The Basque-Algonquian Language of Canada.

Back in 2014, Buber’s Basque Page reprinted an article that originally appeared in Spanish and Basque on Kondaira’s Facebook page; it describes a remarkable language:

The Basque-Algonquian language is a pidgin that arose for intercommunication between the members of the Mi’kmaq tribe, Innu and other Amerindians with the Basque whalers, cod fishermen, and merchants in Newfoundland, Quebec, the Labrador Peninsula, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Most of its vocabulary consisted of the Micmac, Innu and Basque languages, but also had words from Gascon, since it was the lingua franca of southwest France at the time.

While the Basques were in those waters whaling and fishing cod in the late fourteenth century, it was not until about 1530 that this pidgin was spoken. The Basques established a minimum of nine fishing settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador; the largest could hold 900 people and was in found in what the Basques called Balea Badia (“Whale Bay”), now known as Red Bay (Labrador Peninsula). The French and British sent expeditions to North America, following the routes of the Basque whalers, to explore routes to the Indies shorter than those of the Spanish, as well as to map fishing grounds. The French settled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and began the conquest of North America.

The golden age of Basque-Algonquian would occur between 1580 and 1635. In 1612, Marc Lescarbot, writing in his “Histoire de la Nouvelle France” (History of New France), indicates that the local population spoke a language to communicate with the Europeans which had Basque words. In 1710 there was still evidence of the use of Basque-Algonquian. […]

The result of this pidgin is that the Micmac integrated Basque words into their language. From the Basque word atorra (shirt), the Basque-Algonquian word “atouray” derived and from this the actual Micmac word “atlei”; “king” is said in Micmac as “elegewit” (from the Basque-Algonquian “elege” which, in turn, is from the Basque errege) or, for example, France is called “Plansia” (from the colloquial Basque “Prantzia”).

There are quotes from the period at the link, as well as illustrations and some examples of Basque-Algonquian.


  1. SFReader says

    This language was discussed here, let me count

    MOOSE/ELK II. – › mooseelk-ii
    Oct 27, 2008 – … which comes from Basque oreina “deer” via orignac, the form that the Basque word took on in the Basque-Micmac pidgin used by the Micmac …

    Zut! – › zut
    Jan 11, 2019 – Not actually “broken” (in the sense of “badly learned L2”) but a stable Basque-Mi’kmaq pidgin used up to the late 17C, possibly a bit later.

    MARTIAN SPOKEN THERE. – › martian-spoken-there
    May 3, 2009 – Another is the Basque-Mikmaq pidgin which spread along the coast: French explorers were greeted by a few words of Basque from some of the …

    THE BOOKSHELF: IN THE LAND OF … – › the-bookshelf-in-the-land-of-invented-languages
    May 18, 2009 – … and many of them disappear if those circumstances change (eg the Basque-Micmac pidgin, or Chinook Jargon or “Russenorsk”). I don’t know …

    four times.

    Now five.

  2. David Marjanović says

    the Basques were in those waters whaling and fishing cod in the late fourteenth century

    [citation needed]

  3. Now five.

    It’s got its own post at last!

  4. @David Marjanović: Yeah that bare statement just struck me as bizarre. It’s not necessarily untrue, but if it’s accurate, there’s a really interesting, important, and not widely understood story there.

  5. 1-To my knowledge Micmac is the only indigenous language in North America which has loanwords deriving (directly) from Basque: this strongly suggests that the pidgin was chiefly used by Micmac and Basque speakers, and thus that “Basque-Micmac pidgin” would probably be a more accurate label than “Basque-Algonquian”.

    2-Incidentally, while Micmac and Innu are indeed both Algonquian languages, they are mutually unintelligible and structurally very distinct from one another.

    3-I am a little suspicious of the claim that Gascon words are found in the pidgin: the various Romance varieties found in the vicinity of the Basque country, in the sixteenth century, including Gascon, were all quite similar to one another, and thus tracking back a Romance loanword found in Basque to a given Romance variety is a fairly tricky endeavor.

    4-Finally, “Algonquin” and “Algonquian” have distinct meanings: the latter refers to a language family, and the former refers to a group of Ojibwe dialects mostly spoken in present-day Quebec. Thus, Hat, you might consider amending the title of this blog post accordingly.

  6. Done!

  7. in the late fourteenth century

    If that were “the late fifteenth century”, it might make sense; there’s evidence of Breton and Basque fisherman working off Newfoundland at least by 1510 or thereabouts. This still isn’t clearly before the 1497 voyage of John Cabot, though.

  8. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Wikipedia has a whole article on the history of Basque whaling, which at least quotes three historical sources, however reliable.

    In his History of Brittany (1582), the French jurist and historian Bertrand d’Argentré (1519–1590) was the first to make the claim that the Basques, Bretons, and Normans were the first to reach the New World “before any other people”.The Bordeaux jurist Etienne de Cleirac (1647) made a similar claim, stating that the French Basques, in pursuing whales across the North Atlantic, discovered North America a century before Columbus. The Belgian cetologist Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1878, 1892) repeated such assertions by saying that the Basques, in the year 1372, found the number of whales to increase on approach of the Newfoundland Banks.

  9. Is there any corpus of, or extended document in, Basque-Algonquian pidgin, or is it only attested fragmentarily?

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    The Basques-were-there-before-Cabot theory is pretty old and usually accompanied by “they deliberately failed to mention their discovery of these lucrative fishing/whaling grounds to the rest of Europe because they didn’t want to share them,” which is certainly plausible but of course takes you down a bit of an epistemic rabbithole wherein absence of evidence is not merely not affirmative evidence of absence but somehow evidence of presence. Similarly, if the (plausible) story is that they formed no permanent settlements but just landed occasionally to forage for supplies or maybe sometimes stay the winter if they’d miscalculated when it was time to sail back, it’s not clear to me that you would expect them to have left so many material traces (of the sort that can easily be dated definitively as pre-Cabot v. post-Cabot) that the failure of archeologists to find them thus far (and Newfoundland’s pretty big and no doubt full of nooks and crannies where no one has gone digging) means all that much.

  11. SFReader says

    It’s kind of silly to argue who was there first when we know with absolute certainty that the first European to visit Newfoundland was called Leif Erikson and the year was 1000 AD.

  12. SFReader says

    Anyway, it is clear that Newfoundland was continued to be visited by Norse Greenlanders till 14th century (the colony died out in late 15th century) and Cabot came to the island in 1497 and the first mention of Basques there is 1510, but they might have been there earlier.

    And moreover, Newfoundland (known as Vinland in Europe) was on maps produced by medieval mapmakers for centuries.

    There is a strong possibility that Columbus KNEW about Vinland.

    You see what I am trying to get at?

    Newfoundland was discovered by Europeans in 1000 AD and stayed discovered. It remained in continuous contact with Europe from 11th century till present. Just like Greenland.

    Granted, there might have been occasional breaks when no European ship visited the island for several decades (perhaps in 15th century).

    But there was only one European discovery of Newfoundland – in 1000 AD.

  13. Icelandic -Basque pidgin


    Retained inflectional morphology in pidgins:
    A typological study

  14. Français Tirailleur (FT) is a pidgin language that was spoken by West African
    soldiers and their white officers in the French colonial army approximately 1857-1954.

    Northern Territory pidgins and the origin of Kriol

    Grammaticalization in Russian-Lexifier Pidgins

  15. David Marjanović says

    There is a strong possibility that Columbus KNEW about Vinland.

    You see what I am trying to get at?

    Yes, and that point has been made before. If only it ever got beyond “strong possibility”.

    …How old, actually, is the Basque/Icelandic pidgin…

  16. It’s kind of silly to argue who was there first

    But that’s not what this is about, it’s about how early the Basques were there.

  17. There is a strong possibility that Columbus KNEW about Vinland.

    Then why did he sail so far South of there? And why did he think he could get all the way to India/or at least the Spice Islands? Did he think Vinland was part of the Aleutian chain? Or had news of somewhere so far East in Eurasia not reached Spain/Portugal/Italy?

    And if Columbus knew about Vinland, why would the Basques not know? “the first mention of the use of whales by the Basques came in 1059” sez wp. They’d have hob-nobbed with the Norse explorers over a few beers in Reykjavik.

  18. Trond Engen says

    As I understand it, the idea is that Columbus learned about the northern route to Vinland either from the Basques or from the merchant sailors in Bristol, or both. He got an idea of the outline of the coast further south, or maybe he was able to draw a map, and he calculated the width of the Atlantic, which he got pretty right. He believed that along this coast at the latitude of the Canaries he would find China, since where else would it be? It was known to be at the Eastern edge of the continent and at that latitude. Doing this, he may have underestimated the circumference of the globe or overestimated the width of Eurasia. The former is odd, but he knew what the map told him. The latter is not too farfetched, since nobody could measure longitude reliably yet. He may also have known that by taking the southern route, he travelled with the currents. There had already been expeditions far west from the Iberian coasts.

    But all this is conjecture. Without archaeological finds in America and with no (or only few and unreliable) sources for a continuous tradition, there’s no way to know.

  19. Yes, that’s one of the many conundrums I’ve decided over the years it’s not worthwhile having an opinion on. (When I was younger, I felt obliged to have an opinion on everything.)

  20. When I was younger, I felt obliged to have an opinion on everything.
    Same here. And I would vehemently defend my opinions in discussions on the internet. Now, I rarely bother.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    Yes, everybody knew that there was the world (Eurasia) and Oceanus. Add a globular globe into that worldview and there is only one solution — go there! Running into a spurious continent on the way around to the other side of the known world? Absurd!

  22. SFReader says

    Obviously Columbus didn’t want to go to Vinland.

    What he would it need it for?

    He promised their Catholic Majesties to find route to Cathay and Vinland wasn’t it at all.

    Not sure what he thought Vinland was – maybe Siberia. Did Marko Polo write about Siberia, I forgot?

  23. John Cowan says

    [Columbus] may have underestimated the circumference of the globe

    He definitely did. The ancient Greeks had provided two different figures for the circumference based on local measurements and celestial angles: 240,000 stadia = 39,584 km (Eratosthenes) and 180,000 stadia = 28,260 km (Posidonius); the correct figure is 40,075 km. Ptolemy gave both figures (in different books), but used the smaller figure for his maps, on which Columbus based his assumptions. When he pitched the voyage to the Portuguese, they used the larger figure and realized that no ship of the day could carry supplies for almost 9800 km, the distance from Lisbon to Tianjin (the port of Beijing), so they naturally turned him down. The Spanish had far less experience with long-distance navigation and swallowed Columbus’s story.

    “Columbus did not prove the world was round. What he proved was that it doesn’t matter how wrong you are, as long as you’re lucky.” —Isaac Asimov (from memory)

  24. There were two well-known classical estimates of the size of the globe in Columbus’s time. The earlier, better known, and more accurate one by Eratosthenes was essentially correct. However, there was another estimate (supposedly by Posidonius, although the history of transmission of this estimate is clearly a bit confused) that was about a third smaller. Columbus appear to have been relying on the smaller estimate; his famous disagreement with the geographers at the University of Salamanca was probably about that question.

    (Or what John Cowan said, except that Eratosthenes’s number was 252,000 stadia. Eratosthenes’s book on the subject is lost, but the simplified description of the methods given by Cleomedes yields 250,000, and the reason for the discrepancy is unknown—although I suspect that Eratosthenes probably just used a more precise distance from Alexandria to Aswan than the 5000 stadia stated by Cleomedes.)

  25. David Eddyshaw says
  26. AJP Crown says

    You see what I am trying to get at?

    The Basques were looking for Wales.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    No wonder they became bitter when they only discovered America. I think we have the origin of ETA right there.

  28. Jean Cabot was looking for not l’Amérique but Limérique.

  29. Trond Engen says

    John C.: He definitely did.

    Well, obviously. What I meant was that — if he knew the land was there — he could have made a lower estimate of the circumference based on his own calculations of the width of the Atlantic Ocean. Or, as it were, believed Posidonius’ estimate (which I had forgotten about), since that fit well with his calculations, But he could also have believed, or seen as realistic, that the overland distance to China was large enough for Eratosthenes’ estimate to be correct. Longitude was still notoriously difficult to measure. Or maybe he didn’t know for certain which of the two explanations were correct, but still believed strongly that the coast he knew he would find was the coast of China.

  30. People didn’t have a really reliable idea of how far it was to the orient until Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1497–1499 and the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511. Sea distances can be a little tricky without longitude clocks, but overland travel distances are far worse—notoriously hard to estimate, unless you are careful about mapping your progress all the way. However, there were earlier estimates of the distance to China that were not too far off.

    Crossing the Atlantic was a huge distance for Columbus’s ships to travel without sight of land. When the Pacific was subsequently “discovered” by Balboa, the width of the Atlantic was the benchmark for a long, uninterrupted sea voyage. Magellan and his backers were definitely not expecting the Pacific to be so much vaster yet than the Atlantic. Of course, there were plenty of people who thought the idea of sailing across the Pacific was a terrible idea, and those were probably the people who were taking Eratosthenes’s quoted size of the planet seriously, since by that point the real distance to the Indies was known well enough to make crossing the Pacific a daunting prospect. (In fact, there was still enough unexplored longitude at that time that there could practically been another unknown continent the size of the Americas in the middle of the Pacific, with Atlantic-sized oceans on either side.)

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    Did folks back in those days understand how much narrower the North Atlantic was at higher latitudes because of inter alia how spheres work? The classic Atlantic-crossing airplane route (back when planes couldn’t carry enough fuel for longer runs) was between Gander in Newfoundland and Shannon in Ireland, which is approximately half as long as a Columbus-route flight between Iberia and Hispaniola. Newfoundland’s even closer if you stop off in Iceland, of course. Obviously more recent maritime experience such as that of the Titanic reminds us that the shorter northern route may have some disavantages as well …

  32. @J.W. Brewer: Zuan Chabotto (usually Anglicized to “John Cabot,” or, if not, Italianized to “Giovanni Caboto”) supposedly sold the higher latitude, and thus shorter distance, of his voyages to the New World as an advantage. In reality, he may have only been traveling at those latitudes because he and his connections were already in Bristol. However, they were apparently readily familiar with the sin θ factor in the distance measure.

  33. ktschwarz says

    This language was discussed here, let me count

    Add one more:
    The Real History of the Word Redskin

    Etienne says:
    January 10, 2014 at 12:09 am
    There existed a Basque pidgin used in parts of Eastern Canada (Atlantic Canada, Saint-Lawrence valley) in the sixteenth/early seventeenth century, called Souriquois Jargon. …

    There was a Souriquois word list written down by a Frenchman in a book published in the early 1600s; most of the words were Micmac, but some went unexplained until Peter Bakker identified them as Basque in the late 1980s. This book, Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, is also the first known source in print for caribou and Iroquois.

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