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The Larry Trask Archive: FAQs About Basque and the Basques
by Larry Trask
FAQs About Basque and the Basques
Q1. Where is Basque spoken?
A1. At the western end of the Pyrenees, along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The Basque-speaking region runs from the city of Bayonne in France west to the city of Bilbao in Spain, a distance of about 100 miles (160 kilometers); it extends inland about 30 miles (50 kilometers), not quite reaching the city of Pamplona.
Q2. Was Basque formerly spoken in a larger area?
A2. Yes, certainly. In the Middle Ages it 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.
Q3. How many people speak Basque?
A3. About 660,000, according to the 1991 census. Fewer than 80,000 of these are on the French side of the frontier which runs through the Basque Country, the rest on the Spanish side.
Q4. Where does Basque come from?
A4. It doesn't really "come from" anywhere -- it's just been there for a very long time. Western Europe has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, but for most of that time writing was unknown and hence we have no records of the languages spoken. In the second half of the first millennium BC, writing was introduced into southern and eastern Spain by the Phoenicians and the Greeks, but it didn't reach the ancestral Basques farther north. It was only the Roman conquest of Gaul and Spain in the first century BC that brought writing to the Basques, and only from that time do we have any written records of the Basques.
Like the Celtic and Germanic languages, the Latin language of the Romans was an Indo-European language, descended from an ancestral language originally spoken far to the east. As these Indo-European languages spread slowly westward across Europe, they gradually displaced most of the earlier languages, which died out. By the time the Romans arrived, an ancestral form of Basque, which we call Aquitanian, was the only pre-Indo-European language still surviving in Gaul. The position in Spain was much more complicated, with several pre-Indo-European languages still spoken, including Aquitanian and the famous Iberian, but all these others were soon displaced by Latin. Uniquely among the pre-Indo-European languages of western Europe, Basque has refused to die out and has survived down to the present day, though, as Q2 makes clear, the language has been gradually losing territory for a long time.
So: the ancestral form of Basque was introduced into western Europe long, long ago -- at least thousands of years ago, and maybe even tens of thousands of years ago. Nobody knows. All the other modern languages of western Europe arrived much later.
Q5. Is Basque the oldest language in Europe?
A5. The question is meaningless. Except for creoles, which arise from pidgins and are a special case, all languages are equally "old", in that all descend in an unbroken line from the earliest human speech. What we can say about Basque is that its ancestor was spoken in western Europe before (possibly long before) the ancestors of all the other modern western European languages arrived there. That is, Spanish, French, English, Irish, and all the others are descended from languages which were introduced into western Europe (from farther east) at a time when the ancestor of Basque was already there.
Q6. Is Basque related to any other languages?
A6. No. The ancient Aquitanian language was, of course, an ancestral form of Basque, as we can easily see by examining the personal names and divine names of the Aquitanian-speakers, which are all that is recorded of Aquitanian. But the most strenuous efforts at finding other relatives for Basque have been complete failures: obviously the relatives that Basque once had have died out without trace. People have tried to connect Basque with Berber, Egyptian, and other African languages, with Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, Minoan, Sumerian, the Finno-Ugric languages, the Caucasian languages, the Semitic languages, with Burushaski (another language with no known relatives, spoken in the Himalayas) -- in fact, with almost all the languages of Africa and Asia, living and dead, and even with languages of the Pacific and of North America. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Basque absolutely cannot be shown to be related to any other language at all. Some people will try to tell you differently, but, not to mince words, they don't know what they're talking about, and the great majority of them don't even know anything about Basque.
Q7. Has Basque influenced the neighboring languages?
A7. Very little. Perhaps the chief reason Basque has survived is that the Romans had very little interest in the Basque Country and they largely left the Basques alone. As a result, the region was not romanized until very late. By the same token, Basque had little influence on the neighboring languages -- though Basque itself has borrowed thousands of words from Latin and its Romance descendants like Gascon and Castilian. In the Middle Ages, though, when the Basque-speaking Kingdom of Navarre was powerful, a number of Basque words were borrowed into local varieties of Spanish, including Castilian, but very few of these have survived. One which has survived is Castilian izquierdo `left (hand)', which is borrowed from the synonymous Basque ezker, or more precisely from an unrecorded Basque derivative *ezkerdo.
It has often been suggested that Castilian Spanish originated as a form of Latin spoken by Basques, but the evidence for this idea does not stand up. See Chapter 6 of my book The History of Basque, which explains all this in great detail.
Q8. Is Basque exceedingly difficult to learn?
A8. Not at all. Today thousands of people speak Basque as a second language; among these are native speakers of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, German, Japanese, and other languages. In fact, Basque is a rather easy language to pick up, while mastering it is no more difficult than mastering any other language. The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is regular, there is no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly any irregular verbs.
Q9. Is it true that all the verbs in Basque are passive?
A9. No, this is nonsense. This crazy idea arose in the 19th century among European linguists who were looking at Basque for the first time. Basque has what we now call ergative morphology, which means that subjects and objects of sentences are marked in a somewhat different way from the way they are marked in most other European languages. (This is explained on the page containing a brief description of Basque.) Those linguists had never seen an ergative language before (though there are hundreds of them on other parts of the planet), and they were trying desperately to make Basque look more like the languages they were familiar with. As a result, they came up with this "passive" theory of Basque, which we now know to be ridiculously wrong.
Q10. Is it true that Basque lacks words for abstractions or for modern technology?
A10. Certainly not. Like other languages, Basque has plenty of words for abstract concepts of all kinds, and it has word-forming devices for creating new abstract words at will. Until recently, Basque did indeed lack a vocabulary for talking about things like physics, engineering, and linguistics, simply because nobody had ever wanted to talk about these things in Basque. Today people do want to talk about these things in Basque, and so thousands of new words have been introduced into the language to make this possible. Modern Basque can be used to speak or write about anything at all. I myself have written technical articles on linguistics in Basque; at least one doctoral thesis on medical science has been written in Basque; I recently saw an article in Basque in an international scholarly journal of chemistry.
Q11. Is Basque an official language anywhere?
A11. Yes. In 1979 the three Spanish Basque Provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Alava were united under the Basque Autonomous Government, and Basque is co-official with Spanish within this territory: it is used for government documents and publications, and knowledge of it is required for certain jobs. For complex historical reasons, the fourth Basque province in the south, Navarra, declined to join the Autonomous Region, but today Navarra constitutes its own autonomous region, and Basque has a measure of official standing within its borders. Basque has no official standing in the French Basque Country: like the other regional languages of France, it has been victimized for centuries by the French language laws, which are deeply hostile to languages other than French.
Q12. Is Basque gaining or losing ground today?
A12. This is a complicated question. On the one hand, the number of Basque-speakers has actually increased significantly within the last generation, and there are now, for perhaps the first time in the history of Basque, thousands of people who speak it as a second language. And in many ways the circumstances of the language are better than ever before: the Basque Government promotes the teaching and use of Basque, the language is required for certain jobs, and there is a great deal of education, publishing, and broadcasting in Basque, including a daily newspaper, a television station, and a number of radio stations. On the other hand, Basque faces the same enormous pressures as all other minority languages: knowledge of the national language (Spanish or French) is absolutely required, and the great bulk of education, publishing, and broadcasting are in the national language. Even the most remote Basque farmhouse is bombarded with radio and TV broadcasts in the national language, and its inhabitants must still conduct much of their daily business in that language. Especially in the Spanish Basque Country, a further difficulty is the presence of a huge number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who came to find work; these immigrants rarely learn Basque and deeply resent efforts to make Basque the primary medium in such spheres as local politics and primary education.
Q13. What literature exists in Basque?
A13. Some songs and poems which were composed in the Middle Ages were later written down and survive today. But publication in Basque only began in 1545, with a collection of poems written by the French Basque Bernard Etxepare (whose surname can be spelled in about six other ways). Publication in Basque has been continuous since the late 16th century, though most of the early works were religious in nature. From the early 19th century we find a steadily increasing number of plays, poems, and novels, and today Basque literature is flourishing. Recently Bernardo Atxaga's prize-winning novel Obabakoak became the first Basque novel ever to be translated into English, to general acclaim.
Q14. What does written Basque look like?
A14. Here's a sample, taken from the magazine Argia. For an explanation of the first part of this, see my sketch of the language on another page.
Eusko Jaurlaritzako Hezkuntza Sailak aste honetan aurkeztuko duen eskola mapari buruz hainbat kezka zabaldu da. Sare publiko ordezkariei ez zaiela inolako informaziorik eman haizatu du EILAS sindikatuak. ARGIAk jakin duenez, sare pribatuan geratu diren ikastolek osatu duten Partaide kooperatibak eta Eneko Oregik berriki izandako bilera modu txarrean amaitu zen. Eskola Maparen barruan diseinatu beharreko banaketaren gainean ez zaiela inolako zehaztasunik eskaini leporatzen diote Hezkuntza Sailari. Bestalde, sare publikoaren aldeko hautua egin zuten ikastolen artean ere, arazo bera bizi dela jakin dugu.
Q15. How can I learn Basque?
A15. There are lots of courses available in the Basque Country, if you can get there. In the USA, the University of Nevada at Reno offers instruction in the language; you can find a link to their home page from my main Basque page. There are two good textbooks of Basque in English:
Alan King (1994), The Basque Language, Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Alan King and Begotxu Olaizola Elordi (1996), Colloquial Basque, London: Routledge.
The first is much larger and contains more grammar; it is also more expensive. The second is briefer, but it comes with a pair of cassettes for practicing pronunciation.
Q16. How do the Basques refer to themselves, their country, and their language?
A16. The Basques call their language euskara (dialect variants euskera and eskuara). The word euskaldun (literally, `one who has Basque') means `Basque-speaker'; the plural is euskaldunak, and this is what the Basques commonly call themselves. Where necessary, a native speaker is euskaldun zahar (literally, `old Basque'), while a person who has learned Basque as a second language is euskaldun berri (`new Basque'). The neologism euskotar means `(ethnic) Basque', and can be applied to any Basque, whether or not he speaks the language; the word basko, borrowed from Spanish, has also been used in this sense. The Basques have traditionally called their country Euskal Herria, which means `the Basque Country'; this designation includes the territory of the traditional seven provinces, north and south. The neologism Euskadi means `the Basque state'; this is the name of the territory administered by the Basque Autonomous Government, but it is sometimes applied more widely to the entire Basque Country as a demonstration of political feeling.
Q17. Are the Basques genetically different from other Europeans?
A17. Apparently, yes. It has long been known that the Basques have the highest proportion of rhesus-negative blood in Europe (25%), and one of the highest percentages of type-O blood (55%). Recently, however, the geneticist Luiga Luca Cavalli-Sforza has completed a gene map of the peoples of Europe, and he finds the Basques to be strikingly different from their neighbors. The genetic boundary between Basques and non-Basques is very sharp on the Spanish side. On the French side, the boundary is more diffuse: it shades off gradually toward the Garonne in the north. These findings are entirely in agreement with what we know of the history of the language.
Q18. Does this mean the Basques are directly descended from the earliest known human inhabitants of Europe, the Cro-Magnon people who occupied western Europe around 35,000 years ago?
A18. Nobody knows. This is possible, but we have no real evidence either way. The only evidence we have is negative: the archeologists can find no evidence for any sudden change in population in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of the Celts and later the Romans in the first millennium BC.
Q19. Are there any famous Basques?
A19. A fair number. Here are some: the explorer Elkano (who completed the first circumnavigation of the globe after Magellan was killed in the Philippines), the philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno, the novelists Pío Baroja, Robert Laxalt and Bernardo Atxaga, the composers J. C. Arriaga (who died very young), Jesús Guridi and Maurice Ravel (whose mother was Basque), the violinist Pablo Sarasate, the sculptor Eduardo Txillida, the cyclist Miguel Indurain, the golfer José María Olazabal, the tennis-players Jean Borotra and Nathalie Tauziat, the politician Dolores Ibarruri, the historian Esteban de Garibay, the religious leaders Ignatius of Loyola (who founded the Jesuits) and Valentín Berriochoa, the general Tomás Zumalacárregui, all the kings of the medieval Kingdom of Navarre, and any number of Spanish soccer-players and French rugby-players. Of course, there are many other people of Basque descent who were not born in the Basque Country, such as the Spanish writer Madariaga and the Frenchman Louis Daguerre (who invented photography).
Q20. Why has there been all this trouble in the Basque Country?
A20. That's a long story. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Basque provinces, north and south, were largely self-governing, and they had a vigorous tradition of local democracy. Over time, of course, Basque autonomy came under increasing pressure from Paris and Madrid. In the north, Basque rights were abruptly swept away by the French Revolution. In the south, autonomy lasted longer, but in the 19th century it came under attack from centralist governments in Madrid, leading to major civil wars on two occasions and to the enforced removal of the traditional Basque rights.
From the late 19th century, the Spanish Basques, fearing for their language and their culture, began pressing for reforms and for greater autonomy. This strictly peaceful campaign was interrupted by the installation of a right-wing dictatorship in Spain in the 1930s, but regained its momentum after the restoration of democracy. But then a military coup in 1936 led to the Spanish Civil War and to the establishment of a brutal Fascist dictatorship in Spain under General Franco. The Basques, who had fought against the Fascists during the war, suffered terribly during the war and under the subsequent Fascist oppression: quite apart from the death and destruction caused by the war itself (including the deliberate destruction of two Basque cities by Hitler's air force), the Basques found themselves singled out for particular vengeance by Franco. Basque soldiers and politicians who had not managed to flee into exile were imprisoned, condemned to forced labor, tortured, and often shot; all outward signs of Basque identity were prohibited, and the very speaking of Basque was declared illegal.
Permitted no legal voice, the Basques gradually began to organize clandestinely to discuss what might be done. A student discussion group founded in 1953 and originally called EKIN changed its name in 1959 to ETA and began to contemplate more active resistance. At first ETA was in no way violent, but every attempt at a political gesture was met by savagery from the Spanish police and courts: arbitrary arrests, routine beatings and torture, and long jail sentences. Eventually ETA took the plunge into violence of its own and began assassinating known torturers and murderers among the Spanish authorities. The police reacted with ever greater violence of their own: uniformed police tortured and murdered Basques with complete impunity, death squads composed of off-duty policemen carried out further murders, and there were armed attacks on whole communities described by foreign observers as "police riots".
Faced with such violence, ETA gradually became ever less choosy in its targets, and began gunning for any police or soldiers they could get at. In a technically expert operation which would prove to have far-reaching consequences, ETA managed to assassinate Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the anointed heir of the aging Franco. As a result, when Franco finally died in 1975, a democratic government took control in Madrid; elections were held, and the Basque Autonomous Government was set up in 1979, with wide-ranging powers.
This outcome satisfied most people in the Basque Country, and most of the members of ETA quietly left the organization to resume normal lives. But a modest number of hard-core members remained, and continued a program of increasing violence all over Spain, in the hope of obtaining complete independence for the Basque Country. Army officers became favorite targets, and bombs were placed in popular tourist resorts with the intention of damaging the valuable tourist industry; even the new Basque police force came under attack. The new governments in both Madrid and the Basque Country made vigorous efforts to put a stop to this violence, but so far they have enjoyed only partial success. And that's where things stand today.
Q21. Are there any Basque words in English?
A21. Not many, but there are one or two. One is silhouette, which has a very interesting history. The English word is taken from French, in which it derives from the surname of a certain Etienne de Silhouette, a French politician of the 18th century. This is a French spelling of the Basque surname Zilhueta, a French Basque variant of the surname Zulueta or Zuloeta; this in turn derives from zulo `hole' (zilo in part of the north) plus the very frequent suffix -eta `abundance of'. This surname was doubtless given originally to someone who lived where there were many holes in the ground, or perhaps more likely caves. In Shakespeare's day, there was an English word bilbo for a sword of outstanding quality; this derives from the name of the Basque city of Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque), since the Basque Country was known at the time for its excellent iron and steel goods. The American English word chaparral derives via Spanish from Basque txaparra `scrub'. But the idea that English By jingo! derives from Basque Jinko `God' is probably wrong.
url of this page http://www.cogs.susx.ac.uk/users/larryt/faqs.html Revised: 23 August 1996
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