Caló language

This article is about the Caló language spoken by Romani people in Iberia. For the argot spoken by Mexican-Americans, see Caló (Chicano).
Native to Spain, Portugal, south of France, Latin America
Native speakers
up to 400,000 in Brazil (2014)[1]
40,000 in Spain (1980)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 rmq
Glottolog calo1236[3]

Caló (Spanish: [kaˈlo]; Catalan: [kəˈɫo]; Galician: [kaˈlɔ]; Portuguese: [kɐˈlɔ]) is a language spoken by the Spanish and Portuguese Romani. It is a mixed language (referred to as a Para-Romani language in Romani linguistics) based on Romance grammar, with an adstratum of Romani lexical items[4] through language shift by the Romani community. It is often used as an argot, a secret language for discreet communication amongst Iberian Romani. Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, and Spanish caló are closely related varieties that share a common root.[5]

Spanish caló, or Spanish Romani, was originally known as zincaló. Portuguese calão, or Portuguese Romani, also goes by the term lusitano-romani.

The name caló

Calé is the endonym of the Romani people in Iberia and caló means "the language spoken by the calé. However, the calé are commonly known in Portuguese- and Spanish- speaking countries by the exonyms ciganos and gitanos.

In Calé and other varieties of Romani, kalo means "black or "absorbing all light",[6] hence closely resembling words for "black" and/or "dark" in Indo-Aryan languages (e.g. Sanskrit काल kāla "black", "of a dark colour"). Hence caló and calé may have originated as ancient exonyms. For instance, the name of the Domba people – among whom the Roma are now believed to have emerged [7] – also implies "dark-skinned", in some modern Indian languages.[8]

A false etymology sometimes links caló to calão: a Portuguese term for slang.

Nomenclature and dialect divisions

Three main groupings of dialects are distinguished in what is technically Iberian caló but most commonly referred to simply as (Spanish) caló or Spanish Romani:

In modern Romani linguistics, all are jointly referred to as Iberian Romani (Spanish: iberorromaní or romaní ibérico).[5]

Linguistic features


Caló has six vowels:[5]

Front Central Back
Close i   u
Mid ə
Open a

It has the following consonant inventory:[5]

  Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p  b   t  d     k  a  
Affricate     t͡s  d͡z t͡ʃ  d͡ʒ      
Fricative   f s ʃ   x h
Nasal m   n        
Approximant     l   j    
Tap     ɾ        
Trill     r        

Notable phonological features of Iberian Caló are:[5]


Spanish Romani:

Y sasta se hubiese catanado sueti baribustri, baribustri, y abillasen solictos á ó de los fores, os penó por parabola: Manu chaló abri á chibar desqueri simiente: y al chibarle, yeque aricata peró sunparal al drun, y sinaba hollada, y la jamáron as patrias e Charos. Y aver peró opré bar: y pur se ardiñó, se secó presas na terelaba humedad. Y aver peró andré jarres, y as jarres, sos ardiñáron sat siró, la mulabáron. Y aver peró andré pu lachi: y ardiñó, y diñó mibao á ciento por yeque. Penado ocono, se chibó á penar á goles: Coin terela canes de junelar, junele.
Parable of the Sower, Luke, 8, 4–8, as published by George Borrow in 1838 [9]

Compare with a Spanish version:

Cuando una gran multitud se reunió y personas de cada ciudad fueron donde Jesús, Él les habló con una parábola. «Un campesino salió a sembrar su semilla. Al sembrar algunas cayeron en la carretera; fueron pisoteadas y se las comieron los pájaros del cielo. Otras semillas cayeron encima de la roca, tan pronto como crecieron se secaron porque no tenían humedad. Otras cayeron entre los espinos, y los espinos crecieron con éstas y las sofocaron. Otras cayeron en tierra buena; crecieron y dieron fruto, cien veces más.» Después de decir estas cosas gritó, «¡Aquel que tiene oídos para escuchar, que escuche!»[10]



Many Caló terms have been borrowed in Spanish (especially as slangisms and colloquialisms), often through Flamenco lyrics and criminal jargon (germanía).

Examples are gachó/gachí ("man/woman", from gadjo/gadji), chaval ("boy", originally "son", a cognate of English chav[11]), parné ("money"), currelar or currar ("to work"), fetén ("excellent"), pinreles ("feet"), biruji ("cold"), churumbel ("baby"), gilí ("silly, stupid"), chachi ("outstanding, genuine"), (un)debel/debla ("god/goddess"), mengue ("demond"), chorar ("to steal"), molar ("to like"), piltra ("bed"), acais ("eyes"), chola ("head"), jeró ("face"), napia ("nose"), muí ("mouth"), lache ("shame"), pitingo ("vain"), chungo ("bad, nasty, dodgy"), guripa ("cheeky, soldier"), ful ("fake"), potra ("luck"), paripé ("pretence"), juncal ("slender, graceful"), pure/pureta ("old"), sobar ("to sleep"), quer or queli ("house"), garito ("house, gambling den"), jalar ("to eat"), cate ("hit"), diñar ("to give, to die"), palmar ("to die, to snuff it"), chinarse ("to get upset"), apoquinar ("to pay"), langui ("lame"), chalado or pirado ("crazy"), pirarse ("to leave", "to make oneself scarce"), changar ("to break"), chivarse ("to denounce sb, to squeal"), chivato ("informer"), hacerse el longuis ("to pretend to be absent-minded"), pringar ("to get sb mixed up, to overdo"), chingar ("to have sexual relations, to bother"), chinorri ("little"), najar ("to flee"), privar ("drink, to drink"), mangar ("to steal"), nanay ("no way, there isn't"), chorizo ("thief"), achantar ("to get intimidated"), pispar ("to nick"), birlar ("to nick"), achanta la muí ("shut your mouth"), canguelo or cangueli ("fear"), cañí ("gypsy"), calé ("gypsy"), caló ("language of the Iberian Kale"), calas ("money"), payo ("non-romani person"), menda ("myself"), chusma ("pleb") and galochi ("heart").[12]

Some words underwent a shift in meaning in the process: camelar (etymologically related to Sanskrit kāma, "love, desire") in colloquial Spanish has the meaning of "to woo, to seduce, to deceive by adulation" (but also "to love", "to want"; although this sense has fallen into disuse),[13] however in Caló it more closely matches the Spanish meanings of querer ("to want" and "to love"). In addition camelar and the noun camelo can also mean either "lie" or "con".

Caló also appears to have influenced quinqui, the language of another Iberian group of travellers who are not ethnically Romani.


To a lesser extent than in Spanish, Caló terms have also been adapted into Catalan as slangisms and colloquialisms.

Examples are halar (pronounced: [həˈɫa] or [xəˈɫa]; "to eat"), xaval ("boy"), dinyar(-la) ("to die"), palmar(-la) ("to die"), cangueli ("fear"), paio ("non-Romani person"), calé ("money"), caló ("language of the Iberian Kale"), cangrí ("prison"), pispar ("to nick"), birlar ("to nick"), xorar ("to steal"), mangar ("to steal"), molar ("to like"), pringar ("to get sb mixed up, to overdo"), pirar(-se) ("to leave, to make oneself scarce") sobar ("to sleep"), privar ("drink, to drink"), xusma ("pleb"), laxe ("shame"), catipén ("stink"), xaxi ("outstanding, genuine"), xivar-se ("to denounce sb, to squeal"), xivato ("informer"), xinar(-se) ("to get upset"), fer el llonguis (lit. "Do a long one" fig. "to pretend to be thick/slow") and potra ("luck").[14][15]

Language maintenance

There is a growing awareness and appreciation for Caló: "...until the recent work by Luisa Rojo, in the Autonomous University of Madrid, not even the linguistics community recognized the significance and problems of Caló and its world."[16] Its world includes songs, poetry and flamenco.

As Iberian Romani proper is extinct and as Caló is endangered, some people are trying to revitalise the language. The Spanish politician Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia promotes Romanò-Kalò, a variant of International Romani, enriched by Caló words.[17] His goal is to reunify the Caló and Romani roots.


In 1838, the first edition of Embéo E Majaró Lucas translated by George Borrow was published and began to be distributed in Madrid. This was Borrow's translation of the Gospel of Luke into Caló.[18] A revision of this was printed in 1872.

See also


  1. Caló at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Calo Romani at Ethnologue (10th ed., 1984). Note: Data may come from the 9th edition (1978).
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Caló". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Ethnologue
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Adiego, I. Un vocabulario español-gitano del Marqués de Sentmenat (1697–1762) Ediciones Universitat de Barcelona (2002) ISBN 84-8338-333-0
  6. Glosbe 2013, Dictionary/Romany-English Dictionary/kalo (23 September 2016).
  7. N. Rai et al., 2012, "The Phylogeography of Y-Chromosome Haplogroup H1a1a-M82 Reveals the Likely Indian Origin of the European Romani Populations" (23 September 2016).
  8. Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, Random House, p. 100.
  9. Biblia en acción, JORGE BORROW: Un inglés al encuentro de lo Español.
  10. Traducción de dominio público abierta a mejoras derived from the World English Bible.
  11. Diccionario Crítico Etimológico Castellano e Hispánico, vol. II, p. 347. Joan Corominas and José A. Pascual. Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1989. ISBN 84-249-1363-9.
  12. Aportacions gitanes al castellà.
  13. camelar in the Diccionario de la Real Academia,
  14. Aportacions gitanes al català
  15. El català dels gitanos. Caçadors de Paraules (TV3,
  16. The Responsibility of Linguist and the Basque Case
  17. "Unión Romaní imparte el primer curso de romanò-kalò", Union Romani, 29 December 2006
  18. Embéo E Majaró Lucas further details are given in the page on the website of the George Borrow Society.
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