Home» Publications» SLD Newsletter» Newsletter Spring 2013» Research: Travellers' Languages

Travellers and their Languages

Pauline Cairns Speitel

While working on the revision of the Concise Scots Dictionary (CSD) I became aware that there was a lack of coverage of the languages of the Scottish Travelling peoples. There is scant information in the 10-volume Scottish National Dictionary, which meant that a very limited amount trickled down into the original CSD.

Since childhood I have had a special interest in Travellers' language, and when I began to work on CSD I realized that there was no dictionary which covered this wide and varied vocabulary. There are many lists of Traveller words but there is no 'stand-alone' dictionary. I realized that a dictionary covering this neglected area was necessary, which would, in turn, provide useful data to enhance the revision of CSD.

Therefore, I undertook, in my spare time, the compilation of A Dictionary of the Languages of Scottish Travellers. I began my 'wee book' in June 2011 and, although near completion, work on it is still progressing.

The following are a few examples of material which adds to SLD's Word Collection, which in turn, will be used to update CSD.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as: "British slang: An unattractive person, esp. a woman [...] Origin unknown".

I think it is a development from a Gypsy word munt 'to weep' and the following is the entry from my Dictionary:

munt v to cry: "His mither could hardly look at her laddie, and his faither would munt whin he deeked [looked] at his bonnie laddie's maun [face]." 20-. munting v crying, weeping 20-. munty adjective tear stained: "'Crying like that for any old [burnt] boot! Look at your munty face.’”. 20-. Compare MULTING which may be a variant of this. [origin obscure; perhaps a development from Romany, as attested by Borrow, munjee 'A blow on the mouth, seemingly a Cant word']

NOTE: Probably the Scots slang munter 'an ugly, unattractive person or thing' is a development from this.

Travellers also use many Scots words, in some cases widening or adapting their original meaning, as two further examples from my Dictionary reveal:

bang n a crowd of people, sometimes of domineering, overpowering people la18-. [Scots bang 'a crowd']

NOTE: An example of Travellers developing a Scots word to widen its meaning. Among Scots speakers this word is more commonly used in the phrase the (hale) jing bang 'everything, the whole lot'.

hairy n term of contempt for a woman: "Ye’re a fly auld hairy!" [You are a cunning old woman!] 20-. [Scots; originally used to describe a female slum-dweller from Glasgow]

NOTE: This is an example of the Travellers taking a Scots word and turning it to their own purpose. The Scottish National Dictionary originally defines hairy thus: "A young woman living in the slums of Glasgow who habitually goes about without a hat." Latterly however, its meaning has shifted as recorded by Michael Munro: "A contemptuous term for a sluttish girl: 'What are ye runnin about wi that wee hairy for?'"

There are also many words of Romany or Traveller origin which were borrowed reciprocally into the vocabulary of Scottish adults and school children. These words often survive in Scots (where they have been lost elsewhere).

barry, barrie baurie, bari, baré, buri, bori [to rhyme with marry, or bawrie] adjective 1 fine; smart used to describe something very good of its type: "...it's a barry new dress yer wearin", 19-. 2 beautiful 20-. 3 big, great, rich 19-. [Romany barri 'big, great'; also attested in Scots with the same meanings]
radge, raj, rauge, raage [to rhyme with cadge] adjective mad, crazy 19-. n an idiot, a fool: ".. Here, let mi tell ye aboot a peer loonie I kent and abody made a radge oot of him cos he wis a bittie queer-looking. ..." [I want to tell you about a poor boy I knew and everyone made a fool of him because he was a bit odd-looking.] 20-. [possibly a variant of English adjective rage; there may also have been influence especially in southern Scots from Gypsy raj, rajy with the same meaning and of the same origin]

NOTE: This word has developed and has passed into the language of the wider Scots speaking population. For example, an Edinburgh Scots speaker would understand the adjectives radge and radgie to mean 'sexually excited'. In SND it is defined as 'a woman of loose morals', 'a lively girl'. These meanings may come from the Travellers because they are recorded from informants in the Borders, Kirkcudbrightshire and Aberdeenshire, all areas where Travellers roamed.

The above is only a tiny sample of the results of my ongoing research.