oinkari basque dancers
Ikurrina 1985

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The Basque Language

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Brief History of Euskara

Written by: Itziar Laka

In the Middle Ages, the geographical area where Euskara was the main language covered all the Basque Provinces in their entirety, except for the western tip of Biscay and the southernmost tip of Navarre and Alava. For some centuries, this area expanded beyond the Basque Country to the south, into parts of the Rioja region and north of Burgos. It is also likely that in the high valleys of the Pyrenees, east of today's Basque Country, varieties of the language were alive well into the Middle Ages.

Since the Middle Ages, the area where Euskara is the main language of communication has shrank relentlessly. By the 18th century it lost large parts of the province of Alava, and during the 19th century large areas of Navarre lost the language as well. In contrast to the southern area, were the language has disappeared increasingly in the last three centuries, the northern borders of the Euskara speaking area have remained stable, probably due to the fact that the neighboring language was not French but rather Gascon, a very distinct variety of Occitan. Today, Euskara's territory has been reduced to Biscay, except the western tip and the city of Bilbao, Guipuscoa, the valley of Aramaio in the north of Alava, the northwestern area of Navarre and all the Northern Basque Country (the Basque area within French borders), except for the urban areas of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz.

The oldest traces of Euskara in history are a set of proper names found in Roman inscriptions in the Aquitanie. They consist mostly of person and divinity names, which are easily recognizable given modern Basque: thus for instance, Andere corresponds to andere 'woman, lady', and Nescato corresponds to neskato 'maiden'. There are also a few adjectives and suffixes that further confirm the fact that these are the first written traces of Euskara, dating from the first centuries after Christ.

While up to the present century the predominant and often only language used in the Euskara speaking area was Euskara, we cannot say the same about this century. Nowadays, even within the Euskara speaking region, a minority of the population knows the language: only a fourth of the inhabitants of the Basque country and slightly less than half of the inhabitants of the Euskara speaking area. However, the number of speakers is increasing in the younger generations of the areas that include Euskara at school, and there is also a large number of adults who have learned or are learning the language.

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