+3531 6313822 nationalich@chg.gov.ie

Cant / Gammon

Location Throughout Ireland.
Categories Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Keywords Language, Traveller culture
Contact organisation Meath Travellers Workshop

Cant / Gammon is a traditional language spoken by Irish Travellers. It is considered a creole language developed by Travellers from Irish, Scots Gaelic, and English-speaking backgrounds. Creole languages are generally derived from pidgin versions of the language spoken by the larger population. Among Travellers Cant / Gammon could also be known as Shelta. It is spoken mainly by the older generation throughout the country.

Background information

For the Travelling community our language is called various names according to what family you belong to. To some it is known as Shelta, Gammon (Gamin) or Cant (Minceirtoiree). Minceir means Traveller and Toiree means talk, so it might be called Traveller talk. Cant, or even Minceirs Toiree. A large number of families would call it Gammon (or Gamin) as this is a different dialect of sorts from Cant itself.

Language is the last thing that we have left, that gives us our antiquity. It’s the words that are used. Languages can be cousins to one another like Germanic or English Languages. The closest cousin to our language is old Irish. This was spoken here pre 1200s. Some of the words used at that time are still used by Travellers today when we speak in our language.

Our own words for a priest and for God have shown up in old documents to be words used in pre-christian Ireland and yet we still use them today. Our tradition was a very oral tradition so there is very little written evidence.

Practice and practitioners

The traditional language is mainly used by older Travellers and so is in real danger of disappearing. It is not specific to any particular area throughout the country but can be heard loud and clear at any of the Traveller gatherings in particular horse fairs such as Ballinasloe Horse Fair.

Some of the leaflets and documents used at Meath Travellers Workshop, The Irish Traveller Movement and Pavee Point would have both English and Cant / Gammon language included.

Meath Travellers Workshop mobile Living History Exhibition supports the work of keeping the language and crafts alive and will continue to do so going forward.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

The restoration of the language is widely appealing to Travellers and efforts to pass the language from generation to generation have been affected by the imposition of legislation which prevented Travellers from practicing their nomadic tradition. This imposed settlement of the majority of the community disrupted the pattern of intergenerational legacy but continues to form part of the language custom of the nuclear and extended family.

Full restoration and revival have become a more important feature since recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority group (March 2017) and highlights the need to elevate this indigenous minority language with adequate resources and reinstate its place within the community and amongst younger community members.

In a study by researcher Alice Binchy (Travellers Language ‘A Heritage Ahead’, Pavee Point 1995) two groups of Traveller parents stood out as the most likely to pass on the language. Traveller families who still manage to hang on to the traditional Traveller lifestyle – being nomadic and living in traditional family groups. These Traveller families continue to use Cant in the traditional way. The second group is Travellers who see the language as an important element in their ethnic identity. This group want to see Cant available in schools and who are in favour of classes in Cant for their children. There are now examples of songs being written in Cant, for example. Lashun Gatna (Beautiful Child) by Jack Delaney, 2013.

Contact organisation

Meath Travellers Workshop

Related and supporting organisations

Irish Traveller Movement

Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre