Gypsy dialect in the spotlight after Kent court case

Gypsy caravans
Image caption Romany Gypsies first arrived in England in the 16th century

Chav, mush, cushti and wonga - all words that have embedded themselves into the English vocabulary.

But few people would guess their origins belong to a 16th century Romany Gypsy dialect still spoken by some travellers today.

It has recently been put under the spotlight during the trial of a drug dealing gang in Kent.

An expert had to be called in to give the jury an overview of the dialect used by two of the defendants who were later convicted.

Despite its use for criminal conspiracy in this case, the dialect, sometimes called "rokker" after the Romany verb to talk, is a key facet of Gypsy identity.

It has its roots in India, when tribes of people left there in the 9th century, making their way across Europe before first arriving in the UK in the early 16th century.

It was initially assumed that these dark skinned travellers were from Egypt and the modern word "Gypsy" is a shortened version of "Egyptian".

'Private state'

Jake Bowers, a Romany journalist who has written frequently about Gypsy life, said estimates had put the number of Romany Gypsies in England at nearly 300,000.

Most of these would know some of the dialect, with levels of use depending on how traditional the families are.

"The Romany language enables them to create a private space in a public environment," he said.

"This is important if you're a nation that doesn't have its own state. It can be abused, but it can also be used positively.

"Gypsy identity is very connected to ability to speak Romany."

According to Mr Bowers, persecution over the centuries had meant many Gypsies were guarded about their identity.

'Massive ignorance'

"In Romany we have a term 'rokker nixies', which means to keep quiet about who you are," he said.

"People have always been told to keep their culture secret because of a massive ignorance about it. That has a knock on effect, with distrust [by non-Gypsies]."

He said a common problem among non-Gypsies was to lump Romany Gypsies in with Irish Travellers, describing it as like "confusing Dublin with Delhi".

"We're an entirely different group, but we do fill the same niche," he said.

"There are many things worth preserving in Romany culture - the importance of the extended family, the way we cherish our children and old people, and an historical lack of materialism."

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