Talking to Myself

Last Thursday marked the publication of our twenty-fifth book, available now from our online shop. Our Spring 2024 issue is a hardback anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork from around the world, inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself. Over the next few weeks we'll be sharing some excerpts from the book. Today we bring you Damian Le Bas's piece about how moving to the city severed him from his Romani language, and how urban landscapes gave him a hybrid tongue. Accompanied by an image from Right to Roam's Nick Hayes.
is a writer and filmmaker. His first book, The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain, won the Somerset Maugham Award. He recently co-authored seven short films about Gypsies' and Travellers' experiences of crime and institutional prejudice. His next book, The Drowned Places, will be published in 2025.

Within my mouth you have engaoled my tongue,
Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips

– William Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King Richard the Second

When I walked in the fields and woods of home my language always flowed. Dordi chavi, dik the shushis prasteren adoey. Cor mate, look at the rabbits running there. Parnyin tadivvus. Raining today. Gavver mush jellen up akai.Policeman walking up here. Kakker chavi, don’t be dinlo. Quiet mate, don’t be stupid. Yaris and baulomas, kushti. Egg and bacon, nice. I was cagey about talking Romani, because in the pubs and shops of home it made people’s ears prick up and realise that ‘the Travellers’ had just walked in. But I loved hearing it, knowing I could understand it, and occasionally using it, particularly with my great-grandmother, who had grown up in wagons and tents in the interwar years, when the ancient Romany way of life was in the last decades of its heyday. Why did I call Romani ‘my language’? English was the main one I used, and even when we did speak Romani, we talked it with an English accent and mixed it up with English words. It felt more ‘mine’ than English, though. Maybe English, the most commonly spoken language in the world, was used by too many people to feel like it really belonged to any of them any more.

Then I moved to cities little Oxford, then big London and found I couldn’t speak my language any more. Mainly there was no one to speak it with. My family were miles away, and bumping into someone else who could rokker talk Romani was a rare experience. When I did hear someone talking Romani in the city, it was usually in a dialect I couldn’t speak: a continental European form like Kalderashitska, ‘cauldronmaker’s talk’ with words and inflections that made it almost as foreign to me as any other language. The English Romani dialect has a lot of English in it. Many Roma people who speak more conservative forms, with an intact Indian grammatical system, don’t regard my dialect as really a form of Romani at all. To them it seems more like a gadjikani chib a non-Romani tongue with skew-whiff bits of their language studded in it; a strange, impure and undesirable ‘pidgin–Gypsy’ speech. To me it is my mother tongue, and in the city I began to fear it might shrivel away. Hearing people talking these other forms, forms which it is tempting to view as superior, like many linguists do, made it worse. How come these other Romany people, who didn’t even grow up with horses and trailers like we did, were able to keep their tongue alive in the city? I was jealous, and sad when I realised why it was possible: because their families lived in the city, too. They had people at home to talk to. When darkness fell, they would huddle around the table together and utter their appreciation for their food in their ancestral tongues. I wouldn’t.

Being separated from my language in this way reminded me of the ways in which nomadic cultures … had been separated from the other knowledge bases of the past

Being separated from my language in this way reminded me of the ways in which nomadic cultures, and indeed almost everyone alive, had been separated from the other knowledge bases of the past: the ability to live off the land, or, less spectacularly, to supplement a bought diet with foraged or hunted food; the nous to navigate by reading the skies and natural signs; the power to stave off the darkest moods by spending time with animals, usually horses. I missed the horses as well.

When I did go home to the coast and the fields to visit the family, I found the old words didn’t come to me as easily as they once did. I was losing my facility with the vocab of my forebears, and there were several reasons why this was a concern to me. The English Romani dialect is precious not just for some dubious reason, like its ability to help conceal things from outsiders, a usefulness often cited by ‘experts’ on Romany culture. Like any dialect, it is precious primarily because within it is enveloped an entire way of looking at our environment. Each word we use colours our reality, and things don’t feel the same to the heart when they are referred to by a different word.

I resolved not to let the dialect die within me, and there was an obvious way to achieve it. I started translating things I read and heard, silently in my head, into Romani. ‘Damian, could you pick up a pint of milk when you go to the shop?’ Damian, kana tuti jels to the buddiga, lel mandi a vallina tood? And I also started talking to myself. Bori divvus in the sarlo, jel to woodrus chavi. Big day tomorrow, time to go to bed.’ Dordi, there’s evra mokkadi kitchima mandis butyen adray. ‘Wow. What a disgusting pub I have ended up working in.’

I had another problem, though. My dialect didn’t seem to want to be spoken in the city. Living there made me realise its vocabulary and idioms were weighted heavily towards a countryside life of yesteryear. I had got it from rural people: nomadic farm workers and entrepreneurs of the shires who grew up on wheels, in and out of hay barns, among the old trees. In the town there were too many things that the language and I simply didn’t have any words for. I was also acting like a different person there, wearing a slightly different face. I had adjusted my accent to fit in with friends and colleagues. And in this adjusted accent, the old Romani words did not want to show themselves.

I started inventing Romani words for the London things I saw. Some of them were cumbersome expressions: translated literally into English, they sounded like an outdated idea of how Native American people would describe the paraphernalia of ‘white’ life. A wooden translation of them might need ‘retranslating’ in order to be understood. Sasta varda, iron wagon’ – I used this for ‘overground train’. Talay-puv sastavarda,under-ground iron wagon’ – the Tube. Bory lolli varda, ‘great red wagon London bus. Bory lolli varda tan,great red wagon place’ – bus depot. Lolli varda atchin tan,red wagon stopping place bus stop. Peerdo-tober, foot road pavement. Tober-dood, ‘road light’ – street lamp. Rarti kichma, ‘night pub’ – nightclub. Dinlo toovler, ‘foolish tobacco’ – cannabis. Waffadi drab, ‘sick medicine’ – drugs. Bute fokis jivven kenner, many people’s living house shared accommodation. Duvvel-mungers, ‘God-beggars or (almost) ‘God spivs’ Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Who would I try out these words on? Even if they spoke my language, would they have any idea what I meant? After a while I stopped worrying about these questions. The main thing was that I had kept the language alive inside myself like an organ, dormant but prepared, perhaps for the day when I might have children to teach it to. I wrote the odd poem in it, and kept explaining my life to myself in a way my forebears might just about have understood. Mandi kers lavs adray lils for buti, I do words in books for work’ – I work as a journalist. Ta mandi’s a jinnapen mush for rais and rawnis chavis, and I’m a knowledge man for posh men and women’s children’ – and I work as a private tutor. Bute gorji fokis mandi jins kers hobben for bori vonger, ‘many non-Gypsies I know make food for big money’ – my friends work in the restaurant industry.

The main thing was that I had kept the language alive inside myself like an organ, dormant but prepared

I had studied Shakespeare’s Richard II at school, and I often used to think of Sir Thomas Mowbray’s line, about how the king, by exiling Mowbray from England, had ‘engaoled’ his mother tongue, and ‘doubly portcullised’ it behind his teeth and lips. It was only years later that I realised what the city had really done to my language. By denying me the chance to speak it freely, it had turned my retention of it into a strange, rebellious act. The language fed on the energy of the angry side of myself, the side that saw me as a dark horse out-of-towner, doomed to be patronised and misunderstood by the judgemental and classist non-Gypsy world. Bereft of people to talk to, I had ended up using the language more than I ever did back at home. I got hold of Victorian grammars of it and picked up ‘new’ old words, asking other Romany people if they knew them, on the rare occasions when I got the chance.

It’s a bit of a cultural taboo to learn words this way: you’re meant to pick them up from your family, or at least in conversation with other Travellers. Some of the ones I found in old books are in this piece of writing: I use them often now, even if it’s rare for another Traveller to understand what they mean, and I don’t care as much as I used to if people think that’s fake or weird. I’m used to being weird now. I’m older, and with the distance of age I can see the truth of my tongue. The city didn’t steal it from me. It steeled me to make it stronger. But there was an artifice to it all, and it never felt the same as hearing my relatives use the language out by the fire, or ferreting in the fields, or while whistling and brushing the horses, or laughing in the pub. Perhaps it was all that life that I missed, as much as the tongue that sometimes seemed to bind it all together.


IMAGE: Nick Hayes

Nick Hayes is currently working to upcycle the aristocracy into a nitrogen-rich mulch for cider orchards.


Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

Read more
  1. Dear Damian

    Many thanks for opening this window into an indigenous culture that’s ignored and/or misunderstood by the majority of British people.
    Like a lot of people, I suppose one of the few representations of British (and Irish) Romany culture I’ve seen lately has been Peaky Blinders, so I’d be interested to hear your take on its authenticity, or lack thereof, in that respect.


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