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Basque: Not So Exotic, but Uniquely Interesting

By Tom Thompson

Basque is a language that’s particularly attractive to language specialists, who often mention it as an example of a different, even exotic, language. The 2.2 million Basques of Spain, who inhabit four of the seven ancestral Basque provinces (France’s 250,000 Basques live in the other three), speak Euskara, which has no modern relative and predates the Indo-European invasion of Iberia around 9,000 B.C.

Because of its age, Basque is truly an orphan language, entirely unrelated structurally or historically to any language now spoken anywhere. There was a time when scholars believed that Basque was the language spoken by humanity before the Tower of Babel. There was a myth, too, that Basque could not be learned by an outsider. More accurately, learning Basque is like learning any other language, beginning with some simple vocabulary, trying to refine pronunciation, getting control of complex sentences and then eventually speaking with some degree of fluency.

Not that Basque is an easy choice for an English speaker. The typical word order is not Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), as in English, but rather Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). Basque is also agglutinative, with multiple prefixes or suffixes added to a root to create a phrase, or even a sentence. Basque is also ergative, meaning that there’s a special case marker for the subject of transitive verbs. Under certain restrictions suffixes may be heaped on one another. Intensity may be expressed by repeating a word twice (“very hot” is bero-bero).

All of these semantic features make for a learning challenge, but not an insurmountable one. The sound pattern of Basque is on the whole straightforward. Although Basque features some dialectical variation in stress, all Basque has a distinct musicality. It places a high-pitched weak stress on the second syllable of a syntagma, and a low-pitched even-weaker stress on its last syllable. Hissing sibilants are typical.

In some ways, as a language, Basque is not so uniquely different as it is uniquely isolated, a characteristic that Basques themselves have been making about the need for self-government for many years. In the spirit of a separatist claim, Basques have the highest incidence of Type O and Rh negative blood in the world.

Their history has been tumultuous one. The most recent expression was when Basques supported the defeated republicans in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. Basques were punished by Francisco Franco, who banned their language, and tried to crush their identity until he died in 1975. But the language survived the radar of the dictatorship through clandestine efforts in homes, in villages, and in churches. In the process, Bosque nationalism has been a prominent feature against the vision of a homogenous Spain. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 allows co-official language status for Basque.

Throughout the 20th century, the rise of Basque nationalism has stimulated increased language interest as a sign of ethnic identity. This has affected the large numbers of Basques who have left the Basque Country (Euskal Herria) to settle in other parts of the world, working often in shepherding and ranching and in steel making and the maritime industry. An easy example from all over the world is the growing number of Euskal Etxea, Basque Centers, or in the U.S. the preschool movement beginning in Boise, Idaho, Boisekio Ikastolad. Thus, Basque is certain to prove itself a master of reinvention and a language of resilience. A common Basque proverb is “happiness is the only thing we can give without having” (Izan gabe eman dezakegun gauza bakarra da zoriona).

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Aritcles by Tom Thompson

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