questions about Basques
Related links: Land of the Basques promotional video clip
The Basque Country: Insight into its culture, history, society and
"Basques" in answers.com
by Larry Trask (1944-2004)
Q1. Where is Basque
A1. At the western end
of the Pyrenees, along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The
Basque-speaking region runs from the city of Bayonne in
France west to the city of Bilbao in Spain, a distance of
about 100 miles (160 kilometers); it extends inland about 30
miles (50 kilometers), not quite reaching the city of
Q2. Was Basque formerly
spoken in a larger area?
A2. Yes, certainly. In
the Middle Ages it was spoken throughout the entire
territory of the Basque Country, the region which is
historically, ethnically, and culturally Basque. This
includes the four Spanish provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa,
Alava, and Navarra, as well as the three former French
provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule (now
officially obliterated and incorporated into the French
department of Pyrénées-Atlantique). In the early Middle Ages
Basque was also spoken in the Spanish province of Burgos and
in adjoining parts of the Rioja, and it was spoken in the
Pyrenees as far east as the valley of Arán, in territory
which is Catalan-speaking today. In Roman times the language
was spoken throughout southwestern Gaul (France), as far
north as the Garonne.
Q3. How many people speak
A3. About 660,000,
according to the 1991 census. Fewer than 80,000 of these are
on the French side of the frontier which runs through the
Basque Country, the rest on the Spanish side.
Q4. Where does Basque come
A4. It doesn't really
"come from" anywhere -- it's just been there for a very long
time. Western Europe has been inhabited for tens of
thousands of years, but for most of that time writing was
unknown and hence we have no records of the languages
spoken. In the second half of the first millennium BC,
writing was introduced into southern and eastern Spain by
the Phoenicians and the Greeks, but it didn't reach the
ancestral Basques farther north. It was only the Roman
conquest of Gaul and Spain in the first century BC that
brought writing to the Basques, and only from that time do
we have any written records of the Basques.
Like the Celtic and Germanic
languages, the Latin language of the Romans was an
Indo-European language, descended from an ancestral language
originally spoken far to the east. As these Indo-European
languages spread slowly westward across Europe, they
gradually displaced most of the earlier languages, which
died out. By the time the Romans arrived, an ancestral form
of Basque, which we call Aquitanian, was the only
pre-Indo-European language still surviving in Gaul. The
position in Spain was much more complicated, with several
pre-Indo-European languages still spoken, including
Aquitanian and the famous Iberian, but all these
others were soon displaced by Latin. Uniquely among the
pre-Indo-European languages of western Europe, Basque has
refused to die out and has survived down to the present day,
though, as Q2 makes clear, the language has been gradually
losing territory for a long time.
So: the ancestral form of
Basque was introduced into western Europe long, long ago --
at least thousands of years ago, and maybe even tens of
thousands of years ago. Nobody knows. All the other modern
languages of western Europe arrived much later.
Q5. Is Basque the oldest
language in Europe?
A5. The question is
meaningless. Except for creoles, which arise from pidgins
and are a special case, all languages are equally
"old", in that all descend in an unbroken line from the
earliest human speech. What we can say about Basque
is that its ancestor was spoken in western Europe before
(possibly long before) the ancestors of all the other modern
western European languages arrived there. That is, Spanish,
French, English, Irish, and all the others are descended
from languages which were introduced into western Europe
(from farther east) at a time when the ancestor of Basque
was already there.
Q6. Is Basque related to
any other languages?
A6. No. The ancient
Aquitanian language was, of course, an ancestral form of
Basque, as we can easily see by examining the personal names
and divine names of the Aquitanian-speakers, which are all
that is recorded of Aquitanian. But the most strenuous
efforts at finding other relatives for Basque have been
complete failures: obviously the relatives that Basque once
had have died out without trace. People have tried to
connect Basque with Berber, Egyptian, and other African
languages, with Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, Minoan,
Sumerian, the Finno-Ugric languages, the Caucasian
languages, the Semitic languages, with Burushaski (another
language with no known relatives, spoken in the Himalayas)
-- in fact, with almost all the languages of Africa and
Asia, living and dead, and even with languages of the
Pacific and of North America. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Basque
absolutely cannot be shown to be related to any other
language at all. Some people will try to tell you
differently, but, not to mince words, they don't know what
they're talking about, and the great majority of them don't
even know anything about Basque.
Q7. Has Basque influenced
the neighboring languages?
A7. Very little.
Perhaps the chief reason Basque has survived is that the
Romans had very little interest in the Basque Country and
they largely left the Basques alone. As a result, the region
was not romanized until very late. By the same token, Basque
had little influence on the neighboring languages -- though
Basque itself has borrowed thousands of words from Latin and
its Romance descendants like Gascon and Castilian. In the
Middle Ages, though, when the Basque-speaking Kingdom of
Navarre was powerful, a number of Basque words were borrowed
into local varieties of Spanish, including Castilian, but
very few of these have survived. One which has survived is
Castilian izquierdo `left (hand)', which is borrowed
from the synonymous Basque ezker, or more precisely
from an unrecorded Basque derivative *ezkerdo.
It has often been suggested
that Castilian Spanish originated as a form of Latin spoken
by Basques, but the evidence for this idea does not stand
up. See Chapter 6 of my book The History of Basque,
which explains all this in great detail.
Q8. Is Basque exceedingly
difficult to learn?
A8. Not at all. Today
thousands of people speak Basque as a second language; among
these are native speakers of Spanish, French, English,
Dutch, German, Japanese, and other languages. In fact,
Basque is a rather easy language to pick up, while mastering
it is no more difficult than mastering any other language.
The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is regular, there is
no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or
verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly
any irregular verbs.
Q9. Is it true that all
the verbs in Basque are passive?
A9. No, this is
nonsense. This crazy idea arose in the 19th century among
European linguists who were looking at Basque for the first
time. Basque has what we now call ergative morphology,
which means that subjects and objects of sentences are
marked in a somewhat different way from the way they are
marked in most other European languages. (This is explained
on the page containing a brief description of Basque.) Those
linguists had never seen an ergative language before (though
there are hundreds of them on other parts of the planet),
and they were trying desperately to make Basque look more
like the languages they were familiar with. As a result,
they came up with this "passive" theory of Basque, which we
now know to be ridiculously wrong.
Q10. Is it true that
Basque lacks words for abstractions or for modern
A10. Certainly not.
Like other languages, Basque has plenty of words for
abstract concepts of all kinds, and it has word-forming
devices for creating new abstract words at will. Until
recently, Basque did indeed lack a vocabulary for talking
about things like physics, engineering, and linguistics,
simply because nobody had ever wanted to talk about these
things in Basque. Today people do want to talk about
these things in Basque, and so thousands of new words have
been introduced into the language to make this possible.
Modern Basque can be used to speak or write about anything
at all. I myself have written technical articles on
linguistics in Basque; at least one doctoral thesis on
medical science has been written in Basque; I recently saw
an article in Basque in an international scholarly journal
Q11. Is Basque an official
A11. Yes. In 1979 the
three Spanish Basque Provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and
Alava were united under the Basque Autonomous Government,
and Basque is co-official with Spanish within this
territory: it is used for government documents and
publications, and knowledge of it is required for certain
jobs. For complex historical reasons, the fourth Basque
province in the south, Navarra, declined to join the
Autonomous Region, but today Navarra constitutes its own
autonomous region, and Basque has a measure of official
standing within its borders. Basque has no official standing
in the French Basque Country: like the other regional
languages of France, it has been victimized for centuries by
the French language laws, which are deeply hostile to
languages other than French.
Q12. Is Basque gaining or
losing ground today?
A12. This is a
complicated question. On the one hand, the number of
Basque-speakers has actually increased significantly within
the last generation, and there are now, for perhaps the
first time in the history of Basque, thousands of people who
speak it as a second language. And in many ways the
circumstances of the language are better than ever before:
the Basque Government promotes the teaching and use of
Basque, the language is required for certain jobs, and there
is a great deal of education, publishing, and broadcasting
in Basque, including a daily newspaper, a television
station, and a number of radio stations. On the other hand,
Basque faces the same enormous pressures as all other
minority languages: knowledge of the national language
(Spanish or French) is absolutely required, and the great
bulk of education, publishing, and broadcasting are in the
national language. Even the most remote Basque farmhouse is
bombarded with radio and TV broadcasts in the national
language, and its inhabitants must still conduct much of
their daily business in that language. Especially in the
Spanish Basque Country, a further difficulty is the presence
of a huge number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who came to
find work; these immigrants rarely learn Basque and deeply
resent efforts to make Basque the primary medium in such
spheres as local politics and primary education.
Q13. What literature
exists in Basque?
A13. Some songs and
poems which were composed in the Middle Ages were later
written down and survive today. But publication in Basque
only began in 1545, with a collection of poems written by
the French Basque Bernard Etxepare (whose surname can be
spelled in about six other ways). Publication in Basque has
been continuous since the late 16th century, though most of
the early works were religious in nature. From the early
19th century we find a steadily increasing number of plays,
poems, and novels, and today Basque literature is
flourishing. Recently Bernardo Atxaga's prize-winning novel
Obabakoak became the first Basque novel ever to be
translated into English, to general acclaim.
Q14. What does written
Basque look like?
A14. Here's a sample,
taken from 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. Eskola Maparen
barruan diseinatu beharreko banaketaren gainean ez zaiela
inolako zehaztasunik eskaini leporatzen diote Hezkuntza
Sailari. Bestalde, sare publikoaren aldeko hautua egin zuten
ikastolen artean ere, arazo bera bizi dela jakin dugu.
Q15. How can I learn
Click on Learning Euskara
Q16. How do the Basques
refer to themselves, their country, and their language?
A16. The Basques call
their language euskara (dialect variants euskera
and eskuara). The word euskaldun (literally,
`one who has Basque') means `Basque-speaker'; the plural is
euskaldunak, and this is what the Basques commonly
call themselves. Where necessary, a native speaker is euskaldun zahar (literally, `old Basque'), while a
person who has learned Basque as a second language is euskaldun berri (`new Basque'). The neologism
euskotar means `(ethnic) Basque', and can be applied to
any Basque, whether or not he speaks the language; the word
basko, borrowed from Spanish, has also been used in
this sense. The Basques have traditionally called their
country Euskal Herria, which means `the Basque
Country'; this designation includes the territory of the
traditional seven provinces, north and south. The neologism
Euskadi means `the Basque state'; this is the name of
the territory administered by the Basque Autonomous
Government, but it is sometimes applied more widely to the
entire Basque Country as a demonstration of political
Q17. Are the Basques
genetically different from other Europeans?
A17. Apparently, yes.
It has long been known that the Basques have the highest
proportion of rhesus-negative blood in Europe (25%), and one
of the highest percentages of type-O blood (55%). Recently,
however, the geneticist Luiga Luca Cavalli-Sforza has
completed a gene map of the peoples of Europe, and he finds
the Basques to be strikingly different from their neighbors.
The genetic boundary between Basques and non-Basques is very
sharp on the Spanish side. On the French side, the boundary
is more diffuse: it shades off gradually toward the Garonne
in the north. These findings are entirely in agreement with
what we know of the history of the language.
Q18. Does this mean the
Basques are directly descended from the earliest known human
inhabitants of Europe, the Cro-Magnon people who occupied
western Europe around 35,000 years ago?
A18. Nobody knows.
This is possible, but we have no real evidence either way.
The only evidence we have is negative: the archeologists can
find no evidence for any sudden change in population in the
area for thousands of years before the arrival of the Celts
and later the Romans in the first millennium BC.
Q19. Are there any famous
A19. A fair number.
Here are some: the explorer Elkano (who completed the first
circumnavigation of the globe after Magellan was killed in
the Philippines), the philosopher and writer Miguel de
Unamuno, the novelists Pío Baroja, Robert Laxalt and
Bernardo Atxaga, the composers J. C. Arriaga (who died very
young), Jesús Guridi and Maurice Ravel (whose mother was
Basque), the violinist Pablo Sarasate, the sculptor Eduardo
Txillida, the cyclist Miguel Indurain, the golfer José María
Olazabal, the tennis-players Jean Borotra and Nathalie
Tauziat, the politician Dolores Ibarruri, the historian
Esteban de Garibay, the religious leaders Ignatius of Loyola
(who founded the Jesuits) and Valentín Berriochoa, the
general Tomás Zumalacárregui, all the kings of the medieval
Kingdom of Navarre, and any number of Spanish soccer-players
and French rugby-players. Of course, there are many other
people of Basque descent who were not born in the Basque
Country, such as the Spanish writer Madariaga and the
Frenchman Louis Daguerre (who invented photography).
Q20. Why has there been
all this trouble in the Basque Country?
A20. That's a long
story. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Basque provinces,
north and south, were largely self-governing, and they had a
vigorous tradition of local democracy. Over time, of course,
Basque autonomy came under increasing pressure from Paris
and Madrid. In the north, Basque rights were abruptly swept
away by the French Revolution. In the south, autonomy lasted
longer, but in the 19th century it came under attack from
centralist governments in Madrid, leading to major civil
wars on two occasions and to the enforced removal of the
traditional Basque rights.
From the late 19th century,
the Spanish Basques, fearing for their language and their
culture, began pressing for reforms and for greater
autonomy. This strictly peaceful campaign was interrupted by
the installation of a right-wing dictatorship in Spain in
the 1930s, but regained its momentum after the restoration
of democracy. But then a military coup in 1936 led to the
Spanish Civil War and to the establishment of a brutal
Fascist dictatorship in Spain under General Franco. The
Basques, who had fought against the Fascists during the war,
suffered terribly during the war and under the subsequent
Fascist oppression: quite apart from the death and
destruction caused by the war itself (including the
deliberate destruction of two Basque cities by Hitler's air
force), the Basques found themselves singled out for
particular vengeance by Franco. Basque soldiers and
politicians who had not managed to flee into exile were
imprisoned, condemned to forced labor, tortured, and often
shot; all outward signs of Basque identity were prohibited,
and the very speaking of Basque was declared illegal.
Permitted no legal voice, the
Basques gradually began to organize clandestinely to discuss
what might be done. A student discussion group founded in
1953 and originally called EKIN changed its name in 1959 to
ETA and began to contemplate more active resistance. At
first ETA was in no way violent, but every attempt at a
political gesture was met by savagery from the Spanish
police and courts: arbitrary arrests, routine beatings and
torture, and long jail sentences. Eventually ETA took the
plunge into violence of its own and began assassinating
known torturers and murderers among the Spanish authorities.
The police reacted with ever greater violence of their own:
uniformed police tortured and murdered Basques with complete
impunity, death squads composed of off-duty policemen
carried out further murders, and there were armed attacks on
whole communities described by foreign observers as "police
Faced with such violence, ETA
gradually became ever less choosy in its targets, and began
gunning for any police or soldiers they could get at. In a
technically expert operation which would prove to have
far-reaching consequences, ETA managed to assassinate
Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the anointed heir of the aging
Franco. As a result, when Franco finally died in 1975, a
democratic government took control in Madrid; elections were
held, and the Basque Autonomous Government was set up in
1979, with wide-ranging powers.
This outcome satisfied most
people in the Basque Country, and most of the members of ETA
quietly left the organization to resume normal lives. But a
modest number of hard-core members remained, and continued a
program of increasing violence all over Spain, in the hope
of obtaining complete independence for the Basque Country.
Army officers became favorite targets, and bombs were placed
in popular tourist resorts with the intention of damaging
the valuable tourist industry; even the new Basque police
force came under attack. The new governments in both Madrid
and the Basque Country made vigorous efforts to put a stop
to this violence, but so far they have enjoyed only partial
success. And that's where things stand today.
Q21. Are there any Basque
words in English?
A21. Not many, but
there are one or two. One is silhouette, which has a
very interesting history. The English word is taken from
French, in which it derives from the surname of a certain
Etienne de Silhouette, a French politician of the 18th
century. This is a French spelling of the Basque surname Zilhueta, a French Basque variant of the surname
Zulueta or Zuloeta; this in turn derives from zulo `hole' (zilo in part of the north) plus the
very frequent suffix -eta `abundance of'. This
surname was doubtless given originally to someone who lived
where there were many holes in the ground, or perhaps more
likely caves. In Shakespeare's day, there was an English
word bilbo for a sword of outstanding quality; this
derives from the name of the Basque city of Bilbao (Bilbo
in Basque), since the Basque Country was known at the time
for its excellent iron and steel goods. The American English
word chaparral derives via Spanish from Basque txaparra `scrub'. But the idea that English
derives from Basque Jinko `God' is probably wrong.
A Basque-speaker. The word is formed from euskara 'Basque language'
and -dun 'who has'; it literally means 'one who has (i.e., speaks)
Basque'. This is an unusual case of a people naming themselves after
their language. In spite of some misunderstanding by outsiders,
euskaldun still today means only `Basque-speaker', and never 'ethnic
Basque' (compare euskotar). When necessary, a distinction is made
between euskaldun zahar 'old Basque' for a native speaker and
euskaldun berri 'new Basque' for a person who has learned Basque as
a second language (there are now thousands of these). Northern
varieties have a variant called 'eskualdun'.
-- Larry Trask
Source: Larry Trask's Basque Page.
Reproduced here in case it is re/moved. [http://www.cogs.susx.ac.uk/users/larryt/basque.faqs.html]