File under “weird coincidences”: last week I posted about my new copy of Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe, and the first comment said “Any encyclopaedia that gives due coverage to Basque-Icelandic pidgin must be respected as comprehensive.” Then my online pal (and occasional commenter) kattullus came to visit Friday and told me about a Basque-Icelandic dictionary from hundreds of years ago; just now he e-mailed me some links, and I am duly passing them on to you.

Here is a brief description, with examples (at Luistxo Fernandez’s wonderful GeoNative site, which focuses on “minorities, little nations and native cultures” and specializes in toponymy—here‘s the main list of tables); here are “summaries of the lectures at a conference on the slaying of Spaniards in the West fjords in 1615,” one of which is on the bilingual vocabularies; and here is the meatiest of them as far as I’m concerned, a detailed discussion by Henrike Knörr of the vocabularies and what I gather was their initial publication:

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. […] Deen travelled to the Basque Country in 1927 […] and studied the manuscripts […] 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. […] 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?…

Moral: do not publish your scholarship in a dead language, especially when the world is convulsed with war (I’m reminded of the saga of the Persian-Russian dictionary I recounted here). Also, people who steal books from libraries should be publicly flogged.


  1. I can’t agree enough about library thieves, and if this doesn’t qualify as the most esoteric European language *evar*, I’d very much like to read about other candidates for the title.

  2. Latin was still probably more widely spoken then than Basque or Icelandic… I believe that after pre-war attempts to make it in linguistics Deen worked as a translator and editor, but I coudl be wrong.

  3. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Perhaps, before WWII, Latin was not more widely spoken than Basque or Icelandic (unless we take into consideration its use as the leading language of liturgy in the Catholic Church until the early 1970s), but for sure, prior to 1939, more was written and published in Latin than Basque or Icelandic. Until the mid-1930s, it was a must for a scholar (esp. in the humanities) in Central Europe to have a working knowledge of Latin. And the Prussian/German-style gymnasium, developed in the early 19th century, and popular across Central Europe, did provide for this need well.

  4. And as for the obligatory off topic-comment: I’ve never seen it spelled De Hague before. Is that a typo, is he trying to be more dutch than the dutch themselves, or has anyone actually seen it before?
    Most google hits turn up unrelated spanish pages and mixed dutch/english pages.

  5. Good catch! I’m pretty sure it was just a product of trying to write in a foreign language he knew well but not perfectly; he knew that Haag was “Hague” in English but forgot to change the article.

  6. The city’s name is “Den Haag”, although generally pronounced without the N. So the article was changed, somewhere along the line.

  7. Completely OT, but the Wiki pages on Chinglish and Hong Kong English were written by a prescriptive grammarian, whereas the Singlish wiki recognizes Singlish as a creole.

  8. Once upon a time, the duke of Courland acquired an
    African colony. I used to wonder about the Estonian-Kru pidgin, but the Basque-Icelandic sure beats it!

  9. I doubt anyone involved with the colony spoke Estonian, which was pretty much a peasant language; the rulers of Courland (as of most of the Baltic region) were German, and I’m pretty sure that’s what any ambitious locals in Jacob Fort would have learned.

  10. Levi-
    In addition to what languagehat said about the Baltic Germans, Courland is Latvian territory, not Estonian, so the inhabitants would have spoken Curonian, a Baltic Indo-European language, rather than Estonian, a Finno-Ugric language. Some inhabitants also spoke (and still today speak) Livonian, which is Finno-Ugric, but still not Estonian.

  11. Duh, of course it should be Latvian!
    *slaps self*

  12. You of all people, Steve.
    Moving is very stressful, we know.

  13. “Also, people who steal books from libraries should be publicly flogged.”
    I’m guilty.
    In my defence, though, it was a copy of Aku-Aku by Thor Heyerdahl, and it was languishing in a high-school library. It hadn’t been checked out a single time in its 70-year life at the school! I just wanted to give it a good home!
    …Then I discovered I already had a copy at home, and I snuck it back into the library a month later. No one noticed.

  14. You’re forgiven. And I have to confess that I almost stole a first edition of a Pound book from the uncaring shelves of a school library for the same reason. In fact, sometimes I still regret not having done so; it’s surely landfill by now.

  15. David Marjanović says

    It was a relatively small work of just 135 pages in length.

    I couldn’t have kept writing in Latin for longer either.
    In Vienna, there are people who don’t so much steal from the university’s geosciences library as borrow stuff and keep it for months on end. But I suppose the joke goes “In Soviet Russia, library thieves flog YOU!” We are talking about professors — the only mortals allowed to borrow stuff from that library across its workdays, and almighty to boot.

  16. Oh, it’s perfectly normal for professors to keep books out for months on end—are there countries where they don’t do that? But at least with professors you can knock timidly on their office doors and ask, very politely, if there’s a chance you might get to look at the book in question…

  17. 1-Hat, I am, as my students would put it, SO with you when it comes to the punishment library book thieves deserve.
    2- In answer to David, here’s my candidate for the title “Most esoteric European language ever”: Errumantxela, the mixed Basque-Romani (basically Romani lexicon and Basque morphosyntax) language. There’s something almost poetically appropriate about there having existed a mixed language combining Europe’s oldest and youngest languages together (that each is considered highly “exotic/esoteric” in its own right does make the mixed product doubly interesting).

  18. And probably it isn’t Kru either. Just the idea of some two minor languages, as unrelated as can be. As for German, who would talk to the locals? The captains or the sailors? Not that I have any knowledge whether the sailors would be local lower class, generic seamen (Hansa, Scandinavian) or middle class adventurers.
    I think I meant a “Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections” —
    at least starts with some Baltic Finno-Ugrian

  19. David Marjanović says

    Oh, it’s perfectly normal for professors to keep books out for months on end—are there countries where they don’t do that?

    No idea.

    Errumantxela, the mixed Basque-Romani (basically Romani lexicon and Basque morphosyntax) language.

    That must be the one for the True Insiders. 😮

  20. Here’s a link to Deen’s thesis.

    In 2018 a book was published on several Dutch linguists specialized in Basque, among which Deen and Uhlenbeck (who was related to the famous theoretical physicist George Uhlenbeck by the way).

    This page provides an English overview of the book.

  21. David L. Gold says

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