The Basques in Iceland (KH)


katharinahauptmann02_dlWhile reading up on the history of the Icelandic language, I came across a rather strange linguistic phenomenon I had never ever heard of before: a Basque-Icelandic pidgin (Basknesk-íslenskt blendingsmál).

What? A pidgin language blending the Icelandic and the Basque languages? This seems like a very unlikely match.

Basque itself is still a mystery and linguists are still trying to figure out its origin. It is defined as a “language isolate,” which means it’s a natural language without any demonstrable relationship with other languages.

And on the other side there is Icelandic, an accumulation of irregular and confusing grammatical rules and a near-isomorphism to Old Norse thanks to its conservatism.

As it turns out, Basque-Icelandic pidgin is not a mix of Basque and Icelandic but a blend of Basque and other languages. Still, an intriguing phenomenon!

Spoken here in Iceland in the 17th century by Basque whale hunters, Basque-Icelandic is even preserved in Icelandic manuscripts of that time.

The lingo consists of words from Basque as well as the Germanic and Romance languages. It is said to originate in the West Fjords because the said manuscripts were discovered there. However, some linguists believe that because the language is heavily influenced by various other European languages, the lingo rather derives from elsewhere and was brought to Iceland by sailors from the Basque Country.

One of the manuscripts is kept at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík and has the quizzical name AM 987 4to. AM 987 4to contains two glossaries called Vocabula Gallica and Vocabula Biscaica. The glossaries show that the Basque words are mixed with Dutch, English, German, French and Spanish.

So what were Basques doing up in the West Fjords in the 17th century?

Icelandic historian Trausti Einarsson believes that the Basques arrived in Iceland as early as 1604. Two Icelandic annals tell that the Basques were hunting whales and catching fish in the area in 1610.

There are apparently records of a bloody fight between the local Icelanders and the foreign fishermen, which took place years later and resulted in the deaths of 31 people from the Basque Country and France. A well-known 16th century poem by Jón Guðmundssson (The Wise) tells exactly this sad story.

One incident, for example, occurred at the fjord Ísarfjarðardjúp, where some of the Basque whalers were killed in a campaign conducted by the local sheriff, Ari Magnússon, to protect the livelihood of the inhabitants.

A third annal claims that three Basque ships were whaling from Strandir in 1608, while another source says that a Basque ship was whaling around Strandir in 1613. The whale hunters from the Basque Country also spent time in Steingrímsfjörður.

Basque whaling in Iceland continued until at least the early 18th century.

Apparently the local fishermen and whale hunters didn’t appreciate the foreign competition, just l as in present day.

Icelanders take the gloves off when it comes to fishing. Beware.

Katharina Hauptmann - [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.