"Rudolf de Rijk" library

The headquarters of the "Rudolf de Rijk" library is located at the Institute of Euskara. The library was donated by his widow

Rudolf de Rijk: A Friend of the Basques from Holland (1937-2003)

On reaching the street where the well-known linguist Rudolf Pieter Gerardus de Rijk lived, one could not miss his house. Newton Street, with its unassuming houses, much smaller than those we are used to at home. One could see behind a small window in a front door in that little street, I guess you can still see it now, a Basque flag poking out: it looked like a consulate of the Basque Country. That gave the impression that there was someone there with close links to the Basque Country, which told you where you might find the friend of the Basques from Holland. Because that was R. de Rijk's house, and because he was, to some extent for sure, our consulate.

Unfortunately, since I received word of his illness, I opened that door with its Basque flag on more than one occasion. I always asked myself, since I first visited that house many years ago, how both of them, husband and wife Rudolf and Virginia, would cope there if they ever got too old or incapacitated. For once you stepped inside that door you came face-to-face with one thing, right there waiting for you, a vertical staircase, completely upright, as if it were saying "come on up!"

Generally speaking Dutch houses maintain that kind of tradition, it was explained to me when I showed surprise at that staircase, which comes from many years of seeking to reclaim land from the sea: because they have so little room to play with, it is said they build small houses and those tiny abodes must apparently have staircases which are as narrow and upright and as possible, like those on ships. So that staircase first had 16 steps, and then another 15 immediately at the top of the stairs which were like short prongs that were just enough to fit one's legs onto, which had to be navigated if you wanted to reach the couple's living area. There were two more living areas underneath the stairs, I don't know who lived there, and once you made it upstairs, that's where the De Rijk family's house began: that floor, and another two, always upwards. Towering then, and one might think that any house which had so many stairs and floors would be something akin to a manor house: but that was not the case; it's a small house, a little apartment, no more. And a foreign linguist who knew Basque extremely well lived there, someone whose great work has always made him one of us. Sadly, Rudolf de Rijk did not get the chance to grow old, and for that reason I don't know how he might have coped living in that house once he got older or if he would have been incapacitated, but I'd still love to know how he would have negotiated those damned stairs.

Rudolf de Rijk was from Amsterdam; he was born and died there. And there, amongst Vermeer's soft lights, he spent most of his life, with the exception of a period studying linguistics in the United States. From there, he visited the Basque Country frequently, as we were all able to witness.

Why, then, did he visit so much? Why did both of them, Virginia and him, come to our region?

They say coincidences condition life and that many times we don't know why things turn out like they do, that we are just the product of certain chance events resulting from stumbling across one another. Something like that happened to Rudolf de Rijk. From an early age he wanted to travel all over: at that time, perhaps easier than now, you could travel around by just heading out on the road and getting a driver to take pity on you, and that's what Rudolf did once when he wanted to go to southern Spain. On his return, he stopped off in Donostia and there he apparently saw, in a flash, something written in Basque. He didn't know at the time which language those letters were in, but he did realise, having a keen interest in languages, that this was not Spanish or French, that it was something else. When he asked about it, someone there told him it was Basque. And that same afternoon he bought a grammar he saw in a bookshop by Lopez de Mendizabal, returning to Amsterdam with it under his arm. Later, having seen that city in the Basque Country for the first time, he would return to Donostia time and time again throughout his life. On one of those early visits he met another young man hitchhiking alongside the road, Juan Mari Zulaika, and thereafter they shared many years of friendship. By that time, he had already begun to make that strange language his own.

He first studied the language in a Jesuit school: from this time on he enjoyed a long friendship with a Jesuit priest, even though he didn't consider himself Catholic, at least that's what I think. Once, when I was at that house, I met the priest. After those initial studies at the Jesuit school he finished up his bachelor's degree at the University of Amsterdam and completed some further doctoral studies, equivalent to a master's. Although we know him here as a linguist and Bascologist, all of those studies were linked to mathematics, astronomy and physics, yet when he did his "Doctoraalexamen", he also touched on general linguistics.

At the time, a student in the educational system at that university had to make a choice (now, as a result of the European Union, this is all changing): which studies they wanted to concentrate most on in their studies, what was termed the major, and which would be of secondary importance. De Rijk, as I noted, chose mathematics and physics as his major, leaving linguistics as his minor subject, even though he also wanted to concentrate on this. There is an easy and understandable explanation for this decision. Those of us who had the opportunity to know De Rijk know full well that he found it difficult when it came to speaking, because words didn't come easily to him and because it looked like the words were asking him for permission to come out, as if they were searching for some kind of freedom. This embarrassed him to some extent and that's why he didn't do another major in French at that time: he didn't dare do the French exam in front of people.

This desire to get more into linguistics would be resolved a few years later when he went to study in the United States at MIT near Boston. He spent several years there undertaking studies on generative grammar under Chomsky and alongside many now well-known linguists who were beginning to make a name for themselves at that time. And he defended his doctoral thesis there, directed by Professor Ken Hale, on Basque relative clauses, although he also had to spend an extended amount of time in Holland when his mother's illness compelled him to return. That thesis he defended (Studies in Basque Syntax: Relative Clauses) is a copious and not lightly undertaken work: even though it was published much later, specifically in 1998, it remains the first detailed study of Basque relative clauses. To tell the truth, it would have been difficult for R. de Rijk to find anyone more appropriate than Ken Hale to direct his doctoral thesis: Ken Hale spoke numerous languages, possessing a naturally ability to do so, and among those he had a special affinity for minority languages: he once observed that, "When you lose a language It's like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre." Sadly, our beloved Ken Hale passed away young and later R. de Rijk was also taken from us as a result of a form of cancer. It was Rudolf who told me of the death of the former, a couple of years ago, when he called me at home in the late afternoon one day: "Ken died an hour ago," he told me. He was disconsolate.

After finishing his studies at MIT he taught several courses at different places, including a brief stint at the University of Chicago during the 1970-1971 academic year, but immediately thereafter he returned to Holland, first to the Psycholinguistic Laboratory at the University of Amsterdam in 1973 and then to Leiden University, from 1977 onwards, in the Comparative Linguistics Department. He remained there until he retired in 2002, and even after retirement, he carried on working as an emeritus professor in the newly termed Linguistics Department.

Before he was initially hired by the University of Amsterdam he had already published a number of articles. The first of these, translated together with Mari Karmen Garmendia, was part of the diary of Anne Frank and appeared in the journal Egan in 1962. He was twenty-five at the time and already fully devoted to Basque matters. Rudolf the Bascologist was going through a period of change at the time because he would still publish an article about algebra during the next year. Significantly, however, among the work he published in the months that followed were two book reviews [1]: Mitxelena's Fonética Histórica Vasca and E. Bach's An Introduction to Transformational Grammar. I say this is significant because the contents of these two books represent better than any others De Rijk's main interests at that time: he pretty much realised, even from an outside perspective, that Mitxelena's work was an important milestone in research on Basque. Indeed, he confesses as much in his review of the book. And this interest, that is, analysing the approach of a philologist of the Basque language, was a constant companion of his until his death. The second book is a good example of another interest of his regarding his approach to theoretical linguistics, although one that was of gradually less interest in the years that followed.

These years were marked by some of his key works on Basque syntax and phonology: to mention just a few, they included "Is Basque an SOV language?"; "Vowel Interaction in Biscayan Basque"; "Relative Clauses in Basque: a Guided Tour"; his doctoral thesis, which remained unpublished for many years; and "Partitive Assignment in Basque". In these he touches on several topics in the field of Basque syntax: Basque word order; relative clauses; partitive structures, etc. Moreover, he also specifies the fundamental phonological rules behind words that seem so different on the surface. From the outset, one sees his method and style of working on linguistic subjects: he looks for precise data; he knows Basque literature, knows what it is about, and his reasoning is clearly argued, always taking into account linguistic theory, explaining precisely what needs to be said and leaving out what need not be said. He had a special gift for undertaking analyses. De Rijk was like that, the greatest foreign Bascologist. And I think I must say this because I get the impression that nowadays people start out from other directions in many works, and that sometimes we drive ourselves mad with data, almost lost in the confusion. We're not capable of finding the system that lies behind that data. And the worst thing is that often we don't even try.

During one of those years, in 1972, he taught a summer school course for the first time in Reno, and he taught others in the following years. That's where he met Virginia. Once, Virginia came to spend a month in Amsterdam and when it came to going back to America she missed her flight. She spent another two months in Amsterdam but was not sure about getting married until Rudolf asked her straight out: "Am I not enough for you?" In 1979 they got married.

Rudolf De Rijk was like that: modest, if anyone was modest it was him, a humble man. He welcomed people into his home with open arms. There was always a room there for anyone who wanted to visit: he would bring out some cheese, and wine, and put on some Basque music to listen to. And if you ever made the mistake of saying that you liked a certain kind of dessert he would take you to the best place in Amsterdam for it, even if it meant taking three or four buses to get there because neither he nor his wife had a driving license. Of course, the questions started straightaway: "And how do you say that in Baztan?" "And so-and-so uses this form on that page, and it seems a little strange to me. Do you know anything about this?" That's how you realised that he knew everyone, contemporary writers and those of the past (mostly those of the past) and he was completely comfortable dealing with either Zuberoan or Bizkaian examples. The questions would continue while were in Amsterdam, and later, after returning home, he rang me virtually every week, mostly on Saturday mornings because he'd been held up waiting for an answer to his questions. I know he was also the same way with several other friends of his in the Basque Country.

A hard-worker, a man of few words, an expert on Basque topics. That was how he was to his dying day. And, also to his dying day, he never fully understood why we Basques were so especially interested in the work he did, he couldn't comprehend why that might be so.

I first met him on a rainy day in Donostia in 1979. That's when I saw him for the first time, in a lecture organised by the University of Deusto at its campus there: at the time there was great interest in studying new avenues in Basque linguistics and literature. I will never ever forget the effect that lecture had on me. There were not a lot of people there, but still more than one would see nowadays in a normal lecture: opposite me there was a man, a foreigner, who had a charming way of speaking Basque, although that afternoon as ever the words were asking him permission to leave his mouth. He gave examples equally from different Basque dialects and quoted different authors. It seemed impossible to me. By that time he had already published some other work, on the predicate, and on topics or the problem of the galdegaia, the focus of questions.

Some years later, when I had finished my doctoral thesis, Mitxelena asked me what I thought about Rudolf de Rijk being part of the doctoral committee. "Absolutely great", I replied, but "How terrifying!" I thought to myself, even though I never said as much, of course. Because looking across at five people on the committee always provokes, if not fear, definitely respect. And if one of those people was Rudolf de Rijk, who I had met at the lecture, that fear respect was even more intense. This being the case, in the summer of 1983 I took my thesis to his home, to Holland. He welcomed me warmly and we went, with our respective spouses, to have dinner in a Chinese restaurant, specifically in an area known as the "red light district" right in the centre of the city: "It's one of the best ones" he explained. There was some Chinese writing on the walls and after ordering the food he began reading and translating it into Basque. When the waitress came, he also struck up a conversation with her, and I was amazed that he also spoke some Chinese. "A little yes, but what the waitress speaks and what's on the wall over there isn't the same thing, because she speaks Cantonese but it's Mandarin on the wall, and they're quite different from one another". He told me that very matter-of-factly, as if such a distinction there in the red light district of Amsterdam was the most natural thing in the world. Indeed, it was no bother at all for him to speak English, Spanish, French, Basque, Hebrew or German. And, if necessary, his Czech was not too bad.

By the time it came for him to be on my doctoral committee for the thesis defence I was less afraid, and I was even calmer after taking with him on the eve of the defence in his hotel room: he had made notes throughout the whole thesis, line by line, and he had many suggestions. He gave me all these, "for when I published the thesis, if I was interested". However, the following day, during the public act, he spoke at length in order to report that the thesis had been prepared and written perfectly, and he didn't even mention one of the notes he'd made, unless to say something constructive.

At that time the grammar committee of Euskaltzaindia (the Royal Academy of the Basque Language) had also just been established and we were working on our first book, with Lafitte heading the committee. I think Rudolf de Rijk too, during those years, began to think about a new Basque grammar he wanted to write. He was teaching Basque at university to a group of students and he didn't like the material he'd got a hold of for his class. And that's why he started to think about that grammar. He even wrote the first few chapters, in Dutch. He undertook this work of grammar, of course, together with several other works: Basque morphology, relative clauses as used by old writers, typology, Basque and universal grammar, place names, treatments in Basque, a study of several adverbs, Etxepare's verses and antipassives in Basque, to cite some of these. He did a great deal of work on these subjects, which was published in several languages. Together with all this he also supervised a doctoral thesis (for example, by X. Altzibar), even having time to critique the OEH (Orotariko Euskal Hiztegia, General Basque dictionary) and EGLU (Euskal gramatika lehen urratsak, First steps of Basque grammar), and he came faithfully, whenever he could, to teach a course, offer a lecture, or do anything he was asked relating to Basque. That's why Euskaltzaindia decided to name him an honourable member of the academy in 1991. Indeed, De Rijk therefore carried on a tradition established years before by his fellow countrymen Van Eys eta Uhlenbeck, linguists and Bascophiles, or the less well-known Nicolaas G. H. Deen.

A year and a half ago, more or less, he called me one Saturday morning as usual: he wanted to know how an adverb was used in Baztan. It was a brief conversation, more abrupt than other times. At the end I asked him "How are you? How are things going? How is that grammar?" And he replied "I'm alive" and that the grammar was coming along little-by-little. With that I mean that the grammar was only slowly coming along, which was nothing new because I knew R. de Rijk wasn't particularly adept at putting things down on paper quickly without thinking long and hard beforehand how to do so. However, I didn't expect the letter that arrived at my home a few days later:

Dear friend,

It's been twenty years since we first met, and I reckon we've become friends since then.

However, before on the phone when you asked me "how are you" or whatever, I answered "I'm alive" without telling you the whole truth.

Please forgive me. On the one hand, bad news always arrives too early, and on the other, I prefer my friends and acquaintances to know.

This is the situation: for the moment I'm alive, yes, but I've got pancreatic cancer; the doctors only give me two or three months at best.

I've begun chemotherapy, but apparently not even that will extend my life that much.

I'm religious and that helps me a lot to be at peace during all this.

As regards Virginia, however, you'll easily see how unpleasant and tough what's happening to me is.

Before finishing, I'd like to thank you for all the friendship you've shown me down the years. It's always been a source of joy to both of us, Virginia and me.

Perhaps there'll be another opportunity to chat by phone.

From the heart

From Rudolf de Rijk

That handwritten letter didn't wasn't dated. And that's quite amazing bearing in mind how careful Rudolf was about such things. It's also true that time had lost its meaning for him. This was September 2002, if I recall, just after the holidays. You can imagine my reaction. No one really knows what the best thing to do is in such a situation, and after thinking about it I picked up the phone the next morning. He answered straightway. I found him devastated, but full of energy at the same time: "I think I'll be able to finish the chapter I'm writing. I don't think I'll be able to see the new year, but I'd like to speak to you about this grammar, because you all will have to finish it". That's what he told me. Two days later I caught a plane.

Yet he was able to finish that chapter and do a couple of others. And he was able to see 2003.

The news spread quickly in Bascophile circles, and people from here started visiting him at his home: he appreciated that very much, with all the ups and downs of the illness during his last few months. Among those visits, it is worth mentioning his award of a degree honoris causa by the University of the Basque Country, through its Rector, on 29 November 2002. This decision had actually been made some months earlier but just at that moment the illness struck. After a simple ceremony at his house, we all went to a restaurant to have lunch: that was his first outing in weeks. That said, bad things always come in pairs, as if they were chained together. On the eve of the ceremony his sister, who also died suddenly from an unexpected cancer, was buried. He said absolutely nothing about this at the ceremony, or later during the meal. It was Virginia his wife who explained to me: "He doesn't want to tell you anything".

In the following weeks, he started to get weaker and weaker: he continued to make phone calls, but these were fewer and far between as he had he found it increasingly difficult to speak, eventually losing his voice altogether. At the end, he found it harder and harder to speak and his words were broken by hoarseness, by phone they seemed to be drifting further and further away. Ultimately, he gave up using the phone too. Whilst he had Virginia by his side looking after him he continued to work, although less and less so each day, but without losing any of his energy until the last moment. Without forgetting about the Basque grammar, in those final weeks Virginia read him a several-hundred-page novel, from the corner of his bed. As a result of putting the grammar together, and because he asked me to take over responsibility for this, I wrote him a one-page letter at the beginning of June, asking him to clarify some specific questions. As Virginia told me, he needed two days just to read and fully understand the letter, and he gave the answers to her to pass on to me.

Then, on 15 June, 2003, at three o'clock in the afternoon, he died. The following day, a modest ceremony followed a programme he himself had chosen before he died as a means of saying goodbye to those around him: "Maitia, non zira?", the 23rd Psalm, a few short words, "Adios, ene maitia" and "Agur jaunak". Two roses on top of the coffin: one red; the other white. His farewell, then, was carried out with the kind of simplicity that characterised his life. And as is, or was, the custom in the Basque Country everyone then went to a restaurant together to have lunch.

Rudolf de Rijk lived in Newton Street, in a house with that upright staircase. The surrounding streets are made up of names like Archimedes, Pythagoras, Laplace and Galileo. That's a beautiful sign, without any doubt. Every week, he used to travel from there to the official club in Amsterdam to play chess, for he was one of the best chess players in Holland, always appearing amongst those most chosen from the club. He had so many books about chess in his house, as well as handwritten notes with his best moves. He left a new Cantonese dictionary that he was preparing "for fun" in a box at home, incorporating thousands of entries. At home he also left, amongst other things, a huge library and, because he believed in God, numerous bibles written in different languages because they were all of use to him at the same time, like a modern Bonaparte, when it came to drawing comparisons between languages.

Languages, bibles, chess moves all made up the core of his soul. Very quietly, as with everything else he did, he would send some money every month to a hospital in Bangladesh, to a medical post, and thanks to this the patients there were looked after. They say only a little money is necessary to live with dignity, no more is necessary, that's what he said.

But before leaving us, he left his final major work, and one that from now on will be considered a major reference amongst Bascologists in general: that is, his Basque grammar. Although he began writing it in Dutch during the early years, he later changed, rearranged and gave it another dimension by rewriting it in English. Even though it remained incomplete, he had done a very large part of it, eighty per cent, and as such, it will be published like that without any additions in the next few months. As stated, at the beginning he started writing that the book with students in mind. But now it is so much wider in scope and something that both linguists and Bascophiles should be truly thankful for. This will be, as I have said, the essential reference as regards a Basque grammar in the years to come, especially for those people who cannot read Basque. Of the full thirty-five chapters he left 27 already written, in total about a thousand pages. Of the remaining chapters, three others were written in Dutch, and only time will tell how those will be published. Most of the main grammatical themes are there, and presented in a clear and detailed way. Each chapters starts with a presentation of the topic addressed, accompanied by numerous examples, all of which were taken from books published in Basque. This is truly astonishing because Rudolf never used a computer and almost certainly got these references first-hand: that is, he had all these books at home. Moreover, each chapter also includes a short dictionary of the words used in the explanations and he also offers readers some exercises to do.

That grammar rounds off the rich and abundant work that our Dutch friend offered the Basques. Rudolf's Basque journey began in Donostia when he first saw some phrases in a strange language engraved on that monument. Throughout his life, he made that unknown foreign language into a Basque with which to converse with friends. After going all over the world, his beloved widow Virginia scattered his ashes from his treasured Mount Urkiola on 26 July, 2003. As I said at the time: with the impression that he made on us, with the work he left behind, he will always be close to us, the Bascophile and Basque-speaker, alongside we Bascophiles and Basque-speakers. Goian bego, rest in peace.

Pello Salaburu

(Talk given at the general assembly of Euskaltzaindia, Donostia, 1 January, 2004.
A public meeting, held at the Provincial Council in Donostia,
chaired by the council leader Jose Juan Gonzalez de Txabarri)

Final note: The grammar mentioned in this talk was published in 2008. The full reference is:br> Rudolf de Rijk. 2008, Standard Basque: A Progressive Grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (ISBN 978-0-262-04242-0)


[1] I will not cite all of Rudolf De Rijk's work here, nor is it worth mentioning all the references he made. For those seeking to explore this more fully, see the following works: Rudolf P. G. de Rijk. De Lingua Vasconum: Selected Writings (Bilbo: Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, 1998), and X. Artiagoitia, P. Goenaga and J. Lakarra J. (eds) 'Erramu Boneta': Festschrift for Rudolf P. G. de Rijk (Bilbo: Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, 2002).