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English Gipsies and Their Language, by Charles G. Leland, [1874], at


As Author of this book, I beg leave to observe that all which is stated in it relative to the customs or peculiarities of Gipsies was gathered directly from Gipsies themselves; and that every word of their language here given, whether in conversations, stories, or sayings, was taken from Gipsy mouths. While entertaining the highest respect for the labours of Mr George Borrow in this field, I have carefully avoided repeating him in the least detail; neither have I taken anything from Simson, Hoyland, or any other writer on the Rommany race in England. Whatever the demerits of the work may be, it can at least claim to be an original collection of material fresh from nature, and not a reproduction from books. There are, it is true, two German Gipsy letters from other works, but these may be excused as illustrative of an English one.

I may here in all sincerity speak kindly and gratefully of every true Gipsy I have ever met, and of the cheerfulness with which they have invariably assisted me in my labour to the extent of their humble abilities. Other writers have had much to say of their incredible distrust of Gorgios and unwillingness to impart their language, but I have always found them obliging and communicative. I have never had occasion to complain of rapacity or greediness among them; on the contrary, I have often wondered to see how the great want of such very poor people was generally kept in check by their natural politeness, which always manifests itself when they are treated properly. In fact, the first effort which I ever made to acquire a knowledge of English Rommany originated in a voluntary offer from an intelligent old dame to teach me “the old Egyptian language.” And as she also suggested that I should set forth the knowledge which I might acquire from her and her relatives in a book (referring to Mr Borrow’s having done so), I may hold myself fully acquitted from the charge of having acquired and published anything which my Gipsy friends would not have had made known to the public.

Mr Borrow has very well and truly said that it is not by passing a few hours among Gipsies that one can acquire a knowledge of their characteristics; and I think that this book presents abundant evidence that its contents were not gathered by slight and superficial intercourse with the Rommany. It is only by entering gradually and sympathetically, without any parade of patronage, into a familiar knowledge of the circumstances of the common life of humble people, be they Gipsies, Indians, or whites, that one can surprise unawares those little inner traits which constitute the characteristic. However this may be, the reader will readily enough understand, on perusing these pages—possibly much better than I do myself—how it was I was able to collect whatever they contain that is new.

The book contains some remarks on that great curious centre and secret of all the nomadic and vagabond life in England, THE ROMMANY, with comments on the fact, that of the many novel or story-writers who have described the “Travellers” of the Roads, very few have penetrated the real nature of their life. It gives several incidents illustrating the character of the Gipsy, and some information of a very curious nature in reference to the respect of the English Gipsies for their dead, and the strange manner in which they testify it. I believe that this will be found to be fully and distinctly illustrated by anecdotes and a narrative in the original Gipsy language, with a translation. There is also a chapter containing in Rommany and English a very characteristic letter from a full-blood Gipsy to a relative, which was dictated to me, and which gives a sketch of the leading incidents of Gipsy life—trading in horses, fortune-telling, and cock-shying. I have also given accounts of conversations with Gipsies, introducing in their language and in English their own remarks (noted down by me) on certain curious customs; among others, on one which indicates that many of them profess among themselves a certain regard for our Saviour, because His birth and life appear to them to be like that of the Rommany. There is a collection of a number of words now current in vulgar English which were probably derived from Gipsy, such as row, shindy, pal, trash, bosh, and niggling, and finally a number of Gudli or short stories. These Gudli have been regarded by my literary friends as interesting and curious, since they are nearly all specimens of a form of original narrative occupying a middle ground between the anecdote and fable, and abounding in Gipsy traits. Some of them are given word for word as they are current among Gipsies, and others owe their existence almost entirely either to the vivid imagination and childlike fancies of an old Gipsy assistant, or were developed from some hint or imperfect saying or story. But all are thoroughly and truly Rommany; for every one, after being brought into shape, passed through a purely “unsophisticated” Gipsy mind, and was finally declared to be tácho, or sound, by real Rommanis. The truth is, that it is a difficult matter to hear a story among English Gipsies which is not mangled or marred in the telling; so that to print it, restitution and invention become inevitable. But with a man who lived in a tent among the gorse and fern, and who intermitted his earnest conversation with a little wooden bear to point out to me the gentleman on horseback riding over the two beautiful little girls in the flowers on the carpet, such fables as I have given sprang up of themselves, owing nothing to books, though they often required the influence of a better disciplined mind to guide them to a consistent termination.

The Rommany English Vocabulary which I propose shall follow this work is many times over more extensive than any ever before published, and it will also be found interesting to all philologists by its establishing the very curious fact that this last wave of the primitive Aryan-Indian ocean which spread over Europe, though it has lost the original form in its subsidence and degradation, consists of the same substance—or, in other words, that although the grammar has wellnigh disappeared, the words are almost without exception the same as those used in India, Germany, Hungary, or Turkey. It is generally believed that English Gipsy is a mere jargon of the cant and slang of all nations, that of England predominating; but a very slight examination of the Vocabulary will show that during more than three hundred years in England the Rommany have not admitted a single English word to what they correctly call their language. I mean, of course, so far as my own knowledge of Rommany extends. To this at least I can testify, that the Gipsy to whom I was principally indebted for words, though he often used “slang,” invariably discriminated correctly between it and Rommany; and I have often admired the extraordinary pride in their language which has induced the Gipsies for so many generations to teach their children this difference.  0a Almost every word which my assistant declared to be Gipsy I have found either in Hindustani or in the works of Pott, Liebich, or Paspati. On this subject I would remark by the way, that many words which appear to have been taken by the Gipsies from modern languages are in reality Indian.

And as I have honestly done what I could to give the English reader fresh material on the Gipsies, and not a rewarming of that which was gathered by others, I sincerely trust that I may not be held to sharp account (as the authors of such books very often are) for not having given more or done more or done it better than was really in my power. Gipsies in England are passing away as rapidly as Indians in North America. They keep among themselves the most singular fragments of their Oriental origin; they abound in quaint characteristics, and yet almost nothing is done to preserve what another generation will deeply regret the loss of. There are complete dictionaries of the Dacotah and many other American Indian languages, and every detail of the rude life of those savages has been carefully recorded; while the autobiographic romances of Mr Borrow and Mr Simson’s History contain nearly all the information of any value extant relative to the English Gipsies. Yet of these two writers, Mr Borrow is the only one who had, so to speak, an inside view of his subject, or was a philologist.

In conclusion I would remark, that if I have not, like many writers on the poor Gipsies, abused them for certain proverbial faults, it has been because they never troubled me with anything very serious of the kind, or brought it to my notice; and I certainly never took the pains to hunt it up to the discredit of people who always behaved decently to me. I have found them more cheerful, polite, and grateful than the lower orders of other races in Europe or America; and I believe that where their respect and sympathy are secured, they are quite as upright. Like all people who are regarded as outcasts, they are very proud of being trusted, and under this influence will commit the most daring acts of honesty. And with this I commend my book to the public. Should it be favourably received, I will add fresh reading to it; in any case I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I did my best to collect material illustrating a very curious and greatly-neglected subject. It is merely as a collection of material that I offer it; let those who can use it, do what they will with it.

If I have not given in this book a sketch of the history of the Gipsies, or statistics of their numbers, or accounts of their social condition in different countries, it is because nearly everything of the kind may be found in the works of George Borrow and Walter Simson, which are in all respectable libraries, and may be obtained from any bookseller.

I would remark to any impatient reader for mere entertainment, who may find fault with the abundance of Rommany or Gipsy language in the following pages, that the principal object of the Author was to collect and preserve such specimens of a rapidly-vanishing language, and that the title-page itself indirectly indicates such an object. I have, however, invariably given with the Gipsy a translation immediately following the text in plain English—at times very plain—in order that the literal meaning of words may be readily apprehended. I call especial attention to this fact, so that no one may accuse me of encumbering my pages with Rommany.

While writing this book, or in fact after the whole of the first part was written, I passed a winter in Egypt; and as that country is still supposed by many people to be the fatherland of the Gipsies, and as very little is known relative to the Rommany there, I have taken the liberty of communicating what I could learn on the subject, though it does not refer directly to the Gipsies of England. Those who are interested in the latter will readily pardon the addition.

There are now in existence about three hundred works on the Gipsies, but of the entire number comparatively few contain fresh material gathered from the Rommany themselves. Of late years the first philologists of Europe have taken a great interest in their language, which is now included in “Die Sprachen Europas” as the only Indian tongue spoken in this quarter of the world; and I believe that English Gipsy is really the only strongly-distinct Rommany dialect which has never as yet been illustrated by copious specimens or a vocabulary of any extent. I therefore trust that the critical reader will make due allowances for the very great difficulties under which I have laboured, and not blame me for not having done better that which, so far as I can ascertain, would possibly not have been done at all. Within the memory of man the popular Rommany of this country was really grammatical; that which is now spoken, and from which I gathered the material for the following pages, is, as the reader will observe, almost entirely English as to its structure, although it still abounds in Hindu words to a far greater extent than has been hitherto supposed.

Next: Chapter I. Introductory