth noting that although we use the terms Romany and Gypsy (Gipsy) in England, other, particularly on the continent of Europe, use the terms Rom and Roma.

The English Romany language, the subject of this book, has had a complex history, evolving over 500 years on its long journey from its Sanskrit roots in northern India.

Many of the words that were taken on board survive to this day in England. For example bokra meaning sheep, is a word picked up in Hungary. The noun charos, one of the Gypsy words for heaven, can be traced back to Walachia, which is now in southern Romania. From Spain the Gypsies collected the word canni, for chicken, and Russia is the original home of bebee, an aunt.

Once in England, and isolated from mainland Europe, the language became Anglicised and the English Romany language of today started to take shape.

Nouns were readily borrowed where no suitable word existed in Romany although for the most part they were self-sufficient as regards names for their normal possessions, surroundings and trades, with for example, vardo for living wagon, wesh for woodland and dukkering for fortune-telling.

When confronted by a new item, say, a telescope, they simple stripped it down to its basics and called it a dur-dikki-mengri: a far-seeing thing. Subjectivity also came into it, such as more recently when the television set was labelled as a dinnilos-dicking-muktar: a fool's looking-box.

The exchange of words with the English was by no means one-way traffic. Romany derived words in common slang today include lolly for money, cosh for a stick and cushti or cushy, meaning good, easy, comfortable. The countless English people who employ these words nowadays might be surprised to learn that their source can be traced directly back to the Sanskrit of the North-West Frontier.

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right - photographs from the book of travelling Gypsies in the 1960's by Tony Boxall F.R.P.S.