EuskoSare > Euskara > Basque Fishermen in Iceland Bilingual vocabularies in the 17th and 18th centuries
Henrike Knörr
Vitoria-Gasteiz, Euskal Herria.
2007-08-30 00:50
Last modified: 2009-09-01 19:44
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Basque Fishermen in Iceland Bilingual vocabularies in the 17th and 18th centuries

In 1937 Nicolaas Gerardus Hendricus Deen, a linguist from De Hague, presented his doctoral thesis, entitled Glossaria duo Vasco-Islandica, to the University of Leiden.The subject of Deen’s work was two vocabularies taken from manuscripts written in Iceland at the end of the 17th century and beginning of the XVIIIth, accompanied by a commentary and a translation.

1. In 1937 Nicolaas Gerardus Hendricus Deen, a linguist from De Hague, presented his doctoral thesis, entitled Glossaria duo Vasco-Islandica, to the University of Leiden. The thesis, under the direction of F. Muller, was written in Latin and was edited in the same language later that same year. It was a relatively small work of just 135 pages in length. The recognition that the book enjoyed was negatively affected by two wars: the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which was being fought bitterly at the time, and the Second World War, which was soon to erupt. However, Deen’s thesis would almost certainly have been more widely acknowledged had the author published it in a modern language.

The subject of Deen’s work was two vocabularies taken from manuscripts written in Iceland at the end of the 17th century and beginning of the XVIIIth, accompanied by a commentary and a translation. The manuscripts had been made known to Deen by Christianus Cornelius Uhlenbeck (1866-1951), a well-known expert in Basque studies and lecturer at the University of Leiden. They had been discovered by Jón Helgason, professor of Icelandic studies and head of the Bibliotheca Arnamagnaeana at the University of Copenhagen. Using Azkue’s Diccionario vasco-español-francés (1905), Helgason had added German translations and some comments. With good reason, Helgason believed that Uhlenbeck was the right person to continue with the work, and Uhlenbeck then contacted Deen, whom he considered to be a valuable new member of the team. Deen travelled to the Basque Country in 1927 (see our Appendix II below) and studied the manuscripts alongside another well-known expert in Basque studies, Julio de Urquijo (1871-1950), founder and editor of the Revista Internacional de Estudios Vascos. At the end of the prologue, having expressed his thanks to Urquijo, Deen wrote these moving words: “Let us hope that the Basque Country comes back to life, stronger and more beautiful than before, and let us hope that Spain can soon live in peace!” ("Utinam renascatur pulchrius ac fortius Vasconia et bona cum pace iamiam vivat Hispania"). I would add that I, at least, know nothing about the life and works of Deen after 1937.

Deen published these vocabularies in four columns: Basque / Icelandic / German / Spanish. Researchers generally believe that the German translation was carried out by Helgason. The Spanish equivalents are probably a result of collaboration with Uhlenbeck and Urquijo. It is surprising that the thesis is not in the rich library and archive of Urquijo: because of the incommunicaton in war times or because of a theft?

In his thesis Deen provides detailed information about the vocabularies. He says that they were compiled in Vestfirdir (Iceland) in the 17th century, probably by two different people. He adds that nothing is known about their compilers, nor about the people surveyed in order to collect their responses. It is obvious that those who prepared the vocabularies were Icelanders, and that the lists were composed by pointing at the object for which a translation was required. A lot of mistakes had been made during the data-collection process, but this is almost certainly not due to an attitude of carelessness. The words are not in alphabetical order in either language, but it is evident that they have been gathered according to semantic groups (for example: family, household items, etc..) As the compiler, or compilers, were Icelanders, spoken words were written according to Icelandic pronunciation, resulting in strange spellings and words which were sometimes difficult to interpret.

The vocabularies formed two small books of 16 and 10 pages in length respectively. They belonged to the Icelander Ólafsson frá Grunnavík (1705-1779), and when he died they were sent to the Copenhagen library mentioned above. The lists were returned to Iceland 20 years ago, in 1986. However, the original of the second vocabulary was lost, and we have only a copy of it.

2. Fortunately, there are other works available today in addition to Deen's thesis, including an edited version of the vocabularies and some further studies (see Bakker et alii and Oregi in the bibliography). A careful revision of Deen’s thesis has been carried out by Gidor Bilbao and published in the first of those books (see bibliography). Bilbao wisely included a copy of the vocabularies in his work.

3. In terms of the origins of the Basque collaborators, we can confirm what was written by Deen (who was doubtlessly well-advised by Uhlenbeck and Urquijo) and Hualde: they were generally from Lapurdi, in the French Basque Country. Deen correctly mentions the port of Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz), the most important port in the region at that time ("saeculo 17º portus fuit celeberrimus") which is situated very close to the port of Ziburu (we can say that they are the same one). Traditionally, both ports have been the starting-point of many journeys to America (mainly to Newfoundland), Iceland and other areas far away from the Basque Country. In fact, Martin Oihartzabal, who wrote Les voyages aventureux du capitaine Martin de Hoyarsabal, habitant de Çubiburu. Contenant les reigles et enseigments necessaires a la bonne et seure navigation, which was published in 1579 in La Rochelle (although the cover says Bordeaux), was from Ziburu. Almost a century later, in 1677, Pierres Etxeberri, also known as Dorre, from Donibane, translated this book into Basque but with additional information, some of it his own first-hand knowledge. The book was published in Bayonne with the title Itsasoko nabigazionea (meaning 'Maritime n avigation'). The same Etxeberri also produced an important map of Newfoundland. See the artcle of Michael Barkham (Michael Barkham 2003).

Another Etxeberri, first name Joanes, from Ziburu, was a well-known Basque writer. He was the author of three religious books. One of these, Manual debozionezkoa ('Devotional manual'), published in Bordeaux in 1627, was a collection of prayers in verse written for use by sailors during their long voyages. The book included prayers for different situations such as storms, fair weather, setting off from the port, arriving home etc. A sample can bie seen in Selma Barkham 1987, 286.

As Hualde states in the prologue to Gidor Bilbao's edition of Glossaria duo Vasco-Islandica, the name Glossaria Gallica may have been the result of the fact that the sailors were from Donibane and were subjects of the French crown. This does not explain, however, why the second list is entitled Vocabula Biscaica. Hualde also mentions that the second vocabulary contains some Spanish translations, such as boca ('mouth') and hermano ('brother').

Trausti Einarsson (1987) believes that the Basques arrived in Vestfirdir as early as 1604. There are records of a bloody fight between natives and foreigners which took place years later and which resulted in the deaths of 31 people from the Basque Country and France. The well-known poem by Jón Gudmundssson (The Wise), published in Icelandic and translated into Spanish by Selma Barkham 1987 tells this sad story, highlighting the outstanding role of the legendary Martín de Villafranca (see Sigursveinsson’s work in the same book). However, as Helgason points out in the prologue to Deen's work, the vocabulary lists reflect a time of peace, not one of war.

As the presence of the Basques in Iceland is not officially recorded until 1604, this means that the Basques inhabited Newfoundland and Labrador before moving to Iceland.

4. These vocabularies are clearly of great importance to the history of the Basque language. Their size must be taken into account: 519 words in the first list, 228 in the second, and another 11 words in a short supplement. Many of the Basque words in the lists remain a mystery. For example, Tuesday is translated as asterdia. Gidor Bilbao expresses some wariness regarding this word, which is not recorded anywhere else, but I believe that it could be a genuine word which fits well into the linguistic pattern formed by the first three days of the week: asterdia, with its second part erdia, meaning 'half', fits in well between astelehen, 'Monday', with the second part lehen, 'first', and asteazken, 'Wednesday', with the second part azken, 'last' (see Knörr 2000). Other words are more archaic in character, such as episcuba, 'bishop', which in modern Basque is apezpiku, (a cross between apez, 'priest', and ipizpiku, 'bishop'). It is also worth noting that the consecrated wafer is called Januna, < Jaun ona, 'the Good Lord': in other words, 'God'.

There are also some interesting phrases in the second vocabulary which provide good examples of a primitive pidgin language. For example, Presenta for mi berrua usnia eta berria bura (“give me hot milk and fresh butter”) with its Icelandic translation Gefdu mier heita miölk og nyt smiòr. In modern Basque the phrase would be Emaidazu esne beroa eta burra berria. In this phrase the verb presenta appears without an auxiliary. The expression for mi, which is of course derived from the English for me, is also of note. In addition, it is surprising to see the changes in the normal word order (adjective + noun), which does not follow the same pattern as modern Basque, and is more charasteristic of the Germanic languages.

The vocabularies also give, as is the practice in Basque, the definite article with Basque words. If somebody asks how to say, for example, man, in Basque, the answer would be gizona, that is, gizon-a, literally "man-the", with a postposited article. As well as the pidgin phrases already mentioned, there are also short phrases, such as estacit, today spelled ez dakit, 'I do not know', or gekiseite, today jeiki zaite, an imperative meaning 'get up'. In the second list there are also some impolite expressions, as fenicha for ju / liggia dig / coire / coire (where fenicha is for fornica) or gianzu caca / jettu skut / ede excrementum / ede excrementum (the German and Spanish words replaced by the Latin one).


  • Bakker, Peter, et alii. 1991. Basque pidgins in Iceland and Canada. Anejos del Anuario del Seminario de Filología Vasca "Julio de Urquijo", XXIII.
  • Barkham, Michael. 2003. "New documents concerning the French Basque pilot, Martin Hoyarsabal, author of the first detailed rutter of the "New Found Land" (1579)". Newfounland Studies 19:1, 103-131.
  • Barkham, Selma Huxley (ed.). 1987. Itsasoa. 3. Los vascos en el marco Atlántico Norte. Siglos XVI y XVII. San Sebastián. Etor.
  • Bilbao, Gidor (ed.). 1991. "Glossaria duo Vasco-Islandica". Apud Bakker et alii, 11-122.
  • Deen, Nicolaas Gerardus Hendricus. 1937. Glossaria Duo Vasco-Islandica. Amsterdam. H.J. Paris.
  • Einarsson, Trausti, 1987, "Sobre los primeros balleneros vascos en Islandia". Apud Selma Huxley Barkham 1987, 287-288.
  • Gudmundsson, H. 1979. "Um prjú basknesk-íslensk orasöfn frá 17. öld". Apud Ingólfsson, G., 1979, Íslensk mál og almenn máffraedi, Reykjavik, 75-87.
  • Hualde, José Ignacio. 1991. "Icelandic Basque pidgin". Apud Peter Bakker et alii 1991, 123-133. Originally published in Journal of Basque Studies in America 5, 1984, 41-59.
  • Hualde, José Ignacio. 1991. "Foreword to Glossaria duo Vasco-Islandica". Apud Peter Bakker et alii 1991, 13-15.
  • Knörr, Henrike. 1993. "Islandia, la soledad buscada". El Correo and El Diario Vasco, October 31st, 1993.
  • Knörr, Henrike, 2000. “Astronomy and Basque Language”. César Esteban and Juan Antonio Belmonte (eds.): Astronomy and cultural diversity. Oxford VI and SEAC 99. Organismo Autónomo de Museos del Cabildo de Tenerife. La Laguna, 183-193. Also in Fontes Linguae Vasconum 33:3, 2001, 403-415.
  • Oregi, Eneko, with the collaboration of Freyr Sigurjonsson. 1987. "Tres glosarios vasco-islandeses del siglo XVII". Apud Selma Huxley Barkham 1987, 317-336.
  • Sigursveinsson, Sigurur. 1987. "La trágica muerte de Martín de Villafranca". Apud Selma Huxley Barkham 1987, 289-294.


[Letter of Christianus Cornelius Uhlenbeck to Julio de Urquijo.
Julio de Urquijo's Archive, Donostia. Catalog number 9.104.]

Nimègue le 29 Mars 1927

Cher Monsieur de Urquijo,

Veuillez me permettre d'introduire chez Vous un jeune savant, M. N.G.H. Deen, doctorand-ès-lettres qui va étudier le dialecte de Getaria. Comme Vous le verrez, c'est un jeune homme plein d'enthousiasme pour les études linguistiques et ethnographiques. Il ne sait pas encore beaucoup de la langue basque, mais il a la méthode pour parvenir à une profonde connaissance de toute langue à l'étude de laquelle il se consacre. [1]
Avec mes hommages trespectueux à Madame de Urquijo
Votre bien cordialement dévoué

C.C. Uhlenbeck

[1] Deen had published in 1929 "Over taalverwantschap, meeniungen en vragen". Mededeelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenshappen. Afdeling Letterkunde. Amsterdam 1926. Separata, Julio de Urquijo's Archive, Donostia. Catalog number 2.336.]

[Letter of Christianus Cornelius Uhlenbeck to Julio de Urquijo.
Julio de Urquijo's Archive, Donostia. Catalog number 9.104.]

Nÿmegen le 2 Août 1927
Bergendalsale weg 251

Cher Monsieur de Urquijo,

C'était una surprise bien agréable de recevoir Votre aimable lettre hier dans l'après-midi, et je regrette seulement que Vous semble être un peu fatigué, que "se le hace todo cuesta arriba", comme Vous vous exprimez. Cette fatigue ou cette dépression ne sera que temporaire, sans doute, et je me flatte encore de Vous revoir à la Haye, si la date de Votre discours de réception a l'Académie Espagnole Vous permettra de Vous absenter de l'Espagne en Avril l'année prochain. Qu'on Vous a élu membre de l'Académie de Madrid, n'est qu'un acte de justice qu'on vous devait et je la félicite de Vous compter parmi ses membres. Vous pourrez y défendre les droits de Votre noble langue, si belle et originale à la fois.
Je reçois des lettres de M. Deen qui témoignent de son enthousiasme pour le peuple basque –les simples laboureurs et pêcheurs de Guetaría- et pour toutes les questions d'ethnographie et de linguistique qui s'y rattachent. Il m'a écrit aussi que Vous voulez bien Vous intéresser à ses études. J'espère qu'il deviendra un collaborateur régulier de la RIEB.
Vous êtes bien aimable d'avoir traduit mon compte-rendu de "Sprf. & Sprkreise" [1] en espagnol, et je ne crois pas qu'il y ait quelque objection à publier Votre traduction dans la RIEB. Alors Vous voudrez bien m'envoyer les épreuves, comme Vous m'avez déjà proposé. J'y ferai les modifications nécessaires, s'il y en aura.
Je n'ai pas encore reçu le tirage-à-part de mon article sur les noms des parties du corps [2]. Je vous en enverrai un exemplaire aussitôt que possible.
Avec nos hommages les plus respectueux à Madame de Urquijo je reste, comme toujours

Votrre bien amicalement dévoué

C. C. Uhlenbeck

[1] P.W. Schmidt: Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreisen der Erde. Revista Internacional de Estudios Vascos 18, 1927, 546-547. Spanish translation from English by Julio de Urquijo.
[2] "De mit b- anlautenden Körperteilnamen des Baskischen". Festschrift Meinhof, 1927, V, 351-357.

[Letter of Nicolaas Gerardus Hendricus Deen to Julio de Urquijo.
Julio de Urquijo's Archive, Donostia. Catalog number 8.263. We publish the letter as per the original.]

Holanda. Venraij. 17-5-'28.

Muy estimado Señor de Urquijo,

Recibi de Bilbao el diccionario anhelado [1]. Para eso muchas gracias. Como siempre Usted es amabilisimo.
Yo estoy usando mi nuevo diccionario para las glosas vasco-islandesas que ha descubierto en Kopenhagen el Señor Olafsson y que seran enviado a sus señas para la revista.
Este año tengo poco tiempo y encuentro muchos obstaculos. Non obstante acabaré este y otro articulo. El año que viene sara mejor para mis estudios vascophilos.
Mis recuerdos, Señor de Urquijo, desde los paises bajos donde tanto apreciabamos de ver a Usted.
Se sirva Usted de ofrecer mos recuerdos respetuosos a su Señora doña de Urquijo de quien tenia el honor y el gusto inolvidable de hacer el conocimeinto.
Mientras tanto que de Ud. Afmo. S.S.

N,G.H. Deen.

[1] Undoubtly Azkue's Diccionario vasco-español-francés.

Rate: (1 votes)

Basques in Iceland.

Sent by Guillermo Zubiaga at 2009-09-01 19:44
Very interesting article as I have come to expect from this forum.
I have always heard something regarding the Basque-Icelandic pidgin spoken in Iceland in the 17th century.
As the exemplary "for ju mala gissuna" or "normandia chave andia" testimonials, of undeniable Basque imprints, reminds us.
However with respect to " As the presence of the Basques in Iceland is not officially recorded until 1604, this means that the Basques inhabited Newfoundland and Labrador before moving to Iceland.. " I don't think there is any dispute on the validity of this affirmation, nevertheless given the greater geographical closeness of Iceland, as opposed to Newfoundland and Labrador to the Basque coast, is it only logical to consider that Iceland could have indeed been the " springboard" of further Basque whaling westward transatlantic expansion. Moreover, there is the XVIIIth century Napoleon Bonaparte's stateman Joseph Dominique Garat's deposition in conection to a 1412 icelandic chronicle of Grundarfjord accentuating the presence of some 20 basque ships as well as the 1413 Mecia de Vialdeste Carta Catalana or Map clearly illustrating Basques whaling of the coast of Iceland.
Accordingly, in justification for " Basque presence in Iceland not being officially recorded until 1604" I think the discernment lays of the secretive nature of the fisherman who keeps quiet about the source of his catch to protect himself from his competitors in contrast to the public announcement of the voyages made up of explorers and colonists like many other nations in the European tradition.

Eskerrik asko!