The secret language

In the older literature on Gypsies it is a commonplace that they have a language of their own only so that the gadjos or peasants do not understand them in the villages they cross with their caravans: it is thus no more than a thieves’ cant. This old topos was also mentioned by Covarrubias among his fantastic etymologies. For example, he writes in the entry Gerigonza (‘Argot’) of his Tesoro:
Gerigonza. Un cierto lenguaje particular de que usan los ciegos con que se entienden entre sí. Lo mesmo tienen los gitanos, y también forman lengua los rufianes y los ladrones, que llaman germanía. Díjose gerigonza, quasi gregigonza, porque en tiempos pasados era tan peregrina la lengua griega, que aun pocos de los que profesan facultades la entendían, y así decían hablar griego el que no se dejaba entender. O se dijo del nombre gyrus, gyri, que es vuelta y rodeo, por rodear las palabras, permutando las sílabas o trastocando las razones; o está corrompido de gytgonza, lenguaje de gitanos.

Argot. A particular language used by the blind [beggars] in their inner communication. Similar languages have also the Gypsies just like the pimps and thieves, called germanía [from the word hermano, ‘brother’]. Gerigonza is almost gregigonza, as the knowledge of the Greek [griega] language was so rare in the past centuries that even among the educated there were only a handful who understood it: thus when one spoke in an incomprehensible way, he was told to speak in Greek. It might also come from gyrus, gyri meaning “turn, twist”, because the argot turns out the words, turns over their syllables and twists their meaning; or perhaps from the term gitgonza, that is, the language of the gitanos, the Gypsies.
In the previous entry we spoke about the tensions between the identity of a people and the identities of the individuals that constitute it. We have mentioned that in the case of the Gypsies such tensions are particularly connected with the language, with reading and writing. In this context is especially illuminating the following story which bears testimony to the extent the self-evaluation of the Gypsies is related to the appreciation of their language. On the one hand they accept the discourse of the power marginalizing their language in the vein of Covarrubias, while on the other hand they consider themselves more valuable when discover that their language can be written just like “normal” languages:
In a [Hungarian] village school the Beas Gypsy children who used their mother tongue as an inner argot, had sent me to hell. Their language is an archaic version of Romanian, and they also brought their curses from their old homeland. I know Romanian, so I replied to them. We have made a deal. If they regularly come to school, I will teach them how to write in their mother tongue. Their mouth fell open in astonishment for long minutes when they saw on the blackboard that what they talked could be really written down. They told: now they clearly see that they are just like those children who were not forbidden by their teachers to speak in their mother tongue in the school. They felt that bad times were finally over: they not only had speakable, but also writable worlds. From now on, dialogue is only question of dictionary. They did not yet know that the evil is hiding in the details.


Gypsy children playing in the Eastern Slovakian town of Krompachy, 1991
(source: Isabel Fonseca, Bury me standing, 1995)