An Unexpected Pidgin Pair
We’re used to hearing about pidgin dialects combining English and another language (for example, Chinese, where the word ‘pidgin’ originated). Potentially any two languages could develop their own pidgin form of speaking. So if you could imagine the most unlikely pairing of languages to create a pidgin, what would it be? How about, say, Icelandic and Basque?
Surprisingly, this really did exist. Whalers from the Basque region of south-western France based themselves in Iceland from the beginning of the 17th century. Despite some conflict (including a massacre of 32 Basques by Icelanders in 1615) a pidgin emerged when their language encountered Icelandic.
Some efforts were made to record the vocabulary of the visiting Basques at the time. Two documents were discovered in 1905 in the University of Copenhagen, listing a collection of words commonly used by the group. It’s not known who the authors were, or why they created the glossaries, which date from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Eventually research on the pidgin was presented in a 1937 doctoral thesis by N. G. H. Deen, a Dutch linguist who complicated matters by publishing his thesis in Latin!
Why were the Basques in Iceland?
The Basques were the first community to develop a substantial and far-reaching industry from whaling. Historians record that they crossed the Atlantic to hunt Right Whales in Labrador and Newfoundland in the 16th century, before arriving in Iceland by 1605.