The Basque-Icelandic Pidgin

A pidgin, according to Wikipedia, is “a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common.” That is, when two new groups come into contact and they can’t communicate, they begin create a new language that is some hybrid of the two.

The Basques were known for their seafaring and wide travels. During these travels, they certainly met many peoples with whom they did not share a common language. For example, there is some evidence that the Basques developed a pidgin language with the native inhabitants of the North American coast where they had gone for whales. In fact, this is the oldest known example of a pidgin in North America, with the Basques developing a common pidgin language with the Micmacs and the Montagnais. Interestingly, in this pidgin language, when the Basques asked the locals how they were, they would respond “apaizak hobeto”, or “the priests are better.”

Another very interesting pidgin involving Euskara is with the Icelanders. In roughly the 17th century, as the Basques were exploring the Atlantic for fishing opportunities, they found their way to Iceland, another place where they had no common language. Actually, the Basque-Icelandic pidgin is a complex mix of a number of languages that these two disparate groups of people used to communicate. Interestingly, the Icelanders documented this pidgin and the Basque-Icelandic glossaries are now online for all to browse.

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Apparently, the Basques had a long history in Iceland, essentially competing with the locals for fishing resources. This lead to a number of violent encounters. This incident, again from Wikipedia but originally described by Jón Guðmundsson the learned, gives a flavor for what kind of things were going on:

In the 17th and 18th centuries Basque whalers hunted in Icelandic waters. Despite any mutually beneficial results, in 1615, a crew of 32 shipwrecked and stranded Basques were executed by Icelanders. Jón Guðmundsson condemned the local sheriff for this decision in his account of the event. 

The glossary has a number of colorful phrases. Let me just mention one. In a recent paper by Viola Giulia Miglio, Dr. Miglio reanalyzes the glossary and points out a phrase that had previously eluded translation. The phrase is Sickutta Samaria serda merina. The meaning of the second phrase, Icelandic, had been clear — defile the mare — but the Basque had not been translated. Dr. Miglio proposes the first word is xikotu and that the phrase, in a more polite translation, means go shag a horse. Sailors have always had a reputation for colorful language and Basque sailors are no exception.

A more complete bibliography specifically on the Basque-Icelandic pidgin can be found at Euskosare. I first heard about these pidgins a number a years ago when I encountered the work of Peter Bakker.

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