June 3, 2013

Jal te booty (“Go to work”) and other useful phrases in chipe calli, the language of the gypsies


One of the pleasures of editing is going down various wormholes, as occasioned by different books. For instance, while editing one book recently, I learned that benzine, otherwise known as petroleum ether, was used as a fabric cleaner in the early twentieth century; someone might rub the collar of their dress with benzine to smarten it up before a date.

This week, I’m with the gypsies. Specifically, while working on Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (the basis for Bizet’s opera), I’ve been introduced to chipe calli, the language of the gypsies, which is used extensively in the book. Mérimée was interested in languages and learned to speak chipe calli, with the help of his friend, Spanish novelist Estébanez Calderón, during his travels in Spain in the 1830s. The novella is peppered with chipe calli: Carmen offers to tell someone’s baji (“fortune”), a group of gypsies discuss the payllo (a word used to designate anyone not of the gypsy race) in the room, Carmen calls Don José her minchorró (her “fancy,” meaning her lover) and refers to the law of the cales (“calo” meaning black, the name the gypsies used to refer to themselves).

Of course, I don’t know how faithful any of this is to Romani as it is spoken to this day in many communities. I’m relying, as Mérimée also did, on George Borrow’s Romano Lavo-Lil, Word-Book of the Romany or, English Gypsy Language With Specimens of Gypsy Poetry, and an Account of Certain Gypsies or Places Inhabited by Them, and of Various Things Relating to Gypsy Life in England, first published in 1874. Borrow studied and wrote about the gypsies as an agent of the Bible Society in Spain, and Mérimée, whose interest in gypsy culture dates back to his earliest published writings, knew his books, including Romano Lavo-Lil and Borrow’s translation of the Gospel of Luke into chipe calli—the religiously skeptical Mérimée bragged to those who urged him to read his Bible that he’d even read it in Romani.

But even if Borrow and Mérimée’s record of chipe calli may suffer from the problems of nineteenth-century ethnography (a romanticized view of the subject, unattributed information, and sometimes just making things up), it’s still great fun to dip into. Here, for your use and abuse, is some vocabulary from Borrow:

Abri, ad. prep. Out, not within, abroad: soving abri, sleeping abroad, not in a house.

Bango, a. Left, sinister, wrong, false: bango wast, the left hand; to saulohaul bango, like a plastra-mengro, to swear bodily like a Bow-street runner.

Bavol, s. Wind, air.

Bokkeriskoe, a. Sheepish, belonging to a sheep: bokkeriskey piré, sheep’s feet.

Cam. To wish, desire, love.

Caur, v. a. To filch, steal in an artful manner by bending down.

Diviou, a. Mad: jawing diviou, going mad.

Dook, v. a. To hurt, bewitch: dook the gry, bewitch the horse.

Engro. A masculine affix, used in the formation of figurative names; for example, kaun-engro, an ear-fellow, or creature with ears, serving to denote a hare; ruk-engro, or ruko-mengro, a tree-fellow, denoting a squirrel; it is also occasionally used in names for inanimate objects, as pov-engro, an earth-thing or potato.

Fashono wangustis. Pretended gold rings, made in reality of brass or copper.

Gillies. Songs. Sometimes used to denote newspapers; because these last serve, as songs did in the old time, to give the world information of remarkable events, such as battles, murders, and robberies.

Grasni / Grasnakkur,s. Mare, outrageous woman: what a grasni shan tu, what a mare you are! Grasnakkur is sometimes applied to the mayor of a town.

Heviskey, a. Full of holes: heviskey tan, a place full of holes.

Jal te booty. Go to work.

Lav-chingaripen, s. Dispute, word-war.

Pal of the bor. Brother of the hedge, hedgehog.

Pandlo-mengro, s. Tollgate, thing that’s shut.

Patrin, s. A Gypsy trail; handfuls of leaves or grass cast by the Gypsies on the road, to denote to those behind the way which they have taken.

Rardiskey kair poggring, s. Housebreaking by night, burglary.

Tatto yeck, s. A hot un, or hot one; a stinging blow given in some very sensitive part.

Wesh, s. Forest, wood.

Yokki, a. Clever, expert: a yokki juva, a yokki woman – a female expert at filching, ringing the changes, telling fortunes, and other Gypsy arts.

And a Romani rhyme to top it off:

“Kek man camov te jib bolli-mengreskoenaes,
Man camov te jib weshenjugalogonaes.”

I do not wish to live like a baptized person.
I wish to live like a dog of the wood.






Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.