Basque Onomastics of the Eighth to Sixteenth Centuries

With grateful thanks to Tara Patterson, Best Library Tech Ever
(known in the Current Middle Ages as Lady Angharad MacIvar of Stirling)

Who are the Basques? Where are they from?

The Basques are an ethnic group based largely around the western end of the Pyrenees mountain range, on both the French and Spanish sides of the border. The Basque language, known as Euskara, is related to the earlier Aquitanian language, thought to pre-date the Roman occupations of western Europe; ia few words in Aquitanian (for the most part, proper names) appear on stonecarvings dating to the Roman era. Euskaltzaindia identifies a few Basque names that derive from words present on these stones (see Appendix 4).

The 1991 census recorded about 660,000 Basque speakers, of whom less than 80,000 were on the French side of the Pyrenees (Trask, "FAQs About Basque and the Basques"). Trask additionally writes that

In the Middle Ages [the Basque language] was spoken throughout the entire territory of the Basque Country, the region which is historically, ethnically, and culturally Basque. This includes the four Spanish provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Alava, and Navarra, as well as the three former French provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule (now officially obliterated and incorporated into the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantique). In the early Middle Ages Basque was also spoken in the Spanish province of Burgos and in adjoining parts of the Rioja, and it was spoken in the Pyrenees as far east as the valley of Arán, in territory which is Catalan-speaking today. In Roman times the language was spoken throughout southwestern Gaul (France), as far north as the Garonne. ("FAQs")

This paper focuses on the names of Basques in the Spanish provinces between the 8th and 16th centuries.

Given Names

Of the Basque given names listed in Appendix 1, only a few are considered to be uniquely of Basque origin; the rest are adopted from other cultures which influenced the region, including Latin, Castilian, Catalonian, and even Arabic.

One can group the given names into a few different types by meaning:

The use of the -ko diminutive suffix appears regularly, both in unique names not seen without the suffix (such as Eneko, Obeko, Samurko) and in combination with other names. But there are other names of Basque origin that are not so easily defined; see Appendix 1 for several examples.

The spellings listed above are in modern Basque; for spellings documented to before the 17th century, see Appendix 1. Also recorded in Appendix 1 are Latin and Romance variants that appear in records of the times.


Gorrochategui classifies Basque bynames in three categories: patronyms, locatives, and cognomens, which are discussed separately below and in further detail in the appendices.


Patronymic bynames incorporate the name of the individual's father. See Appendix 1 for patronyms sorted by the given names from which they are derived. Metronyms -- that is, bynames incorporating the name of the individual's mother -- appear less frequently than patronyms, but are not vanishingly rare by any means.

Asyndetic patronyms -- that is, unmarked, or those without any suffix -- also appear in medieval records. These may confuse the reader who might otherwise see such names as an example of an individual with two given names:

Enneco blasco, filiio de Blasco Jonti. (Diez Melcon 74)

(Filio, which appears in several spellings in this Abstract, is a medieval Spanish word meaning "son," from the Latin filius; the changes in Spanish spelling and pronunciation over the subsequent centuries has changes the word to the modern hijo.)

The most common patronymic suffix (following about the 10th century) is -az, -ez, -iz, -oz, or -uz. Pablo Pedro de Starloa, in 1803, wrote that "Cuando formaban los Vascongados sus apellidos de los nombres de sus abuelos, bisabuelos, o tatarabuelos, usaban la terminación adverbial -ez, o -z según lo exigía el nombre" (cited in Diez Melcon 128) -- when the Basques formed their surnames from the names of their grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-grandparents, they used the adverbial suffix -ez, or -z according to what the name demanded. But medieval usage, in any case, would indicate that the basis of these names was that of the individual's parent, as demonstrated in the following examples:

Pero Yeneguez y su hermano Miguel, fyios de Yenego. (LaCarra, "Onomástica vasca," 249)

Martin Periz, fi de Pero Semeniz. (Carrasco Perez VIII.A.5.1)

Ssemen Lopiz fillo de Lop Andia. (Arzamendi s.n. andi)

Garcia Ortiz, filius Orti Belza. (Jimeno Jurio Doc 116)

As Diez Melcon discusses, however, the use of these suffixes may derive from any number of cultures that influenced Iberian onomastics, and proposes that it may have come from Latin, pre-Roman, Gothic, Celtic, Iberian, Indo-European, and Arabic. Gorrochategui agrees, writing that the use of this group of suffixes "is not exclusive to the Basque region, but is general to Spanish Romance [languages] and the origin of the majority of present-day Spanish surnames" (749).

Another suffix which occurs in some Basque bynames is -(r)ena. Michelena defines as meaning "la [casa] de" (208) -- the [house] of. But Gorrochategui disagrees:

The purely Basque form of indicating filiation is to use the gen. Basque possessive -(r)en, as in Garcea Ansorena (Ir. 315, a. 1247) 'the (son) of Sancho' or frequent present-day surnames such as Michelena, literally 'he of Michael'. The formula has also been used to indicate filiation with regard to the mother's name, e.g. Sanso Urraquarena (Ir. 105, 14th c.), literally 'he of Urraca'. This is an ellipsis of the word for 'son', seme, in the complete Basque phrase XX-ren seme-a, 'the son of XX', (still prevailing in Lope iaun Oritre semea [Ir. 123, circa 1125] 'Lope, son of mister Orti' with the ancient gen. sg. form -[r]e) thereby obtaining the sequence (r)en + a. (749)


Appendix 2 covers different varieties of locative bynames -- toponyms (which use a place-name) as well as topographical bynames (which provide a more general description of topographical features of the person's home).

Because, for the most part, the Basque names in pre-17th century records are expressed in Latin or Spanish, the more common form of the locative bynames is simply the word "de" followed by the name of the area. (Because a discussion of Basque place names and their origins is beyond the scope of this paper, refer to Arzamendi, Diez Melcon, Gorrochategui, or Michelena for their discussions of this subject; the Euskaltzaindia website also covers this in some detail, and The Whole Basque Place-Name List lists the modern Basque, Spanish, and French spellings.)

The Basque toponymic form uses the place-name and then the suffix -ko, which in this case means "of"; Section A of Appendix 2 lists many of the toponyms in this form. The letter K was used rarely in medieval Spanish, and Basque orthography was unstandardized before the 20th century, so the suffix -ko appears in period records -co or -quo.

Section B of Appendix 2 covers the range of topographical bynames relating to trees, which seem to be more prevalent than topographical bynames relating to other generic topographical features, as described in Section C of Appendix 2.


Gorrochategui refers to the range of bynames that are neither patronymic nor locative as "cognomens" (748), a group which would cover the English classifications of Surnames of Occupation or Office, and Nicknames (Reaney & Wilson xiv). Some pre-17th century examples are listed in Appendix 3, further organized by types -- color-names, animal-names, etc. -- with the cognomen's meaning.

Family members did not necessarily inherit cognomens, as indicated by 12th century documents in Jimeno Jurio's collection of documents from medieval Artaxona:

Lope Zuria filius Sanso Andia. (Doc. 91)

Sancius Ezquerra, frater Orti Musco [...] Petrus Macua, filius Sansa Leuna. (Doc. 97)

Lope Zuria, filius Sanso Andia, firme. (Doc. 104)


Depending on the period and location (and in some cases, varying from one part of a document to another), different combinations of names are seen. The following are the only combinations of names seen in Basque onomastics:

It is hoped that those who are interested in creating a Basque persona will find this paper useful for finding a desirable and appropriate combination of names to use in the SCA.

On Orthography and Pronunciation

There is very little written Basque surviving from before the 17th century. There is, for example, the letter written by Fray Juan de Zumarraga to his nephew's mother-in-law in 1537, the oldest known written correspondence in the Basque language. He apparently dictated much of the letter, which was written in Spanish, and then wrote a passage himself, acknowledging that "Para que se alegre vuestra merced he escripto en el lenguage olvidado e no como yo quisiera como pude" -- to cheer you up, I have written in the forgotten language, not as well as I would have liked to, but as well as I could have -- though the intention was not so much sentimentality as to encode a message he did not want read by the Spanish-speaking clergy. (See "Buber's Basque Page: The Oldest Letter in Basque" for the text and translation.)

Basque orthography was not standardized until the first half of the 20th century, with the publication of the first complete Basque-Spanish dictionaries. The linguistic mandates imposed by Franco-era Spain nearly obliterated the language, and it has only been since the end of that era that study of the language could resume.

The records from which these names come are either in Latin (primarily those records from the eighth to the twelfth centuries) or Castilian Spanish (for the most part, those records from the 12th-16th centuries). The spellings of names presented in the appendices represent a sort of "best guess" scenario, in which the authors had attempted to express the sounds of the Basque names within the framework of the idiom in which they were writing (see Appendix 5 for more information about "best guess" spelling).

The names presented in Appendix 1 are sorted by the modern Basque spelling of the name, which is not always a period spelling of the name (unless otherwise indicated).

In many cases, we find patterns of usage of one particular group of letters in medieval records for a group of letters used in modern Basque:

G hard G, K, or unpronounced
(variation depends on regional dialect and where it appears in the word)
G, C, K, QU, or omission
J CH (as Scottish loch), Y, J
(variation depends on regional dialect)
I, J
K K C (a hard C, as opposed to the soft Ç), CH, Qu, G, GU, or CH; K appears in some records, more often in Latin
(King describes it as "emphatic ... almost lisped")
TS, TZ TS Ç, Z, C (presumably soft), CH

There are also several letters which are transposed in various names -- most frequently Y/I/J and B/V/U -- though this is an element of medieval orthography throughout most of western Europe. Other transposition combinations are more common to Iberian languages in general -- R/L, for example -- and some seem more directly related to elements of Basque pronunciation, such as B/P or S/X, or the disappearance of the letter N in some names (see Gorrochategui's thoughts on palatization and other variations, and Trask's "Pronunciation and Change").

It should be noted that the pronunciation of names in the appendices therefore might not necessarily follow the modern Basque pronunciation, but rather utilizes the "best guess" system and could be pronounced using the Latin or Spanish orthography to guide towards what may have been the original Basque pronounciation of the names. (See Larry Trask's articles on the Basque language for further information about Basque pronunciation and its evolution.)