Basque Language
[ Issue 13 ]

Basque fascinates Emily Bronto

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Basque Language

In Issue 13 Harlish Goop turns his linguistic spotlight on that enigma of a language, Basque.

Because of its age, Basque is truly an orphan language

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


It's likely that even those of you who didn't study Latin at school are familiar with Julius Caesar's statement “All Gaul is divided into three parts” with which he begins his Gallic War. Indeed, if Caesar hadn't said something even more unforgettable (“I came, I saw, I conquered”), school children would have remembered those seven words as the most famous ever uttered in ancient Rome.

In Caesar's time the three tribes of Gaul were known as the Belgae, the Aquitani and the Celtae, each with their own language. Unlike many surrounding languages, the language of the Aquitani was not Indo-European but is thought to have been similar to that of the neighbouring Vascones. This latter people lived on both slopes of the western Pyrenees, and their name has given us the word for the most extraordinary language in modern Europe — Basque.

Today I want to briefly canvass what fascinates me about the Basque language, and to do that I first must offer a note on the term “Indo-European”.

One of the preoccupations of 19th century language scholars was attempting to reconstruct the relationships between the better-known European and Asian languages. One thing they soon realised was that the languages of most of Europe and those of Asia as far east as the Bay of Bengal all belonged to the same group. This language group came to be called Indo-European.

Linguists now believe that the speakers of the ancestral Indo-European grandmother tongue originated in about 5000 to 6000 BC somewhere north of the Danube basin, where they led a semi-nomadic existence. By 3000 BC some dialectal varieties of the Indo-European language were already established. Ultimately there developed nine main language subgroups — Albanian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indian and Italic. Among the scores of ancient and modern languages descending from that same Indo-European proto-language we can thus list those as diverse and just about mutually unintelligible as Greek, Latin, German, Russian, Persian, Sanskrit and English.

And what of poor old Basque?

Old is right. Long before the Romans or even the much earlier Celts had spread over their lands, the Basques occupied the southern corner of the Bay of Biscay, as they do today. Exactly how old the Basques are is not known, but the culture dates back at least to Palaeolithic times, which makes their language the most ancient language of Europe in terms of continuous occupation of the territory where it spoken. As old as those hills that isolated it from the Indo-European tidal wave which washed traces of all other prehistoric tongues from the mouth and ear of mankind.

The oldest texts in Basque date from the sixteenth century, though there are inscriptions dating back to Roman times.

(Incidentally, as with the word “Basque”, so with “Biscay” and “Gascony” — all are derivatives of the Latin “Vascones”. The Basque word for their own language is “Euskara”.)

Because of its age, Basque is truly an orphan language, entirely unrelated structurally or historically to any language now spoken anywhere on the planet, or indeed to any known ever to have existed. Mind you, many attempts, none conclusive, have been made to find connections between Basque and other languages — the Caucasian language family (around the Caspian and Black seas), for example, and even various North African languages. There was a time, in fact, when some scholars cherished the belief that Basque was the language spoken by all humanity before the Tower of Babel was destroyed. Such ideas are typical of myths that persist about Basque, such as the false notion that no outsider can possibly learn it.

In the late twentieth century, of course, we over here in Australia have heard nothing about the Basque language. Instead we have developed negative views about the Basque people, with zealous nationalism getting all its press coverage in terms of acts of terrorism by ETA on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. (Their less numerous French brothers keep a much lower profile.) ETA stands for “Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna”, meaning “Basque Homeland and Liberty”.

While we cannot condone such violence, it is understandable why they want to preserve their unique culture after centuries of domination by Celts, Romans, Catholic Church, French, Castilians and, in particular, Franco's fascist Spain. In the latter period, local schools were forbidden to teach the language, as were the media and churches prohibited from using it. Public places bore Spanish signs only, no Basque names were permitted in baptism, books in the Basque language were ceremoniously burned and Basque inscriptions on tombstones removed.

Such bitter memories linger long, and the desire to preserve the national identity, including the language, is at root no different from its recent resurgence elsewhere. In this context, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Innuit, Kurd and Australian Aboriginal culture come readily to one’s mind.

Happily, by the early 1960s official policy had changed. Gradually Basque reappeared in church services, schools and on radio. In 1980, the first Basque Parliament was elected, with Euskara recognised as one of its official languages. Simultaneously, Basque literature has burgeoned, particularly poetry. There is now a Basque public TV channel.

Nevertheless, if the world isn't careful, the days of Basque as a viable language are numbered. Yes, despite an increasing and devoted interest in it by Internet enthusiasts from as far away as Norway, England, Germany and Canada, Basque is an endangered species. Today Basque speakers total less than 600,000 in Spain and 100,000 in France. Not all are equally proficient, however. While many understand the language, few of them make much of an attempt to speak it, let alone write it. Hence the following warning:

Hizkuntza bat ez da galtzen ez dakitenek ikasten ez dutelako, dakitenek hitzegiten ez dutelako baizik.

(A language does not disappear because those who don't know it don't learn it, but because those who know it don't speak it.)

I'll leave you with a few intriguing pieces of Basque trivia.

The Basques may well have been those “Saracens” who defeated Roland, Charlemagne's chief paladin, in the celebrated rearguard action at the Pass of Roncesvalles in Navarra in 778 AD. The battle was depicted in the twelfth century epic poem La Chanson de Roland.

The Basque word “Jinkoa” (= God) is believed to be the origin of both the phrase “by jingo”, and the word “jingoism”.

Converted to Christianity around 600 AD, the Basque people have brought forth many priests, and at least one saint. None is more illustrious than St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, i.e. the Jesuits, and canonised in 1622. He was born in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa.

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