Sacred Texts  Legends/Sagas  Roma  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

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


A Gipsy’s Letter to his Sister.—Drabbing Horses.—Fortune Telling.—Cock Shys.—“Hatch ’em pauli, or he’ll lel sār the Covvas!”—Two German Gipsy Letters.

I shall give in this chapter a few curious illustrations of Gipsy life and character, as shown in a letter, which is illustrated by two specimens in the German Rommany dialect.

With regard to the first letter, I might prefix to it, as a motto, old John Willett’s remark: “What’s a man without an imagination?” Certainly it would not apply to the Gipsy, who has an imagination so lively as to be at times almost ungovernable; considering which I was much surprised that, so far as I know, the whole race has as yet produced only one writer who has distinguished himself in the department of fiction—albeit he who did so was a giant therein—I mean John Bunyan.

And here I may well be allowed an unintended digression, as to whether Bunyan were really a Gipsy. In a previous chapter of this work, I, with little thought of Bunyan, narrated the fact that an intelligent tinker, and a full Gipsy, asked me last summer in London, if I thought that the Rommany were of the Ten Tribes of Israel? When John Bunyan tells us explicitly that he once asked his father whether he and his relatives were of the race of the Israelites—he having then never seen a Jew—and when he carefully informs his readers that his descent was of a low and inconsiderable generation, “my father’s house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land,” there remains no rational doubt whatever that Bunyan was indeed a Rom of the Rommany. “Applico” of which, as my own special and particular Gipsy is wont to say—it is worth noting that the magician Shakespeare, who knew everything, showed himself superior to many modern dramatists in being aware that the tinkers of England had, not a peculiar cant, but a special language.

And now for the letters. One day Ward’engro of the K’allis’s Gav, asked me to write him a letter to his daughter, in Rommany. So I began to write from his dictation. But being, like all his race, unused to literary labour, his lively imagination continually led him astray, and as I found amusement in his so doing, it proved to be an easy matter to induce him to wander off into scenes of gipsy life, which, however edifying they might be to my reader, would certainly not have the charm of novelty to the black-eyed lady to whom they were supposed to be addressed. However, as I read over from time to time to my Rommany chal what I had written, his delight in actually hearing his own words read from writing, partook of all the pride of successful authorship—it was, my dear sir, like your delight over your first proof sheet.

Well, this was the letter. A translation will be found following it.

THE PANNI GAV, Dec. 16, 1871.

MY KĀMLI CHĀVI,—Kushti bāk! My cāmmoben to turo mush an’ turo dādas an’ besto bāk. We’ve had wafri bak, my pen’s been naflo this here cooricus, we’re doin’ very wafro and couldn’t lel no wongur. Your dui pals are kairin kúshto, pràsturin ’bout the tem, bickinin covvas.  65 Your puro kāko welled acái to his pen, and hatched trin divvus, and jawed avree like a puro jucko, and never del mandy a poshéro.

Kek adusta nevvi. A rakli acai lelled a hóra waver divvus from a waver rakli, and the one who nashered it pens: “Del it pauli a mandi and I wont dukker tute! Del it apré!” But the waver rākli penned “kek,” and so they bitchered for the prastramengro. He lelled the juva to the wardo, and just before she welled odói, she hatched her wast in her poachy, an’ chiv it avree, and the prastramengro hatched it apré. So they bitchered her for shúrabun.

(Here my Gipsy suggested that stárdo or staramangro might be used for greater elegance, in place of shúrabun.)

I’ve got kek gry and can’t lel no wongur to kin kek. My kāmli chāvi, if you could bitch me a few bars it would be cammoben. I rikkers my covvas apré mi dumo kennā. I dicked my kāko, waver divvus adrée a lot o Rommany chals, saw a pïin’. There was the juvas a koorin adói and the mushis a koorin an’ there was a boro chingarée, some with kāli yākkas an’ some with sherros chinned so the ratt jālled alay ’pré the drum. There was dui or trin bar to pessur in the sāla for the graias an’ mylas that got in pandamam (pandapenn).

Your pal’s got a kushti gry that can jāl alangus the drum kúshto. L--- too’s got a bāro kushto gry. He jawed to the wellgooro, to the boro gav, with a poggobavescro gry an’ a nokengro. You could a mored dovo gry an’ kek penn’d a lav tute. I del it some ballovas to hatch his bavol and I bikened it for 9 bar, to a rye that you jins kushto. Lotti was at the wellgooro dukkerin the rānis. She lelled some kushti habben, an’ her jellico was saw porder, when she dicked her mush and shelled. “Hāvacäi! I’ve got some fine habben!” She penned to a rakli, “Pet your wonger adrée turo wast an I’ll dukker tute.” An’ she lelled a pāsh bar from the rāni. She penned her: “You kaums a rye a longo dūros. He’s a kaulo and there’s a wáver rye, a pauno, that kaums you too, an’ you’ll soon lel a chinamangree. Tute’ll rummorben before dui besh, an’ be the dye of trin chavis.’

There was a gry jāllin with a wardo langus the drum, an’ I dicked a raklo, an’ putsched (pootched) him. “How much wongur?” an’ he pookered man’y “Desh bar;” I penned: “Is dovo, noko gry?” “Āvali.” Well, a Rommany chul del him desh bar for the gry an’ bikined it for twelve bar to a boro rye. It was a fino kaulo gry with a boro herree, but had a naflo piro; it was the nearo piro an’ was a dellemescro. He del it some hopium drab to hatch adöi, and tooled his solivengro upo the purgis.

At the paiass with the koshters a rye welled and Wantelo shelled avree: “Trin kosters for a horra, eighteen for a shekóri!” An’ the rye lelled a koshter an’ we had pange collos for trin dozenos. The rye kaired paiass kushto and lelled pange cocoanuts, and lelled us to his wardo, and dell’d mandy trin currus of tatty panni, so that I was most mātto. He was a kushti rye and his rāni was as good as the rye.

There was a waver mūsh a playin, an’ mandy penned: “Pen the kosh paulier, hatch ’em odöi, don’t well adoorer or he’ll lel saw the covvos! Chiv ’em pauli!” A chi rakkered the ryes an’ got fifteen cullos from yeck. And no moro the divvus from your kaum pal,



THE WATER VILLAGE, Dec. 16, 1871.

MY DEAR DAUGHTER,—Good luck! my love to your husband and your father, and best luck! We’ve had bad fortune, my sister has been sick this here week, we’re doing very badly and could not get any money. Your two brothers are doing well, running about the country selling things. Your old uncle came to his sister and stayed three days, and went away like an old dog and never gave me a penny.

Nothing much new. A girl here took a watch the other day from another girl, and the one who lost it said: “Give it back to me and I won’t hurt you.” But the other girl said “No,” and so they sent for the constable. He took the girl to the station (or carriage), and just before she got there she put her hand in her pocket and threw it away, and the policeman picked it up. So they sent her to prison.

I have no horse, and can’t get any money to buy none. My dear daughter, if you could send me a few pounds it would be agreeable. I carry my traps on my back now. I saw my uncle the other day among a lot of Gipsies, all drinking. There were the women fighting there, and the men fighting, and there was a great shindy, some with black eyes, and some with heads cut so that the blood ran down on the road. There were two or three pounds to pay in the morning for the horses and asses that were in the pound.

Your brother has got a capital horse that can go along the road nicely. L---, too, has a large fine horse. He went to the fair in --- with a broken-winded horse and a glandered. You could have killed that horse and nobody said a word to you. I gave it some lard to stop his breathing, and I sold it for nine pound to a gentleman whom you know well.

Lotty was at the fair telling fortunes to the ladies. She got some excellent food, and her apron was quite full, when she saw her husband and cried out: “Come here! I’ve got some nice victuals!” She said to a girl: “Put you money in your hand and I’ll tell you your fortune.” And she took half a sovereign from the lady. She told her: “You love a gentleman who is far away. He is dark, and there is another gentleman, a fair-haired man that loves you, and you’ll soon get a letter. You’ll marry before two years, and be the mother of three children.”

There was a horse going with a waggon along the road; and I saw a youth, and asked him, “How much money?” (for the horse), and he replied to me, “Ten pounds.” I said, “Is that your horse?” “Yes.” Well, a Gipsy gave him ten pounds for the horse, and sold it for twelve pounds to a great gentleman. It was a good black horse, with a (handsome) strong leg (literally large), but it had a bad foot; it was the near foot, and it was a kicker. He gave it some opium medicament to keep quiet (literally to stop there), and held his rein (i.e., trotted him so as to show his pace, and conceal his faults) on the road.

At the cock-shy a gentleman came, and Wantelo halloed out, “Three sticks for a penny, eighteen for a sixpence!” And the gentleman took a stick, and we had five shillings for three dozen throws! The gentleman played well, and got five cocoanuts, and took us to his carriage and gave me three glasses of brandy, so that I was almost drunk. He was a good gentleman, and his lady was as good as her husband.

There was another man playing; and I said, “Set the sticks more back, set ’em there; don’t go further or he’ll get all the things! Set ’em back!” A Gipsy girl talked to the gentlemen (i.e., persuaded them to play), and got fifteen shillings from one. And no more to-day from your dear brother,


* * * * *

One thing in the foregoing letter is worth noting. Every remark or incident occurring in it is literally true—drawn from life—pur et simple. It is, indeed, almost the resumé of the entire life of many poor Gipsies during the summer. And I may add that the language in which it is written, though not the “deep” or grammatical Gipsy, in which no English words occur—as for instance in the Lord’s Prayer, as given by Mr Borrow in his appendix to the Gipsies in Spain  70—is still really a fair specimen of the Rommany of the present day, which is spoken at races by cock-shysters and fortune-tellers.

The “Water Village,” from which it is dated, is the generic term among Gipsies for all towns by the sea-side. The phrase kushto (or kushti), bak!—“good luck!” is after “Sarishan!” or “how are you?” the common greeting among Gipsies. The fight is from life and to the life; and the “two or three pounds to pay in the morning for the horses and asses that got impounded,” indicates its magnitude. To have a beast in pound in consequence of a frolic, is a common disaster in Gipsy life.

During the dictation of the foregoing letter, my Gipsy paused at the word “broken-winded horse,” when I asked him how he could stop the heavy breathing?

“With ballovas (or lard and starch)—long enough to sell it.”

“But how would you sell a glandered horse?”

Here he described, with great ingenuity, the manner in which he would tool or manage the horse—an art in which Gipsies excel all the world over—and which, as Mr Borrow tells us, they call in Spain “de pacuaró,” which is pure Persian.

“But that would not stop the running. How would you prevent that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I am a better graiengro than you, for I know a powder, and with a penny’s worth of it I could stop the glanders in the worst case, long enough to sell the horse. I once knew an old horse-dealer who paid sixty pounds for a nokengro (a glandered horse) which had been powdered in this way.”

The Gipsy listened to me in great admiration. About a week afterwards I heard he had spoken of me as follows:—

“Don’t talk about knowing. My rye knows more than anybody. He can cheat any man in England selling him a glandered horse.”

Had this letter been strictly confined to the limits originally intended, it would have spoken only of the sufferings of the family, the want of money, and possibly, the acquisition of a new horse by the brother. In this case it bears a decided family-likeness to the following letter in the German-Gipsy dialect, which originally appeared in a book entitled, Beytrag zur Rottwellischen Grammatik, oder Wörterbuch von der Zigeuner Spracke, Leipzig 1755, and which was republished by Dr A. F. Pott in his stupendous work, Die Zigeuner in Europa und Asien. Halle, 1844.


MIRI KOMLI ROMNI,—Ertiewium Francfurtter wium te gajum apro Newoforo. Apro drum ne his mange mishdo. Mare manush tschingerwenes ketteni. Tschiel his te midschach wettra. Tschawe wele naswele. Dowa ker, kai me gaijam medre gazdias tele; mare ziga t’o terno kalbo nähsle penge. O flachso te hanfa te wulla te schwigarizakri te stifftshakri ho spinderde gotshias nina. Lopennawa, wium ke tshorero te wiam hallauter nange Denkerdum tschingerwam mangi kasht te mre wastiengri butin, oder hunte di kaw te kinnaw tschommoni pre te bikkewaw pale, te de denkerwaw te ehrnährwaw man kiacke. Me bium kiacke kuremangrender pene aper mande, buten tschingerde buten trinen marde te man, tshimaster apri butin tshidde. O bolloben te rackel tutt andre sawe kolester, kai me wium adre te me tshawa tiro rum shin andro meraben.


MY DEAR WIFE,—Before I came to Frankfort I went to Neustadt. On the way it did not go well with me. Our men quarrelled together. It was cold and wet weather. The children were ill. That house into which we had gone burnt down; our kid and the young calf run away. The flax and hemp and wool [which] the sister-in-law and step-daughter spun are also burned. In short, I say I became so poor that we all went naked. I thought of cutting wood and working by hand, or I should go into business and sell something. I think I will make my living so. I was so treated by the soldiers. They fell on us, wounded many, three they killed, and I was taken to prison to work for life. Heaven preserve you in all things from that into which I have fallen, and I remain thy husband unto death.

* * * * *

It is the same sad story in all, wretchedness, poverty, losses, and hunger. In the English letter there was a chingari—a shindy; in the German they have a tshinger, which is nearly the same word, and means the same. It may be remarked as curious that the word meraben at the end of the letter, meaning death, is used by English Gipsies to signify life as well.

“Dick at the gorgios,
  The gorgios round mandy;
Trying to take my meripon,
  My meripon away.”

The third letter is also in the German-Gipsy dialect, and requires a little explanation. Once a man named Charles Augustus was arrested as a beggar and suspected Gipsy, and brought before Mr Richard Liebich, who appears to have been nothing less in the total than the Fürstlich Reuss-Plauenschem Criminalrathe und Vorstande des Fürstlichen Criminalgerichts zu Lobenstein—in fact, a rather lofty local magistrate. Before this terrible title Charles appeared, and swore stoutly that he was no more a Rommany chal than he was one of the Apostles—for be it remembered, reader, that in Germany at the present day, the mere fact of being a Gipsy is still treated as a crime. Suddenly the judge attacked him with the words—“Tu hal rom, me hom, rakker tschatschopenn!”—“Thou art a Gipsy, I am a Gipsy, speak the truth.” And Charles, looking up in amazement and seeing the black hair and brown face of the judge, verily believed that he was of the blood of Dom. So crossing his arms on his breast in true Oriental style, he salaamed deeply, and in a submissive voice said—“Me hom rom”—“I am a Gipsy.”

The judge did not abuse the confidence gained by his little trick, since he appears to have taken Charles under his wing, employed him in small jobs (in America we should say chores, but the word would be frightfully significant, if applied to a Gipsy),  75 and finally dismissed him. And Charles replied Rommanesquely, by asking for something. His application was as follows:—



“LADSCHO BARO RAI,—Me hunde dschinawe duge gole dui trin Lawinser mire zelle gowe, har geas mange an demaro foro de demare Birengerenser. Har weum me stildo gage lean demare Bírengere mr lowe dele, de har weum biro gage lean jon man dran o stilibin bri, de mangum me mr lowe lender, gai deum dele. Jon pendin len wellen geg mander. Gai me deum miro lowe lende, naste pennene jon gar wawer. Brinscherdo lowe hi an i Gissig, o baro godder lolo paro, trin Chairingere de jeg dschildo gotter sinagro lowe. Man weas mr lowe gar gobe dschanel o Baro Dewel ani Bolebin. Miro baaro bargerbin vaschge demare Ladschebin bennawe. O baro Dewel de pleisserwel de maro ladscho sii i pure sasde Tschiwaha demende demaro zelo Beero. De hadzin e Birengere miro lowe, dale mangawa me len de bidschin jon mire lowe gadder o foro Naile abbi Bidschebasger wurtum sikk. Gai me dschingerdum ab demende, hi gar dschadscho, gai miri romni hass mando, gowe hi dschadscho. Obaaro Dewel de bleiserwel de mange de menge demaro Ladscho Sii. Miero Bargerbin. De me dschawe demaro gandelo Waleddo.



“LICHTENBERG, January 18, 1859.

“GOOD GREAT SIR,—I must write to you with these two or three words my whole business (gowe, English Gipsy covvo, literally ‘thing,’) how it happened to me in your town, by your servants (literally ‘footmen’). When I was arrested, your servants took my money away, and when I was freed they took me out of prison. I asked my money of them which I had given up. They said they had got none from me. That I gave them my money they cannot deny. The said (literally, known) money is in a purse, a great piece, red (and) old, three kreutzers, and a yellow piece of good-for-nothing money. I did not get my money, as the great God in heaven knows. My great thanks for your goodness, I say. The great God reward your good heart with long healthy life, you and your whole family. And if your servants find my money, I beg they will send it to the town Naila, by the post at once. That I cursed you is not true; that my wife was drunk is true. The great God reward your good heart. My thanks. And I remain, your obedient servant,


Those who attempt to read this letter in the original, should be informed that German Gipsy is, as compared to the English or Spanish dialects, almost a perfect language; in fact, Pott has by incredible industry, actually restored it to its primitive complete form; and its orthography is now settled. Against this orthography poor Charles Augustin sins sadly, and yet it may be doubted whether many English tramps and beggars could write a better letter.

The especial Gipsy characteristic in this letter is the constant use of the name of God, and the pious profusion of blessings. “She’s the blessing-est old woman I ever came across,” was very well said of an old Rommany dame in England. And yet these well-wishings are not always insincere, and they are earnest enough when uttered in Gipsy.

Next: Chapter VI. Gipsy Words Which Have Passed Into English Slang