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Could we have Gypsy blood?


The word ‘Mort’ doesn’t just mean Death!
At one time or another, many of us must have presumed that the surname Mort must surely come from the Latin / French word for death and therefore the family surname of Mort must originate from France. It seems a logical conclusion to make. For those of who have spent some time researching both the surname and the word, it is very apparent that the word ‘Mort’ can mean many things to differing people from a variety of origins.

In Wales it refers to the sea and so possibly was used by people who lived by the sea. In Southern England it relates to deep water such as a lake. In Northern England it can be used to describe those people who live on the Moors. I have heard some people say it is another name for a Salmon and even a tree stump. However, here is an interesting and new meaning for the word Mort.

In Old English Romany Cant, Mort was a name that meant Woman.

In the same way many of us have presumed that Mort was a French surname simply because it was a common French word, let us now open up to the possibility that Mort could equally be a Romany surname since Mort was also a commonly used Romany word. All of this is pure conjecture, but some of the evidence is very compelling.... read on!

Cant (often known as Thieves Cant) was a coded language used exclusively by Gypsies and Tinker storytellers. Cant is a slang dialect in it’s own right and in fact many of today’s English Gypsies speak with a language that is a mixture of Romany, modern Slang and old Cant.The word Mort comes directly from the Cant derivative.

Again, like many other people I presumed that the term Gypsy came from the word Egyptian. In fact, the Roma have been made up of many different groups of people from the very beginning, and have absorbed outsiders throughout their history. Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought by the first Europeans to be from Turkey or Nubia or Egypt, or any number of vaguely acknowledged non-European places, and they were called, among other things, Egyptians or ‘Gyptians, which is where the word "Gypsy" comes from.

The Romani language is of Indo-Aryan origin and has many spoken dialects, but the root language is ancient Punjabi, or Hindi. The spoken Romani language is varied, but all dialects contain some common words in use by all Roma. Based on language, Roma are divided into three populations. They are the Domari of the Middle East and Eastern Europe (the Dom), the Lomarvren of Central Europe (the Lom), and the Romani of Western Europe (the Rom). There is no universal written Romani language in use by all Roma. However, the codification of a constructed, standardized dialect is currently in progress by members of the Linguistic Commission of the International Romani Union. There are four Rom "tribes", or nations (natsiya), of Roma: the Kalderash, the Machavaya, the Lovari, and the Churari. Other groups include the Romanichal, the Gitanoes (Calé), the Sinti, the Rudari, the Manush, the Boyash, the Ungaritza, the Luri, the Bashaldé, the Romungro, and the Xoraxai.

The first European descriptions of the Roma upon their entering Europe emphasized their dark skin and black hair. Through integration with Europeans over the centuries, Roma today can also be found with light skin and hair.

Interestingly yes! If you happen to be enthusiastic enough to study the European genealogy sites you will find that the earliest records of the Mort name can be found in the greatest numbers over England, France and Germany. I was first made aware of this by an email from an American Mort researcher who had grown up believing that Mort was actually a German name. When I checked I found that she was correct , it was indeed a common German name. However, as a surname Mort could also be found as far back as the 17th century (although in lesser numbers) in Sweden, Finland, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland with even a few Morts in Italy.

The name was scattered throughout Northern Europe with an absolute dividing line occuring between North and South. This evidence swayed me away from thinking that Mort was actually an English born Lancashire family. Centuries ago (same as today), populations moved in order to find work, shelter and food. Lancashire was a prosporous place of employment even in the 15th and 16th centuries. I could understand Morts moving from mainland Europe to work in England, but was doubtful that this would apply the opposite way around. One aspect of European genealogy that does give us ‘food for thought’ is that the Morts were scatted around Northern Europe about 300+ years ago. Could the Mort’s have possible been a family of travellers in order to have scattered so far and wide (pre cars and planes)?

There are more than twelve million Roma located in many countries around the world. There is no way to obtain an exact number since they are not recorded on most official census counts. It is worth noting that there have been several great migrations, or diaspora, in Romani history. The first was the initial dispersal from India about a thousand years ago. Some scholars suggest there may have been several migrations from India. The second great migration, known as the Aresajipe, was from southwest Asia into Europe in the 14th century. We know from records that there were Mort’s living in Lancashire between the 13th and 14th century, and this does fit in with the Roma migration into Europe. It does not fit in with the theory of the Morts being French protestants exiled from France since this occurred much later in history.

In Europe, some Roma were kept in slavery in the Balkans. This was in a territory that is today known as Romania and this is probably were the word Romany derives from. They were able to move on and up into the rest of the continent, reaching every northern and western country by about 1500. Again, this date corresponds with other records of the Mort’s arrival into mainland Europe, plus North West Europe also coincides with the areas where we now find the Mort name.

If only I could go back in a time bubble and give you a 100% answer to this question. Looking back on older (and even more recent photographs) this does seem to be a family with a darker complexion and not typically the fair skinned blue eyed Lancastrian.

The answer is that we simply don’t know, however here are 2 more snippets that will hopefully give you ‘food for thought’.

A common surname used by Romany Gypsies is that of ‘MORDECAI’ and this translates directly to the surname of Mort. It is a surname commonly found in Wales, so it is entirely possible that the Welsh branch of the Mort family were Welsh Romanies. The only concern with this theory being that Mort means Woman in old English Romany Cant, and doesn’t seem to apply to the Welsh dialect. Whatever the origins of the name ‘Mordecai’, the plain and simple fact is that it means Mort and is a surname known to be used by Romanies. We can’t really argue against this fact.

The second issue relates to the Mort family that we have so far traced back to Eccles (Manchester, England) in the mid 16th century. From what we know about these older Mancunian Morts, their lives could not have been more conflicting with the wanderlust carefree Gypsy lifestyle.

They laid down static roots for one thing. They were prosperous, in steady employment and they abided to the laws of the country. They had marriage certificates, they left behind wills and in general didn’t seem to be in hiding from any higher authorities of the time. Some of them became land owners, when the general Romany ethos was that of ‘not owning any land’ and remaining freemen of the road.

The Romany travellers of this era had gained a poor reputation (rightly or wrongly) as thieves and vagabonds. This did not fit in with the image of the olde Lancashire Morts. As such, this would seem to rule out the Lancashire Morts as having arrived in England as Romany travellers.

Or does it?

I have spent a great deal of time studying the well known Lancashire nobility who were part of just a few families that dominated North West England in the middle ages. Not suprisingly, many of these descended from the Norman Barons who came to England with William C in 1066. The Morts were not Norman Barons and had not been awarded lands by the King (unlike many of their wealthy neighbours). The well known Lancashire familes can often be recognised in that their surnames are mostly also recognised local place names (such as Hindley, Partington, Atherton, Leigh, Worsley,Trafford) etc.

I have always got the feeling that the wealthier Lancashire Morts fought to gain acceptance into the mainstream gentry of the time, and were not totally acknowledged by the inner circles of the Lancashire nobility. Many of the Mort’s were intelligent, hard working, industrous and wealthy and it is their money and honour that helped them gain some approval from the aristocrats of the time. Despite sometimes having more wealth than their neighbours from the inner circle, I have the impression that they often sat on the fence and were viewed as outsiders.

Is it therefore possible that the Lancashire Morts were indeed once Romany travellers from India who fought long and hard to establish themselves in a new county, against a certain degree of prejudice?

We don’t know - but it is yet again another interesting theory on the origins of the Mort name.

If you have any opinions about this story, please do contribute your thoughts so we can all share them.

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