Language of the Month: Basque

Language of the Month: Basque

What an amazing language! Completely isolated from any other language since the Stone Age, Basque (or Euskara) sits across the mountain border between France and Spain. It predates the Indo-European languages which dominate the European linguistic landscape and there is an argument that it was the chthonic (aboriginal) language spoken by the very first inhabitants of Europe as they migrated, slowly, from the Indo-European homelands near the Black Sea, throughout southern Europe and into the Iberian Peninsula. Subsequent population pressure then pushed the Basques into the Pyrenean mountains where they continue to thrive.

Basque costume

And they certainly did thrive. “The Basque History of the World” by Mark Kurlansky tells the story of this enterprising population. Deliberately liminal to the increasing political separation in Europe, they kept their identity by refusing to be absorbed by the surrounding polities of what became France, Spain, Catalonia. Their mountains helped them, providing hard-to-attack retreats, deep canyons and defensible killing grounds. They tell the story of their stout fishing boats sailing over a wild Atlantic to the Newfoundland coast in search of cod. When asked why they did not land, they shrugged and said “No cod on the shore.” Singleminded or what?  Who cares about discovering North America: we have cider and cod…

Linguistically, Basque is quite fascinating. Like March’s Language of the Month, Ainu, it is ergative, meaning that the objects of transitive verbs and the subjects of intransitive verbs are, grammatically, treated the same. English, Latin, Japanese, French and other nominative-accusative languages treat ‘She’ in the pair of sentences: ‘She hit him” and “She smiled” with the same nominative case, and ‘him’ with a different case, namely the accusative or object case. Ergative languages apply the same case to ‘him’ in the first sentence and ‘she’ in the second. It’s also agglutinative, with many syllables being concatenated to form complex word-forms. To the English speaker this seems strange, because English is an isolating language, where, for example, parts of a verb are written separately: “I would have wished to have gone to Ithaca”. In agglutinative languages it’s more like “I wouldhavewishedtohavegone to Ithaca”.

The Basque language is pretty vibrant, considering its isolation and the surrounding linguistic politics. The first map shows the percentage of schoolchildren registered in Basque-speaking schools, a key indicator of social support for the language.

Percentage of schoolchildren going to Basque-speaking Schools (Spanish Basque country)

This second map shows another critical indicator of the future health of the language, namely the extent to which parents use Basque with their children. Both indicators show a real interest not only preserving the language in aspic but retaining it as a living expression of social and cultural identity, which is why it’s one of Tribalingual’s chosen languages.

Percentage of families using Basque as primary language to children

Basque culture is incredibly rich and vibrant, with a strong emphasis on food culture. Cider is the drink of choice, to wash down a huge variety of dishes, based on fish in the coastal regions (like kokotzas – hake cheek) and on dairy and beef up in the mountains. The Basques take food VERY seriously, with many towns having traditions of the txikiteo, a crawl from one pintxos (tapas) bar to another involving much wine, much conversation, much amusement and many, many calories. What’s not to like…?

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