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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Basque
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by Larry Trask

Introduction and History

The Basque language (in Basque, euskara) is spoken by about 660,000 people (1991 census) at the western end of the Pyrenees, along the Bay of Biscay. The Franco-Spanish frontier runs through the middle of the country, leaving perhaps 80,000 speakers on the French side and the remaining half million or so on the Spanish side. The Basque-speaking region runs for about 100 miles (160 km) from west to east and for about 30 miles (50 km) from north to south. The language is found in most of the Spanish provinces of Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa, in northern Navarre, in part of Alava, and in the three former French provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule, which now form part of the departement of Pyrenees-Atlantique. The language now occupies about half of the Basque Country (Basque Euskal Herria), the territory which is historically and ethnically Basque; Basque has been lost in modern times from the southern half of the country.

An ancestral form of Basque, called Aquitanian, is attested in the Roman period in the form of about 400 personal names and 70 divine names. Many of the elements in these names are transparently Basque. Examples: Aq. Nescato, Bq. neskato `young girl'; Aq. Cison, Bq. gizon `man'; Aq. Andere, Bq. andere `lady'; Aq. Sembe-, Bq. seme `son'; Aq. Ombe-, Umme, Bq. ume `child'; Aq. Sahar, Bq. zahar `old'; Aq. Osso-, Bq. otso `wolf'. Aquitanian is chiefly attested north of the Pyrenees, in Gaul; it is only sparsely recorded south of the Pyrenees, and most specialists believe the language must have extended its territory to the south and west after the collapse of Roman power in the west.

In the early medieval period Basque was spoken throughout the modern provinces of Navarre and Alava, in much of the Rioja and Burgos, and in the Pyrenees as far east as the valley of Aran. Since that time the language has been gradually losing ground to Spanish and Catalan, though the frontier with Gascon in the north has been highly stable.

Apart from the Aquitanian materials, the first evidence of Basque is the Emilian Glosses, two glosses in a Latin manuscript usually dated to about AD 950. (Interestingly, the same manuscript contains the first attestation of Castilian Spanish.) Thereafter we find a steady trickle of glosses, glossaries, single words, magical charms, poems, songs, and other materials, as well as a large number of personal names and place names, and a few longer texts such as personal letters. The first published book in Basque was a collection of poems entitled Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, published by the French Basque Bernard Detchepare in 1545. Since then publication in Basque has been continuous, apart from periods of persecution during two dictatorships in Spain.

The most strenuous efforts have been made to identify genetic links between Basque and other languages. With the single exception of Aquitanian, all these attempts have been failures, and there is no shred of persuasive evidence that Basque is related to any other language at all, living or dead. The frequent suggestions to the contrary in the literature may be safely disregarded; most of these, in any case, are the work of non-specialists who know little about Basque.

Basque is thus the sole survivor of the ancient pre-Indo-European languages of Europe. Some enthusiasts have therefore concluded that the Basques themselves must be the direct survovors of the earliest known human inhabitants of Europe, the Cro-Magnon people, but there is no way of evaluating such a claim. It is noteworthy, however, that the geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who has compiled a genetic map of Europe, observes that the Basques are genetically sharply distinct from their neighbors, particularly in Spain; in France, the genetic boundary between Basques and non-Basques is more diffuse and shades off toward the Garonne, an observation which is entirely in line with what is known about the history of the language.


For centuries there was no standard orthography, and Basque was written with Romance spelling conventions supplemented by various additional devices to represent sounds not present in Romance. During the early years of the 20th century, a bizarre and impractical orthography employing a blizzard of pointless diacritics was widely used; this largely disappeared after the Spanish Civil War. In 1964 the Royal Basque Language Academy (Euskaltzaindia) promulgated a new standard orthography; this met some resistance at first but is now almost universally used.

The Basque alphabet is as follows: a b d e f g h i j k l m n ñ o p r s t u x z. The letters c q v w y are not considered part of the alphabet, but are of course used in writing foreign words and names; when necessary, they take their ordinary place in the alphabet. The digraphs dd ll rr ts tt tx tz represent single sounds, but they are regarded as sequences of letters, not as separate single letters. One other digraph, dz, is used in writing a few onomatopoeic items, but not otherwise.


There is no standard pronunciation of Basque, but the regional variation is not great, and the standard orthography represents most regional accents rather well. The chief differences are the presence or absence of the aspiration, the pronunciation of rr, and above all the pronunciation of j.

  • Consonants:
    • Plosives:
        Bilabial /p b/
        Dental   /t d/
        Palatal  /tt dd/ (in some varieties only)
        Velar    /k g/

      The French Basque varieties also have aspirated plosives /ph th kh/; these are not represented in the standard orthography.

    • Fricatives (all voiceless):
        Labiodental     /f/
        Lamino-alveolar /z/
        Apico-alveolar  /s/
        Palato-alveolar /x/
        Glottal         /h/ (French Basque varieties only)

      (Many western varieties have lost the /z/-/s/ contrast in speech.)

      See also the diaphone |j| below.

    • Affricates (all voiceless):
        Lamino-alveolar: /tz/
        Apico-alveolar:  /ts/
        Palato-alveolar: /tx/

      (Many western varieties have lost the /tz/-/ts/ contrast in speech.)

    • Nasals:
        Bilabial: /m/
        Alveolar: /n/
        Palatal:  //

      (The palatal nasal is in fact often spelled in, rather than ñ.)

    • Laterals:
        Alveolar: /l/
        Palatal: /ll/

      (The palatal lateral is often spelled il, rather than ll.)

    • Rhotics:
        Tap:   /r/
        Trill: /rr/ (This is a voiced uvular fricative for many French Basques.)

      (These two contrast only between vowels, and only r is written in all other positions.)

    • Diaphone:

      There is one more consonant, spelled <j>, whose pronunciation varies dramatically across the country. Depending on region, this is a voiced palatal glide (like English <y>), a voiced palatal plosive (like /dd/ above), a voiced palatal affricate (resembling English <j>), a voiced palatal fricative (resembling French <j>), a voiceless palatal fricative (like /x/ above), or a voiceless velar or uvular fricative (like Castilian Spanish <j>).

  • Vowels:

         /i e a o u/ 

    (The Souletin dialect has also a front rounded vowel /u"/ and a set of contrastive nasalized vowels.)

  • Diphthongs:

         /ai ei oi ui au eu/

  • Word-accent:

    Many western varieties have a pitch-accent. Most other varieties have a stress-accent, but the details vary considerably according to region.


Nominal morphology is strongly agglutinating. Verbal morphology is also strongly agglutinating, but at the same time it exhibits a high degree of analytical character. The language is exclusively suffixing, apart from a few prefixes found in verbal morphology. Basque is rich in word-forming suffixes, but word-forming prefixes are virtually absent, except in neologisms. Compounding is highly productive in forming nouns and verbs and, to a lesser extent, adjectives.

Basque has no grammatical gender and no noun classes. Morphological sex-marking is almost absent, except that the sex of an addressee addressed with the intimate second-person singular pronoun is sometimes (not always) marked in the verb.

Nouns cannot be directly inflected: it is noun phrases, and only noun phrases, which are inflected in Basque. With only minor exceptions, a noun phrase always contains a determiner; with just one exception, it contains only one determiner. Determiners are of two types: definite and indefinite. There are four definite determiners: the three demonstratives and the definite article (this last is a suffix). These four distinguish number (singular and plural). All other determiners are indefinite and cannot distinguish number.

Examples, using etxe `house':

  etxea `the house'
  etxeak `the houses'
  etxe zuria `the white house'
  etxe zuriak `the white houses'
  etxe bat `one house' or `a (certain) house' (depending on stress)
  etxe zuri bat `one/a white house'
  bi etxe `two houses'
  bi etxe zuri `two white houses'
  etxe asko `lots of houses'
  etxe hau `this house'
  etxe hauek `these houses'
  etxe zuri hau `this white house'
  zenbat etxe? `how many houses?'

There are over a dozen cases, all of them marked by agglutinated case-suffixes. With only trivial phonological complications, all noun phrases in the language are inflected identically, except that animate NPs form their local cases somewhat differently from inanimate NPs.

Nominal morphology is ergative. The subject of an intransitive verb and the direct object of a transitive verb stand in the absolutive case (suffix zero). The subject of a transitive verb stands in the ergative case (suffix -k). Ergative case-marking is thoroughgoing: it applies to all types and combinations of NPs, in all tenses, aspects, and moods, and in all types of clauses, main and subordinate, finite and non-finite.

The following cases exist:

  • Absolutive: zero (intransitive subjects, direct objects, complements of copulas)
  • Ergative: -k (transitive subjects)
  • Dative: -i (indirect objects, ethic datives)
  • Genitive: -en (possessors)
  • Instrumental: -z (instruments; miscellaneous uses)
  • Comitative: -ekin (accompaniment (`with'))
  • Locative: -n (place of rest (`in', `on', `at'); motion into (`into'))
  • Ablative: -tik (source of motion (`from', `away from', `out of'))
  • Allative: -ra (goal of motion (`to'))
  • Terminative: -raino (termination (`as far as', `up to', `until'))
  • Directional: -rantz (direction of motion (`toward'))
  • Benefactive: -entzat (beneficiary (`for' a person))
  • Destinative: -rako (inanimate destination (`for' a thing))

There are two other suffixes which are sometimes treated as cases, but these cannot be added to a full NP containing a determiner.

  • Partitive: -ik (direct object of negated verb; subject of negative existential; indefinite whole of which a part is expressed)
  • Essive/Translative: -tzat (capacity in which someone functions or into which someone is translated (`as', `for', zero, as in `I want you for my wife'))

Verbal morphology is overwhelmingly periphrastic, and all but a handful of verbs have only periphrastic forms. A periphrastic verb-form consists of a non-finite form marked at most for aspect plus a finite auxiliary; the auxiliary is marked for tense and mood and carries all agreement. Agreement is extensive: a finite verb generally agrees in person and number with its subject, with its direct object (if any), and with its indirect object (if any). Third-person agreement is zero, except for indirect objects, and except that plurality is regularly marked. Agreement is usually ergative: prefixes for absolutives, suffixes for ergatives. Certain past-tense forms are exceptional in having ergatives marked by prefixes. Indirect objects are marked by suffixes preceded by overt morphs flagging them as datives.

Intransitive verbs are conjugated with the auxiliary verb izan `be', which also functions as an independent verb. Transitive verbs are conjugated with an auxiliary meaning `have'; this verb is historically *edun, but it has lost its non-finite forms, which are supplied suppletively by ukan `have' in the French Basque varieties and by izan `be' elsewhere. This same verb functions as the ordinary main verb `have' in French Basque varieties only. For historical reasons, a semantically arbitrary subclass of intransitive verbs requires transitive morphology, including ergative subjects and the transitive auxiliary.

The verb izan `be' is highly irregular; here are its simplest forms:

  Present                        Past

  (ni) naiz     `I am'           (ni) nintzen `I was'
  (hi) haiz     `you are'        (hi) hintzen `you were'
  (hura) da     `s/he is'        (hura) zen `s/he was'
  (gu) gara     `we are'         (gu) ginen `we were'
  (zu) zara     `you are'        (zu) zinen `you were'
  (zuek) zarete `you (pl) are'   (zuek) zineten `you (pl) were'
  (haiek) dira  `they are'       (haiek) ziren `they were'


  sartu naiz       `I have gone in'
  sartzen naiz     `I am going in'
  sartuko naiz     `I'll go in'
  sartu nintzen    `I went in'
  sartzen nintzen  `I used to go in, I was going in'
  sartuko nintzen  `I was going to go in'

  sartu gara       `we have gone in'
  sartzen dira     `they are going in'
  sartuko zara     `you'll go in'
  sartu hintzen    `you went in'

The verb *edun `have' is highly regular; here are its simplest forms:

  Present                              Past

  (nik) dut       `I have it'          (nik) nuen        `I had it'
  (hik) duk       `you (M) have it'    (hik) huen        `you had it'
  (hik) dun       `you (F) have it'
  (hark) du       `s/he has it'        (hark) zuen       `s/he had it'
  (guk) dugu      `we have it'         (guk) genuen      `we had it'
  (zuk) duzu      `you have it'        (zuk) zenuen      `you had it'
  (zuek) duzue    `you (pl) have it'   (zuek) zenuten    `you (pl) had it'
  (haiek) dute    `they have it'       (haiek) zuten     `they had it'

  (nik) ditut     `I have them'        (nik) nituen      `I had them'
  (hik) dituk     `you (M) have them'  (hik) hituen      `you had them'
  (hik) ditun     `you (F) have them'
  (hark) ditu     `s/he has them'      (hark) zituen     `s/he had them'
  (guk) ditugu    `we have them'       (guk) genituen    `we had them'
  (zuk) dituzu    `you have them'      (zuk) zenituen    `you had them'
  (zuek) dituzue  `you (pl) have them' (zuek) zenituzten `you (pl) had them'
  (haiek) dituzte `they have them'     (haiek) zituzten  `they had them'


  ikusi dut       `I have seen it'
  ikusten dut     `I see it'
  ikusiko dut     `I'll see it'
  ikusi nuen      `I saw it'
  ikusten nuen    `I used to see it'
  ikusiko dut     `I was going to see it'

  ikusi dugu      `we have seen it'
  ikusi ditugu    `we have seen them'
  ikusten dituzte `they see them'
  ikusiko huen    `you were going to see it'

Further forms exist; here is a sample:

  ikusi nauzu      `you have seen me'
  ikusiko zaitut   `I'll see you'
  ikusten gaituzte `they see us'
  ikusten gaituzue `you (pl) see us'

Both intransitive and transitive verbs can take indirect objects; here are a few examples (the verbs gustatu `be pleasing' and jarraiki `follow' are intransitive and take an indirect object, while eman `give' is transitive and takes both direct and indirect objects):

  gustatzen zait       `it pleases me' (`I like it')
  gustatzen zaizkit    `they please me' (`I like them')
  jarraiki zait        `s/he has followed me'
  jarraikiko natzaizu  `I'll follow you'
  jarraikitzen zatzait `you are following me'

  eman diot            `I've given it to him/her'
  eman dizkiot         `I've given them to him/her'
  emango didazu        `you'll give it to me'
  emango dizkizut      `I'll give them to you'
  ematen digute        `they are giving it to us'

All the forms cited here are in the ordinary indicative mood, but there exist also various imperative, subjunctive, potential, conditional and irrealis forms. Any reference grammar will provide a list of these; many of them are now purely literary, especially in the south, with non-finite forms being preferred in speech.

Pronouns and Demonstratives

The personal pronouns are ni `I`, hi `you' (singular intimate), zu `you' (singular unmarked), gu `we', zuek `you' (plural). The intimate hi is of extraordinarily restricted use: it is regularly used only between siblings and between close friends of the same sex and roughly the same age. It may optionally be used in addressing children. It is not normally used between adults of opposite sex, not even between man and wife, except when teasing or abusing. It is not used in addressing animals, except when abusing them. It is never used in prayer.

In general, there are no third-person pronouns, and demonstratives are used instead when required. Western varieties, however, have recently created third-person pronouns bera `he/she' and berak (or eurak) `they'; these forms are historically intensive pronouns, `he himself' and so on.

There are three demonstratives: hau `this', hori `that' (just there), and hura `that' (over there). All show stem-suppletion.


Basic word order is SOV (Subject-Object-Verb), but this order is not rigid. The major phrases of a sentence, including the verb, can be permuted with some freedom, and this variation is used for thematic purposes -- for example, a phrase may be focused by placing it immediately before the verb. The order of elements within major phrases is rigid.

Basque is head-final: all modifiers (except lexical adjectives) precede their heads; this includes syntactically complex modifiers like relative clauses. The language is exclusively postpositional.

Basque is predominantly dependent-marking: for example, in a possessive phrase only the possessor NP is marked. Grammatical relations, though, are double-marked, by overt case-endings and by verbal agreement.

The definite article is a suffix, -a in the singular and -ak in the plural; it is of wider use than the English definite article. The indefinite article bat is of correspondingly restricted use; it commonly corresponds to English `a certain'.

Examples: etxe `house'; etxea `the house'; etxeak `(the) houses'; etxe bat `a (certain) house'; etxe zuria `the white house'; etxe zuriak `the white houses'; etxe zuri bat `a white house'.

The language is rich in non-finite verb-forms, and these are frequently used. Gerunds and perfective participles can take case-marked NPs as arguments, and gerunds themselves can take the full range of case-suffixes; such constructions provide a range of non-finite clauses.

There are a number of aspectual and modal verbs, most of which are compound in form. Examples: behar izan `have to, must'; ahal izan `be able to, can'; ohi izan `be in the habit of ...ing'; ari izan `be ...ing'; hasi `start ...ing'; nahi izan `want to'.

A central characteristic of Basque syntax is the use of -ko phrases. A -ko phrase may be constructed from virtually any adverbial, regardless of its internal structure, by suffixing -ko to it; this suffix induces certain phonological changes, notably the loss of the locative case-suffix -n. The resulting phrase is a preposed adjectival modifier.


  • Bilbon `in Bilbao'; Bilboko kaleak `the streets of Bilbao'
  • mendietan `in the mountains'; mendietako etxeak `the houses in the mountains'
  • mendira `to the mountain'; mendirako bidea `the road to the mountain'
  • hitzez hitz `word for word'; hitzez hitzeko itzulpena `a word-for-word translation'
  • atzo `yesterday'; atzoko egunkaria `yesterday's newspaper'
  • esku-huska `bare-handed'; esku-huskako pilota partida `a game of bare-handed pilota'
  • zirt-edo-zart `decisively'; zirt-edo-zarteko gizona `a decisive man'
  • urtero `annually'; urteroko gertaera `an annual event'
  • Izarra agertu zitzaien `The star appeared to them'; izarra agertu zitzieneko garaian `at the time when the star appeared to them'

From etxean `in the house', we have etxeko `who/which is in the house'; this is used to form such phrases as etxeko atea `the door of the house', etxeko andrea `the lady of the house', etxeko giltza `the key to the house', and etxekoak `the people of the house'. Compare this with the ordinary genitive case etxearen, as in etxearen izena `the name of the house' and etxearen historia `the history of the house'. Many textbooks make the mistake of regarding a -ko phrase like etxeko as a separate "locative genitive" case, but this is an error of analysis: such a form is a -ko phrase like any other.

Spanish Basque varieties have two copulas, izan (= Spanish ser) and egon (= Spanish estar); French Basque varieties make only limited use of the second as a copula but use it as the ordinary verb for `stay, wait'. The main verb `have' is ukan (that is, *edun) in the French Basque varieties; Spanish Basque varieties use eduki, which in the north means `hold'.


Basque has been in intense contact with Latin and Romance for 2000 years, and it has borrowed thousands of words from these neighboring languages. Here are a few of the very early loans from Latin: liburu `book'; harea `sand'; diru `money'; katea `chain'; ahate `duck'; errege `king'; lege `law'; gerezi `cherry'; ziape `mustard'; mila `1000'; porru `leek'; eztainu `tin'; bago ~ pago `beech'; aditu `hear, understand'; bedeinkatu `bless'; laket `be pleasing'.

Among later loans from Romance are zeru `sky'; putzu `well'; leku `place'; berde `green'; motz `short'; oilo `hen'; horma `wall'; kantu ~ kanta `song'; gustatu `be pleasing'; pintza `membrane'; mulo `haystack'; kobratu `collect (money)'; kotxe and boitura, both `car'.

A very few words are certainly or possibly very early loans from Celtic languages, including mando `mule', maite `beloved', and adar `horn'.

There are one or two loans from Arabic, including gutun `letter' and atorra `shirt'.

Nevertheless, the core of the vocabulary consists of indigenous words. A few examples: gizon `man'; alaba `daughter'; on `good'; handi `big'; beltz `black'; mendi `mountain'; ibai `river'; esku `hand'; buru `head'; zaldi `horse'; urde and zerri, both `pig'; argi `light, bright'; hotz `cold'; ur `water'; burdina `iron'; lur `earth'; iturri `spring'; etorri `come'; joan `go'; hartu `take'; jaio `be born'; egin `do, make'.

The late 19th-century nationalist Sabino de Arana coined many hundreds of neologisms, most of them badly formed. Only a few of these have found a place in the language: Euskadi `Basque state'; idatzi `write'; eratorri `derive'; ikurrin `(Basque) flag'; gudari `(Basque) soldier'; aberri `fatherland'; abertzale `patriot'. Most of his other eccentric creations are museum pieces today: donoki `heaven'; sendi 'family'; abesti `song'; olerkari `poet'; idazti `book'; gotzain `bishop'; and so on.

In recent years, the use of Basque for political, cultural, and technical purposes has led to the coining of thousands of neologisms. Here are just a few: hozkailu `refrigrator'; hauteskunde `election'; lagunkide `sympathizer'; sudurkari `nasal'; harremanak `relations'; biderkatu `multiply'; ikerketa `research'; ortzune `cosmos'; izenlagun `complex adjectival modifier'. In addition, a number of archaic and regional words have been pressed into service, such as berezkuntza `distinction' and etorki `origin, source'.

Particularly noteworthy is the use of independent words as prefixes in coining neologisms; the use of prefixes is entirely new in Basque. Examples: gainjarri `superimpose' (gain `top' plus jarri `put'); aurrehistoria `prehistory' (aurre `front'); kontrajardun `oppose' (kontra `against' plus jardun `be busy with').

The indigenous verb irauli `turn over' provides some good examples of modern word-formation. This has been given the extended meaning `revolt, rebel'. From it we have iraultza `revolution', with the native suffix -tza, which forms abstract nouns of action, and iraultzaile `revolutionary', with the native suffix -tzaile `one who performs'. This last yields kontrairaultzaile `counterrevolutionary', with the new prefix kontra `against', from the postposition kontra `against', which is borrowed from the Romance preposition contra.


The Basque numeral system is vigesimal. Here are the lower numerals and a representative sample of the others; the second form, where given, is French Basque.

  1 bat                   11 hamaika ~ hameka
  2 bi ~ biga             12 hamabi
  3 hiru ~ hirur          13 hamahiru ~ hamahirur
  4 lau ~ laur            14 hamalau ~ hamalaur
  5 bost ~ bortz          15 hamabost ~ hamabortz
  6 sei                   16 hamasei
  7 zazpi                 17 hamazazpi
  8 zortzi                18 hemezortzi
  9 bederatzi             19 hemeretzi
 10 hamar                 20 hogei ~ hogoi

 21 hogeitabat            31 hogeitahamaika
 22 hogeitabi             32 hogeitahamabi
 23 hogeitahiru           33 hogeitahamahiru
 24 hogeitalau
 25 hogeitabost           40 berrogei
 26 hogeitasei            41 berrogeitabat
 27 hogeitazazpi
 28 hogeitazortzi         50 berrogeitahamar
 29 hogeitabederatzi      51 berrogeitahamaika
 30 hogeitahamar
                          60 hirurogei
                          70 hirurogeitahamar
                          80 laurogei
                          90 laurogeitahamar
                         100 ehun
                        1000 mila

So, for example, 637 is written seirehun (ta) hogeitahamazazpi, while 2429 is written bi mila laurehun (ta) hogeitabederatzi.


Here is a sample passage in Basque, taken from an article on education in the magazine Argia.

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.

Let's analyze the first sentence. Eusko Jaurlaritza is `the Basque Government'; this is one of Sabino Arana's neologisms. The ending -ko marks this as a -ko phrase modifying Hezkuntza Saila `the Education Department'. This in turn bears the ergative suffix -k, marking it as the subject of a transitive verb. Next, aste is `week' and hon- is the stem of hau `this'; with the locative ending -n, this phrase means `this week'. (The morph -ta- is an anomaly found in certain local case-forms.) Now aurkeztu is the verb `introduce', here with the future suffix -ko, and du is the appropriate transitive auxiliary form; the ending -en shows that this is a relative clause modifying what comes next. Obviously, eskola mapa is `school map' (the article -a is invisible here); this bears the dative case-ending -i because it is the object of the postposition buruz `about', which governs the dative case. The word hainbat is `so many', or here just `many', and kezka is `problem'; this takes no article and no plural, because a quantifier like hainbat does not permit their presence. Finally, zabaldu is the perfective participle of the verb `spread' (here, better `open up'), and da is the appropriate intransitive auxiliary -- intransitive, because the verb is being used passively.

Fairly literal translation: So many problems have been opened up concerning the school map which the Education Department of the Basque Government will introduce this week.

Good translation: A number of difficulties have appeared with the school map which will be introduced this week by the Education Department of the Basque Government.

Now, the second sentence. The word sare is `net', here better `network', and publiko is `public'. Next, ordezkari is `representative', and it bears the dative plural ending -ei. The word ez is the negative `not', which induces a shifted word order. This is followed by the auxiliary form zaiela, which is intransitive and marked for no subject but for a third-plural indirect object (which we have just seen); this auxiliary also bears the suffix -la, which is comparable in function to English `that': it shows that this clause is a subordinate (complement) clause. Next, inolako means `of any kind' (this is a -ko phrase from the adverb inola `in any way'). Now informazio is `information'; it takes the partitive affix -(r)ik because it is the logical object of the negated verb coming up (which is, however, in the passive, so that informaziorik is technically its subject). That verb is eman `give'; the periphrastic form eman zaie means `has been given to them', but the full form here is ez zaiela ... eman, meaning `that (something) has not been given to them'. The verb haizatu is literally `blow', but it's being used metaphorically here to mean `protest, complain', and du is the appropriate transitive auxiliary form. Finally, EILAS sindikatua means `the EILAS syndicate', and the final ergative -k marks this as the subject of the transitive verb haizatu du.

Translation: The EILAS syndicate has complained that no information of any kind has been given to the representatives of the public school system.

The third sentence is slightly more complex. First, Argia is the name of the magazine, here with the ergative suffix -k. The verb jakin means `know' when it is imperfective, but `find out' when (as here) it stands in its perfective form. The now-familiar transitive auxiliary du takes two suffixes: -en to show that this is a subordinate clause, and the instrumental -z to express the sense of `as'. Naturally, sare pribatu is `private net(work)', with article -a and the locative case-suffix -n, meaning `in'. The verb geratu is `remain, stay', and the following auxiliary is dira, which is intransitive and marked for a third-plural subject; the suffix -en again shows that this a relative clause. The word ikastola means `Basque-language school', and here it takes the ergative plural ending -ek. The verb osatu is literally `complete', but here it should be read as `put together, form'; the transitive auxiliary this time is dute, marked for a third-plural subject, and this auxiliary too takes the suffix -en to show that it belongs to a relative clause. The phrase partaide kooperatiba means `cooperative partnership', and this too takes the ergative suffix. Next, eta is `and', and Eneko Oregi is a man's name, again with the ergative suffix. The adverb berriki means `recently'. Now comes a typical bit of Basque syntax. The verb izan is literally `be', but here it's being used suppletively to provide the perfective participle of the defective verb meaning `have'. The suffix -ta (here -da for phonological reasons) turns the participle into an adverb, so that it can now take the suffix -ko to produce a -ko phrase. This -ko phrase is the whole vast sequence beginning with sare pribatuan, a complete sentence with a non-finite verb which has been turned into a participial adverb. What all this modifies is merely bilera `meeting' (the article is again invisible). Now modu is `manner, way', and txar is `bad'; again we have the article -a and the locative ending -n, with a minor but regular phonological complication. Finally, amaitu is the perfective participle of the verb `finish', and zen is the intransitive auxiliary form, this time in the past tense, putting the whole verb form into the past.

Translation: As Argia has learned, the meeting recently held between the cooperative partnership formed by the ikastolas which have remained in the private system and Eneko Oregi ended badly.

Somewhat more literally, that long phrase in the middle is this: the meeting (which) the cooperative partnership which the ikastolas which have remained in the private system have formed and Eneko Oregi recently had.

Very literally: system private-the-in remained have-which ikastolas-the formed have-which partnership cooperative-the and Eneko Oregi recently had-ta-ko meeting-the.


There are two good textbooks of Basque in English:

  • King, Alan R. 1994. The Basque Language: A Practical Introduction. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
  • King, Alan R. and Begotxu Elordi Olaizola. 1996. Colloquial Basque. London: Routledge.
Both of these teach the Guipuzcoan variety of Donostia (San Sebastian); the second has an accompanying cassette.

There are many other textbooks, most of them in Spanish or French; these are highly variable in quality. There are also a number of teaching materials written entirely in Basque; these have to be used with a teacher.

At present the best reference grammar in English is this:

  • Saltarelli, Mario. 1988. Basque. London: Croom Helm.
This book is one of a well-known series based on a questionnaire, and it has the same strengths and weaknesses as the other volumes in the series: lots of information, especially on the fine points of syntax, but a strange and unhelpful organization and no index, making it difficult for the reader to look things up. This too describes the Guipuzcoan dialect.

The Dutch linguist Rudolf de Rijk is currently writing a grammar of Basque; I understand that it is well advanced, but as of July 1996 its publication has not yet been announced. I would expect this book to be more useful than the Saltarelli book.

A team of specialists under the general editorship of Jose Ignacio Hualde is drawing up plans for a projected reference grammar (in English) which will be very large and detailed, but this work is years away from completion.

There exists an excellent reference grammar of the French Basque varieties Labourdin and Low Navarrese:

  • Lafitte, Pierre. 1944. Grammaire basque (navarro-labourdin litteraire). Reprinted 1979, Donostia: ELKAR.
This is the best choice for someone interested particularly in the French Basque varieties, but note that it is linguistically unsophisticated and contains no adequate account of phonetics and phonology.

There is a comprehensive Basque-English dictionary:

  • Aulestia, Gorka. 1989. Basque-English Dictionary. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
This book includes a brief summary of points of grammar and word-formation. It has a companion volume:
  • Aulestia, Gorka and Linda White. 1990. English-Basque Dictionary. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
The second volume is more skeletal than the first, and it serves primarily as a guide to the first volume.

Basque-Spanish and Basque-French dictionaries are too numerous to list; most of these are practical dictionaries aimed at learners. The most important scholarly dictionary is this:

  • Azkue, R. M. de. 1905. Diccionario Vasco-Español-France's. 2 vols. Reprinted 1969, Bilbao: La Gran Enciclopedia Vasca.
Anyone interested in linguistic work on Basque must become familiar with this dictionary.

Since 1987 the Royal Basque Language Academy has been publishing a massive and comprehensive dictionary; only the first few volumes have so far appeared.

On the historical side, the best account of the history and prehistory of Basque is this:

  • Trask, R. L. 1996. The History of Basque. London: Routledge.
This book will be out in October or November 1996. It includes a history of the Basque Country, an external history of the language (that is, an account of the historical records available), a thumbnail sketch of the language, a detailed account of what is known about the prehistory of Basque phonology and grammar, an account of the sources of the Basque vocabulary, lists of structured vocabulary with etymologies (numerals, kinship terms, color terms, animal and plant names, day and month names, and so on), information on given names and surnames, house names, and place names, and a critical account of the attempts at finding links between Basque and other languages.

Larry Trask
School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH


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