The Secrecy of Traveller Language: Drawing Parallels between Irish Shelta and Scottish Cant!

Attitudes to traveller language and to the minority groups who speak these varieties make for interesting specimens of study. Therefore, I have decided that the following blog post should be dedicated to looking at the marginalisation of minority groups by members of the majority culture. Interestingly, often stereotypes attributed to a particular group rubs off on the group’s language variety. This can be seen in the case of Shelta/Cant (language variety used predominately by Irish Travellers) as well as Scottish Cant used by Scottish Travellers. The inspiration to write this post can be duly attributed to the blog post on Scottish Cant by the prominent blogger ‘alpinmack’ and the research conducted on Shelta by Binchy (2008).

Please visit the following link to access ‘alpinmack’ blog post on Scottish Cant:

The comments which i chose to look at in more detail are provided below:


Firstly, the negative stigmas attached to a group may rub off on the variety itself; for instance, referring to Travellers as tinkers or to ‘Cant’ as slang may cause extremely negative reactions. The term tinker is an offensive and derogatory label which makes reference to a tinsmith, a person who repairs things of tinware, but the stereotypical association of individuals with dirty or untidy appearances is often projected onto a whole group of Travellers. Therefore, by labelling them as such, outsiders falsely assign these labels to them as well. In doing so, the language variety shared by all members of this group may also be viewed negatively because it is the one common factor that all members of that ingroup share, a factor which distinguishes them from members of the outgroup.

The Traveller language both Irish Shelta/Cant and Scottish Cant is often perceived as a secretive language by outsiders and these types of view often arise due to misconceptions held about traveller communities. The controversial blog post on Scottish Cant which gives rise to a fiery debate in the comments section is a very good example of these misconceptions – But how misinformed are these views? The author notes that although some of the words listed as Scottish Cant are taken from many other languages, their meanings in context can alter depending on the situation/tone of voice to convey different (secretive) meanings. However, one user takes quite negatively to the post in general:

The idea that one of the main functions of ‘Cant’ is to express secretive messages in order to exclude outsiders from their conversations may not be completely unfounded. The user is clearly angry over Cant being discussed by a non-traveller and refers to them as ‘you people’. This gives some support to the notion that Scottish Travellers do not like to publicise their language lest it be used against them by members outside their tight nit communities, especially the authorities. It can also be noted that Travellers have not always been on right side of the law and this may fuel their desire to keep Cant from the public eye. Furthermore, the suspicious slant to ‘why do you want to know so much about us anyway’ again, supports this notion that Travellers perhaps do not want to be ostracised and ridiculed as well as taken advantage of by the “hantle” or “hornies” (police).  Moreover, this defensive attitude can be further modelled by the prohibition of teaching Cant to outsiders and only ever emphasising the teaching of the language to Traveller offspring. Yet, this defensive stance is more or less likely to be taken by non-travellers as an attempt to break away from the norms of society and community. Therefore, Travellers may easily be perceived suspiciously or as untrustworthy because they disenfranchise their own communities from society by cutting others of from accessing their language and their main method of communication. Now, this sentiment is understandable simply because in a seller – consumer context, if two sellers actively exclude the consumer by switching to a foreign variety then it is possible that the consumer may think that she/he is being scammed.

However, Binchy (2008) argues that the association of Traveller language to a secret language is often misleading. This is because secrecy is not the only function of the language and other complex functions may exist such as protecting the privacy of one’s conversation. For instance, in order for an outsider not to hear the contents of a conversation taking place in English, travellers may switch to Cant in order to protect the privacy of the “Traveller world”. Interestingly, this is something that I feel I can identify with as a bilingual speaker of English and Urdu; for example, If I am travelling on public transport with a family member, then I may actually switch to Urdu. This is not to use the language against monolingual speakers of English but simply to make sure that a conversation which is solely associated with us stays private between us.

Binchy, Alice. 2008. Researching ‘Shelta’, the Travellers’ Language. Béaloideas 76, 248-262.


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