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Curiosity-driven lexicography in the sixteenth century

The seven weakly codified languages or groups of languages which were singled out for attention in Mithridates, and which were the objects of curiosity-driven fieldwork lexicography in the sixteenth century, were a diverse set, and rather than imposing a single pattern on their diversity, we will discuss them in alphabetical order.


Basque was treated very briefly in Mithridates: ‘I hear that the French in a certain part of Gascony, in the hills which extend to the Pyrenees, speak a language which is completely different from others.’1 The emphasis on the total distinctiveness of this language variety shows that it was Basque and not Gascon which Gessner had in mind, while the absence of further detail suggests that he had not been able to inspect a text in Basque. There was in fact only one printed book in Basque by 1555, the Linguae Vasconumprim- itiae, a collection of poems published by Bernard Dechepare (Benat Etxepare) at Bordeaux in 1545. Two short wordlists had been compiled by 1500; they, and their sixteenth-century successors, were the work of foreign travellers in the Basque country.

The first is a fifteen-word Latin-Basque vocabulary of the twelfth century, compiled by Aymeric Picaud, who had passed through the Basque country on his way to the shrine of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela. He remarked unamiably that when one sees Basque people eating, one would think that they were dogs or pigs, and when one hears them talking, one is reminded of the barking of dogs, for they have an utterly barbarous language.2 (Perhaps this was not as scornful as it sounds: Erasmus, who did not dislike the English, compared the sound of their language to that of the barking of dogs.3) The wordlist follows immediately, presumably to illustrate his point. The first

  • 1 Gessner, Mithridates (1555) fo. 69v, ‘Vascones[.] Gallos audio in quadam parte Vasconiae, in collibus qui a Pyren[a]eis extenduntur, propriam omnino lingua[m] loqui.’
  • 2 [Picaud], Leguide dupelerin 28, ‘Si illos comedere videres, canibus edentibus vel porcis computares. Sique illos loqui audires, canum latrancium memorares. Barbara enim lingua penitus habentur.’
  • 3 Erasmus, Ecclesiastes 5.5: 24 (LB 5: 958), ‘nobis latrare videntur verius quam loqui’; noted without rancour by Lambarde, Dictionarium Angliae 203 ‘our Tongue . . . consistethe of Woordes of one Syllable, a Thing that Erasmus observing . . . callethe our Speache therfore a Dogges Barkinge, baw, waw, waw, &c.’

Small Dictionaries and Curiosity. First edition. John Considine.

© John Considine 2017. First published 2017 by Oxford University Press.

entry is the word for ‘God, given as Urcia; a number of the others have useful senses, such as ‘bread’ and ‘wine’.[1] To do Picaud justice, he did realize that Basque was completely different from any other language known to him, even if he did conceptualize this difference as barbarousness, and he did make out some words of Basque quite accurately. Indeed, he may have taken the trouble to elicit some words, for the form Urcia which he glosses as ‘God’ appears to be ortzi ‘sky’, and this would make sense if he had tried to communicate the concept ‘God’ across a language barrier by pointing to the heavens.[2] The only other wordlist from before the sixteenth century is the little vocabulary of useful Basque words in the pilgrimage narrative of Arnold von Harff. Von Harff’s Basque version of his universal chat-up line is the slightly puzzling schatuwa ne tu so gausa moissa: apparently the first four words must be neskatoa nahi duzu ‘young lady, do you want?’ and gausa m- could be gautzan ‘that we go to bed’, but the final -oissa is obscure.[3]

The first extant Basque wordlist of the sixteenth century was that of the Italian humanist Lucio Marineo Siculo, who taught at Salamanca from the 1480s onwards, and subsequently became historiographer to the kings of Spain.[4] He had written a survey of Spain called De Hispaniae laudibus, published around 1497, in which he had made some bland remarks about the diversity of language varieties in Spain and the pre-eminence of Castilian.[5] Then, at the end of his life, reworking material from this book in his De rebus Hispaniae memorabilibus of 1530, he added a long and interesting new passage ‘On the language of the ancient Spanish people’. This began by reporting that some people say that the language of the people of Spain before the advent of the Romans and Carthaginians had been that which is now used by the Vascones and Cantabri, namely Basque.[6] This language had, like the customs of the Basque country, been preserved by the isolation of the Basque people. Marineo offered his readers ‘a very small first taste’ of it, a Latin-Basque wordlist of thirty-eight basic vocabulary terms, followed by a list of number words.[7] The theory that Basque was the original language of Spain had been in circulation since the previous century, but illustrating it with a wordlist was Marineo’s own idea.[8]

The next person to compile a wordlist of Basque—or at least to oversee the compilation of one—was, like Marineo, an Italian, Niccolo Landucci (Nicolas Landuchio). Little seems to be known about him. His Basque wordlist is the third of a trio, all preserved in the same narrow manuscript volume, 220 mm tall but only 78 mm wide, and all dated 1562. They are a Spanish-Italian ‘Dictionarium Lingue Toscane’ of some 7000 entries, based on the Spanish-Latin dictionary of Nebrija, which identifies its compiler as ‘citizen of Lucca in the region of Tuscany, a man most expert in his mother tongue’; a Spanish-French ‘Dictionarivm Lingue Franconie’ of similar length, with a statement of authorship calling Landucci ‘most expert in his mother tongue, and in French’; and a Spanish-Basque ‘Dictionarium Lingue Cantabrice’ of about 5400 entries, without a statement of authorship or a claim of the compiler’s expertise.[9] This last point is easily explained: Landucci appears not to have known Basque, and the Spanish-Basque wordlist is written in several hands, doubtless those of the literate informants whose work he coordinated.[10] The self-advertisement in the titles of the first two wordlists suggests that the whole volume may have been part of a strategy of self-presentation, perhaps as an administrator capable of dealing with documents in multiple languages rather than as a teacher: the presence of the Spanish-Basque wordlist would in that case be evidence of Landucci’s having the resources to obtain a translation of any spoken or written Basque which he might encounter in his work. The wordlist itself not only reflects an unusual dialect of Basque, from an area where the language was in decline by the sixteenth century, but also a vocabulary more concerned with civic than with rustic life, and therefore full of loanwords from Spanish.[11]

Landucci’s wordlist was more practical and businesslike than those of his predecessor, Marineo, or of his successor, Bonaventura Vulcanius, whose Rotwelsch and Romani wordlists we have already discussed. As we have seen, Vulcanius’ material on Basque was something of a space-filler at the end of the main content of a book on the Germanic languages, and he presented it under the title ‘PARERGON | or | specimen of the Cantabrian language, | that is, | the ancient language of the Basques’, the point of the typography being to disarm criticism by admitting the questionable relevance of his material conspicuously and without delay.[12] Basque, he admitted, was not related to the Germanic languages, but it was a language known to few, and it might reward the attention of those who studied languages.[13] A feature which caught his attention was the presence of French loanwords in Basque: these, he suggested, could be dispensed with, just as French loanwords were unnecessary in his native Flemish.[14] He did not push the analogy further to suggest that the extent to which Basque had been preserved incorrupt from pre-Roman antiquity might support claims like those of Johannes Goropius Becanus that Dutch had a similar historical integrity.[15] Vulcanius went on to present a Basque text of the Lord’s Prayer, with respectful acknowledgement of the Protestant piety of Jeanne de Navarre, who had sponsored the Basque translation of the New Testament from which the text was taken. This was followed by a Basque-Latin wordlist of 101 common words and nineteen number words, based entirely on the wordlist of Marineo and the Basque New Testament; Vulcanius must have studied the latter with reference to the Greek original or a translation into another language, working out what some of the Basque words meant.[16] He claimed to have compiled the wordlist a long time before its publication in 1597. This was not during his residence in Spain between 1559 and 1570, for the Basque New Testament was only published in the following year, so he must have obtained a copy after he left Spain, which can have been no easy matter.[17] The autograph of his wordlist survives, but it does not appear to be dated.[18]

The importance of Vulcanius’ wordlist is not as a record of fieldwork but of keen interest in a language known only from scanty written sources. He was able to think comparatively about Basque, and to see what an unusual language it was, and he expected that the studiosus lector—studiosus means ‘eager’ or even ‘zealous’, not just ‘studious’—whom he addressed in his introductory note might be glad to get some sense of the language, as one does of the lion by seeing its claw.[19] It was indeed from his work that many persons eager for the knowledge of languages must have got a sense of Basque: his printing of the Lord’s Prayer circulated much more widely than the Basque New Testament itself, and passed into numerous polyglot collections, and his wordlist was reprinted by Waser in the revised edition of Gessner’s Mithridates.[20] The zealous interest in language which Vulcanius invokes and represents contrasts with Marineo’s primary interest in Spanish history, and with Landucci’s practically oriented selfpresentation: Vulcanius was, as Toon Van Hal has put it, ‘a genuine language-lover. . . .

Not only is he fascinated by his own vernacular language, but he is also intrigued by radically different languages, such as Basque’.[21] His wordlist stands at the end of the first century in which the love of language might find its expression in lexicography.

  • [1] [Picaud], Le guide du pelerin 28, ‘Deum vocant Urcia, [etc.], discussed Trask, History of Basque44-5.
  • [2] Trask, History of Basque 278-9. 3 Trask, History of Basque 46.
  • [3] 7 For his career, see Rummel, ‘Marineo Siculo’ 701-4.
  • [4] 8 Marineo, De Hispaniae laudibus, fo. 33v.
  • [5] 9 Marineo, De rebus Hispaniae memorabilibus (1533) fo. 20v ‘Primis totius Hispaniae cultoribus et indi-genis usq[ue] ad aduentum Carthaginensiu[m] et Romanorum, qui tunc omnes latine loquebantur, eam
  • [6] linguam fuisse quidam autumant, qua nunc Vascones vtuntur et Cantabri.’
  • [7] Marineo, De rebus Hispaniae memorabilibus (1533) fo. 21r ‘vt vel summis, quod aiunt, labiis antiqu[a]eillius Hispan[a]e linguae gustatiunculam attingamus’.
  • [8] Tavoni, ‘Western Europe’ 56-7.
  • [9] See Landucci, Dictionarium linguae Cantabricae (1958) 15, ‘a nicholao Landuchio ciuitatis Luceregionis Toscaniae sue Varnacule linguae peritissimo’ and 16, ‘vernacule suae Linguae atque FranconicaePeritissimo.’ For the measurements of the manuscript, see Liverani, ‘La lessicografia bilingue’ 142, and forentry count and source of the Spanish-Italian wordlist, ibid. 142 and passim.
  • [10] See Landucci, Dictionarium linguae Cantabricae (1958) 17-18.
  • [11] For the dialect, see Trask, History of Basque 50; for the high proportion of ‘terminos de civilizaciOri,see Landucci, Dictionarium linguae Cantabricae (1958) 47.
  • [12] Vulcanius, De literis et lingua Getarum 89, ‘PARERGON | sive | specimen Cantabricae, | Hoc est, |Veteris Vasconum linguae.
  • [13] Vulcanius, De literis et lingua Getarum 89: although ‘nihil cum eis affinitatis habens’ Basque has beenadded to a book on the Germanic languages ‘ut lingua paucis hactenus nota vel audita innotescat, et studi-osis linguarum diligentius in eam inquirendi fructumque aliquem ex ea percipiendi materiemsuppeditem’.
  • [14] Vulcanius, De literis et lingua Getarum 90, ‘ob multa cum vicinis Gallis commercia, peregrina etiammulta illius gentis vocabula in eam irrepserint. Crediderim tamen eos, si linguam suam excolere velint,perinde ac nos Belgae, nullius externae linguae adminiculo ad omnia animi sensa proprie apteque expli-canda indigere.’
  • [15] For Goropius’ arguments in brief, see Considine, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe 142-3; muchfuller is Van Hal, Moedertalen en taalmoeders’ 77-139 (English summary ibid. 584-5) and Frederickx andVan Hal, Johannes Goropius Becanus 124-59.
  • [16] Vulcanius, De literis et lingua Getarum 92 (Lord’s Prayer) and 96 (wordlist); for the sources of thelatter see Oroz Arizcuren, ‘Lucubraciuncula’ 343.
  • [17] Vulcanius, De literis et lingua Getarum 91, ‘cum Indice vocabulorum aliquot Cantabricorum quae inmeum vsum studiose iamdudum collegeram’.
  • [18] There is a brief description in [Molhuysen], Codices Vulcaniani 51.
  • [19] Vulcanius, De literis et lingua Getarum 91, ‘e quibus Studiose Lector velut ex vngue de tota linguaiudicare possis’.
  • [20] For the Lord’s Prayer, see Oroz Arizcuren, ‘Vicisitudes de un Padrenuestro’, esp. 10; for the reprintedwordlist, see Gessner, Mithridates (1610) fos. 135r-136r.
  • [21] Van Hal, ‘Vulcanius and his network’ 392.
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