North American Basque Organizations
  A federation of organizations to sustain BASQUE culture


  Izan ziralako, gara, eta garalako izango dira  
"Because they were, we are, and because we are they will be"
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Eguberri eta
Urte Berri On!

Merry Christmas &
Happy New Year!

Feliz Navidad y
Prospero A
ño Nuevo!

Joyeux No
ël et
Bonne Ann





Larry Trask
Euskara Pages


Scroll down to read about the following:
Frequently asked questions about Basque & the Basques
Introduction & history of Basque
Prehistory & connections with other languages
Basque words & culture
Color terms
Metal terms
Letter H in Basque
Monosyllabic words
Linguistic notes

Original internet source: Larry Trask's page at

Frequently asked questions about Basque

Q1. Where is Basque spoken?

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 Pamplona.

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 Basque?

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 from?

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 technology?

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 of chemistry.

Q11. Is Basque an official language anywhere?

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. For an explanation of the first part of this, see my sketch of the language on another page.

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 Basque?

A15. There are lots of courses available in the Basque Country, if you can get there. In the USA, the University of Nevada at Reno offers instruction in the language; you can find a link to their home page from my main Basque page. There are two good textbooks of Basque in English:

Alan King (1994), The Basque Language, Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Alan King and Begotxu Olaizola Elordi (1996), Colloquial Basque, London: Routledge.

The first is much larger and contains more grammar; it is also more expensive. The second is briefer, but it comes with a pair of cassettes for practicing pronunciation.

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 feeling.

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 Basques?

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 riots".

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 By jingo! derives from Basque Jinko `God' is probably wrong.

euskaldun. Noun. 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


Introduction & History of Basque

The Basque language (in Basque, euskara) is spoken by about 660,000 people (1991 census) at the western end of the Pyrenees, along the Bay of Biscay. The Franco-Spanish frontier runs through the middle of the country, leaving perhaps 80,000 speakers on the French side and the remaining half million or so on the Spanish side. The Basque-speaking region runs for about 100 miles (160 km) from west to east and for about 30 miles (50 km) from north to south. The language is found in most of the Spanish provinces of Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa, in northern Navarre, in part of Alava, and in the three former French provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule, which now form part of the departement of Pyrenees-Atlantique. The language now occupies about half of the Basque Country (Basque Euskal Herria), the territory which is historically and ethnically Basque; Basque has been lost in modern times from the southern half of the country.

An ancestral form of Basque, called Aquitanian, is attested in the Roman period in the form of about 400 personal names and 70 divine names. Many of the elements in these names are transparently Basque. Examples: Aq. Nescato, Bq. neskato `young girl'; Aq. Cison, Bq. gizon `man'; Aq. Andere, Bq. andere `lady'; Aq. Sembe-, Bq. seme `son'; Aq. Ombe-, Umme, Bq. ume `child'; Aq. Sahar, Bq. zahar `old'; Aq. Osso-, Bq. otso `wolf'. Aquitanian is chiefly attested north of the Pyrenees, in Gaul; it is only sparsely recorded south of the Pyrenees, and most specialists believe the language must have extended its territory to the south and west after the collapse of Roman power in the west.

In the early medieval period Basque was spoken throughout the modern provinces of Navarre and Alava, in much of the Rioja and Burgos, and in the Pyrenees as far east as the valley of Aran. Since that time the language has been gradually losing ground to Spanish and Catalan, though the frontier with Gascon in the north has been highly stable.

Apart from the Aquitanian materials, the first evidence of Basque is the Emilian Glosses, two glosses in a Latin manuscript usually dated to about AD 950. (Interestingly, the same manuscript contains the first attestation of Castilian Spanish.) Thereafter we find a steady trickle of glosses, glossaries, single words, magical charms, poems, songs, and other materials, as well as a large number of personal names and place names, and a few longer texts such as personal letters. The first published book in Basque was a collection of poems entitled Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, published by the French Basque Bernard Detchepare in 1545. Since then publication in Basque has been continuous, apart from periods of persecution during two dictatorships in Spain.

The most strenuous efforts have been made to identify genetic links between Basque and other languages. With the single exception of Aquitanian, all these attempts have been failures, and there is no shred of persuasive evidence that Basque is related to any other language at all, living or dead. The frequent suggestions to the contrary in the literature may be safely disregarded; most of these, in any case, are the work of non-specialists who know little about Basque.

Basque is thus the sole survivor of the ancient pre-Indo-European languages of Europe. Some enthusiasts have therefore concluded that the Basques themselves must be the direct survovors of the earliest known human inhabitants of Europe, the Cro-Magnon people, but there is no way of evaluating such a claim. It is noteworthy, however, that the geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who has compiled a genetic map of Europe, observes that the Basques are genetically sharply distinct from their neighbors, particularly in Spain; in France, the genetic boundary between Basques and non-Basques is more diffuse and shades off toward the Garonne, an observation which is entirely in line with what is known about the history of the language.


For centuries there was no standard orthography, and Basque was written with Romance spelling conventions supplemented by various additional devices to represent sounds not present in Romance. During the early years of the 20th century, a bizarre and impractical orthography employing a blizzard of pointless diacritics was widely used; this largely disappeared after the Spanish Civil War. In 1964 the Royal Basque Language Academy (Euskaltzaindia) promulgated a new standard orthography; this met some resistance at first but is now almost universally used.

The Basque alphabet is as follows: a b d e f g h i j k l m n ñ o p r s t u x z. The letters c q v w y are not considered part of the alphabet, but are of course used in writing foreign words and names; when necessary, they take their ordinary place in the alphabet. The digraphs dd ll rr ts tt tx tz represent single sounds, but they are regarded as sequences of letters, not as separate single letters. One other digraph, dz, is used in writing a few onomatopoeic items, but not otherwise.


There is no standard pronunciation of Basque, but the regional variation is not great, and the standard orthography represents most regional accents rather well. The chief differences are the presence or absence of the aspiration, the pronunciation of rr, and above all the pronunciation of j.

  • Consonants:

    • Plosives:

        Bilabial /p b/
        Dental   /t d/
        Palatal  /tt dd/ (in some varieties only)
        Velar    /k g/

      The French Basque varieties also have aspirated plosives /ph th kh/; these are not represented in the standard orthography.


    • Fricatives (all voiceless):

        Labiodental     /f/
        Lamino-alveolar /z/
        Apico-alveolar  /s/
        Palato-alveolar /x/
        Glottal         /h/ (French Basque varieties only)

      (Many western varieties have lost the /z/-/s/ contrast in speech.)

      See also the diaphone |j| below.


    • Affricates (all voiceless):

        Lamino-alveolar: /tz/
        Apico-alveolar:  /ts/
        Palato-alveolar: /tx/

      (Many western varieties have lost the /tz/-/ts/ contrast in speech.)


    • Nasals:

        Bilabial: /m/
        Alveolar: /n/
        Palatal:  /ñ/

      (The palatal nasal is in fact often spelled in, rather than ñ.)


    • Laterals:

        Alveolar: /l/
        Palatal: /ll/

      (The palatal lateral is often spelled il, rather than ll.)


    • Rhotics:

        Tap:   /r/
        Trill: /rr/ (This is a voiced uvular fricative for many French Basques.)

      (These two contrast only between vowels, and only r is written in all other positions.)


    • Diaphone:

      There is one more consonant, spelled <j>, whose pronunciation varies dramatically across the country. Depending on region, this is a voiced palatal glide (like English <y>), a voiced palatal plosive (like /dd/ above), a voiced palatal affricate (resembling English <j>), a voiced palatal fricative (resembling French <j>), a voiceless palatal fricative (like /x/ above), or a voiceless velar or uvular fricative (like Castilian Spanish <j>).


  • Vowels:


         /i e a o u/ 

    (The Souletin dialect has also a front rounded vowel /u"/ and a set of contrastive nasalized vowels.)


  • Diphthongs:


         /ai ei oi ui au eu/


  • Word-accent:

    Many western varieties have a pitch-accent. Most other varieties have a stress-accent, but the details vary considerably according to region.



Nominal morphology is strongly agglutinating. Verbal morphology is also strongly agglutinating, but at the same time it exhibits a high degree of analytical character. The language is exclusively suffixing, apart from a few prefixes found in verbal morphology. Basque is rich in word-forming suffixes, but word-forming prefixes are virtually absent, except in neologisms. Compounding is highly productive in forming nouns and verbs and, to a lesser extent, adjectives.

Basque has no grammatical gender and no noun classes. Morphological sex-marking is almost absent, except that the sex of an addressee addressed with the intimate second-person singular pronoun is sometimes (not always) marked in the verb.

Nouns cannot be directly inflected: it is noun phrases, and only noun phrases, which are inflected in Basque. With only minor exceptions, a noun phrase always contains a determiner; with just one exception, it contains only one determiner. Determiners are of two types: definite and indefinite. There are four definite determiners: the three demonstratives and the definite article (this last is a suffix). These four distinguish number (singular and plural). All other determiners are indefinite and cannot distinguish number.

Examples, using etxe `house':


  etxea `the house'
  etxeak `the houses'
  etxe zuria `the white house'
  etxe zuriak `the white houses'
  etxe bat `one house' or `a (certain) house' (depending on stress)
  etxe zuri bat `one/a white house'
  bi etxe `two houses'
  bi etxe zuri `two white houses'
  etxe asko `lots of houses'
  etxe hau `this house'
  etxe hauek `these houses'
  etxe zuri hau `this white house'
  zenbat etxe? `how many houses?'

There are over a dozen cases, all of them marked by agglutinated case-suffixes. With only trivial phonological complications, all noun phrases in the language are inflected identically, except that animate NPs form their local cases somewhat differently from inanimate NPs.

Nominal morphology is ergative. The subject of an intransitive verb and the direct object of a transitive verb stand in the absolutive case (suffix zero). The subject of a transitive verb stands in the ergative case (suffix -k). Ergative case-marking is thoroughgoing: it applies to all types and combinations of NPs, in all tenses, aspects, and moods, and in all types of clauses, main and subordinate, finite and non-finite.

The following cases exist:

  • Absolutive: zero (intransitive subjects, direct objects, complements of copulas)

  • Ergative: -k (transitive subjects)

  • Dative: -i (indirect objects, ethic datives)

  • Genitive: -en (possessors)

  • Instrumental: -z (instruments; miscellaneous uses)

  • Comitative: -ekin (accompaniment (`with'))

  • Locative: -n (place of rest (`in', `on', `at'); motion into (`into'))

  • Ablative: -tik (source of motion (`from', `away from', `out of'))

  • Allative: -ra (goal of motion (`to'))

  • Terminative: -raino (termination (`as far as', `up to', `until'))

  • Directional: -rantz (direction of motion (`toward'))

  • Benefactive: -entzat (beneficiary (`for' a person))

  • Destinative: -rako (inanimate destination (`for' a thing))

There are two other suffixes which are sometimes treated as cases, but these cannot be added to a full NP containing a determiner.


  • Partitive: -ik (direct object of negated verb; subject of negative existential; indefinite whole of which a part is expressed)

  • Essive/Translative: -tzat (capacity in which someone functions or into which someone is translated (`as', `for', zero, as in `I want you for my wife'))

Verbal morphology is overwhelmingly periphrastic, and all but a handful of verbs have only periphrastic forms. A periphrastic verb-form consists of a non-finite form marked at most for aspect plus a finite auxiliary; the auxiliary is marked for tense and mood and carries all agreement. Agreement is extensive: a finite verb generally agrees in person and number with its subject, with its direct object (if any), and with its indirect object (if any). Third-person agreement is zero, except for indirect objects, and except that plurality is regularly marked. Agreement is usually ergative: prefixes for absolutives, suffixes for ergatives. Certain past-tense forms are exceptional in having ergatives marked by prefixes. Indirect objects are marked by suffixes preceded by overt morphs flagging them as datives.

Intransitive verbs are conjugated with the auxiliary verb izan `be', which also functions as an independent verb. Transitive verbs are conjugated with an auxiliary meaning `have'; this verb is historically *edun, but it has lost its non-finite forms, which are supplied suppletively by ukan `have' in the French Basque varieties and by izan `be' elsewhere. This same verb functions as the ordinary main verb `have' in French Basque varieties only. For historical reasons, a semantically arbitrary subclass of intransitive verbs requires transitive morphology, including ergative subjects and the transitive auxiliary.

The verb izan `be' is highly irregular; here are its simplest forms:

  Present                        Past

  (ni) naiz     `I am'           (ni) nintzen `I was'
  (hi) haiz     `you are'        (hi) hintzen `you were'
  (hura) da     `s/he is'        (hura) zen `s/he was'
  (gu) gara     `we are'         (gu) ginen `we were'
  (zu) zara     `you are'        (zu) zinen `you were'
  (zuek) zarete `you (pl) are'   (zuek) zineten `you (pl) were'
  (haiek) dira  `they are'       (haiek) ziren `they were'


  sartu naiz       `I have gone in'
  sartzen naiz     `I am going in'
  sartuko naiz     `I'll go in'
  sartu nintzen    `I went in'
  sartzen nintzen  `I used to go in, I was going in'
  sartuko nintzen  `I was going to go in'

  sartu gara       `we have gone in'
  sartzen dira     `they are going in'
  sartuko zara     `you'll go in'
  sartu hintzen    `you went in'

The verb *edun `have' is highly regular; here are its simplest forms:

  Present                              Past

  (nik) dut       `I have it'          (nik) nuen        `I had it'
  (hik) duk       `you (M) have it'    (hik) huen        `you had it'
  (hik) dun       `you (F) have it'
  (hark) du       `s/he has it'        (hark) zuen       `s/he had it'
  (guk) dugu      `we have it'         (guk) genuen      `we had it'
  (zuk) duzu      `you have it'        (zuk) zenuen      `you had it'
  (zuek) duzue    `you (pl) have it'   (zuek) zenuten    `you (pl) had it'
  (haiek) dute    `they have it'       (haiek) zuten     `they had it'

  (nik) ditut     `I have them'        (nik) nituen      `I had them'
  (hik) dituk     `you (M) have them'  (hik) hituen      `you had them'
  (hik) ditun     `you (F) have them'
  (hark) ditu     `s/he has them'      (hark) zituen     `s/he had them'
  (guk) ditugu    `we have them'       (guk) genituen    `we had them'
  (zuk) dituzu    `you have them'      (zuk) zenituen    `you had them'
  (zuek) dituzue  `you (pl) have them' (zuek) zenituzten `you (pl) had them'
  (haiek) dituzte `they have them'     (haiek) zituzten  `they had them'


  ikusi dut       `I have seen it'
  ikusten dut     `I see it'
  ikusiko dut     `I'll see it'
  ikusi nuen      `I saw it'
  ikusten nuen    `I used to see it'
  ikusiko dut     `I was going to see it'

  ikusi dugu      `we have seen it'
  ikusi ditugu    `we have seen them'
  ikusten dituzte `they see them'
  ikusiko huen    `you were going to see it'

Further forms exist; here is a sample:

  ikusi nauzu      `you have seen me'
  ikusiko zaitut   `I'll see you'
  ikusten gaituzte `they see us'
  ikusten gaituzue `you (pl) see us'

Both intransitive and transitive verbs can take indirect objects; here are a few examples (the verbs gustatu `be pleasing' and jarraiki `follow' are intransitive and take an indirect object, while eman `give' is transitive and takes both direct and indirect objects):

  gustatzen zait       `it pleases me' (`I like it')
  gustatzen zaizkit    `they please me' (`I like them')
  jarraiki zait        `s/he has followed me'
  jarraikiko natzaizu  `I'll follow you'
  jarraikitzen zatzait `you are following me'

  eman diot            `I've given it to him/her'
  eman dizkiot         `I've given them to him/her'
  emango didazu        `you'll give it to me'
  emango dizkizut      `I'll give them to you'
  ematen digute        `they are giving it to us'

All the forms cited here are in the ordinary indicative mood, but there exist also various imperative, subjunctive, potential, conditional and irrealis forms. Any reference grammar will provide a list of these; many of them are now purely literary, especially in the south, with non-finite forms being preferred in speech.

Pronouns and Demonstratives

The personal pronouns are ni `I`, hi `you' (singular intimate), zu `you' (singular unmarked), gu `we', zuek `you' (plural). The intimate hi is of extraordinarily restricted use: it is regularly used only between siblings and between close friends of the same sex and roughly the same age. It may optionally be used in addressing children. It is not normally used between adults of opposite sex, not even between man and wife, except when teasing or abusing. It is not used in addressing animals, except when abusing them. It is never used in prayer.

In general, there are no third-person pronouns, and demonstratives are used instead when required. Western varieties, however, have recently created third-person pronouns bera `he/she' and berak (or eurak) `they'; these forms are historically intensive pronouns, `he himself' and so on.

There are three demonstratives: hau `this', hori `that' (just there), and hura `that' (over there). All show stem-suppletion.


Basic word order is SOV (Subject-Object-Verb), but this order is not rigid. The major phrases of a sentence, including the verb, can be permuted with some freedom, and this variation is used for thematic purposes -- for example, a phrase may be focused by placing it immediately before the verb. The order of elements within major phrases is rigid.

Basque is head-final: all modifiers (except lexical adjectives) precede their heads; this includes syntactically complex modifiers like relative clauses. The language is exclusively postpositional.

Basque is predominantly dependent-marking: for example, in a possessive phrase only the possessor NP is marked. Grammatical relations, though, are double-marked, by overt case-endings and by verbal agreement.

The definite article is a suffix, -a in the singular and -ak in the plural; it is of wider use than the English definite article. The indefinite article bat is of correspondingly restricted use; it commonly corresponds to English `a certain'.

Examples: etxe `house'; etxea `the house'; etxeak `(the) houses'; etxe bat `a (certain) house'; etxe zuria `the white house'; etxe zuriak `the white houses'; etxe zuri bat `a white house'.

The language is rich in non-finite verb-forms, and these are frequently used. Gerunds and perfective participles can take case-marked NPs as arguments, and gerunds themselves can take the full range of case-suffixes; such constructions provide a range of non-finite clauses.

There are a number of aspectual and modal verbs, most of which are compound in form. Examples: behar izan `have to, must'; ahal izan `be able to, can'; ohi izan `be in the habit of'; ari izan `be'; hasi `start'; nahi izan `want to'.

A central characteristic of Basque syntax is the use of -ko phrases. A -ko phrase may be constructed from virtually any adverbial, regardless of its internal structure, by suffixing -ko to it; this suffix induces certain phonological changes, notably the loss of the locative case-suffix -n. The resulting phrase is a preposed adjectival modifier.


  • Bilbon `in Bilbao'; Bilboko kaleak `the streets of Bilbao'

  • mendietan `in the mountains'; mendietako etxeak `the houses in the mountains'

  • mendira `to the mountain'; mendirako bidea `the road to the mountain'

  • hitzez hitz `word for word'; hitzez hitzeko itzulpena `a word-for-word translation'

  • atzo `yesterday'; atzoko egunkaria `yesterday's newspaper'

  • esku-huska `bare-handed'; esku-huskako pilota partida `a game of bare-handed pilota'

  • zirt-edo-zart `decisively'; zirt-edo-zarteko gizona `a decisive man'

  • urtero `annually'; urteroko gertaera `an annual event'

  • Izarra agertu zitzaien `The star appeared to them'; izarra agertu zitzieneko garaian `at the time when the star appeared to them'

From etxean `in the house', we have etxeko `who/which is in the house'; this is used to form such phrases as etxeko atea `the door of the house', etxeko andrea `the lady of the house', etxeko giltza `the key to the house', and etxekoak `the people of the house'. Compare this with the ordinary genitive case etxearen, as in etxearen izena `the name of the house' and etxearen historia `the history of the house'. Many textbooks make the mistake of regarding a -ko phrase like etxeko as a separate "locative genitive" case, but this is an error of analysis: such a form is a -ko phrase like any other.

Spanish Basque varieties have two copulas, izan (= Spanish ser) and egon (= Spanish estar); French Basque varieties make only limited use of the second as a copula but use it as the ordinary verb for `stay, wait'. The main verb `have' is ukan (that is, *edun) in the French Basque varieties; Spanish Basque varieties use eduki, which in the north means `hold'.


Basque has been in intense contact with Latin and Romance for 2000 years, and it has borrowed thousands of words from these neighboring languages. Here are a few of the very early loans from Latin: liburu `book'; harea `sand'; diru `money'; katea `chain'; ahate `duck'; errege `king'; lege `law'; gerezi `cherry'; ziape `mustard'; mila `1000'; porru `leek'; eztainu `tin'; bago ~ pago `beech'; aditu `hear, understand'; bedeinkatu `bless'; laket `be pleasing'.

Among later loans from Romance are zeru `sky'; putzu `well'; leku `place'; berde `green'; motz `short'; oilo `hen'; horma `wall'; kantu ~ kanta `song'; gustatu `be pleasing'; pintza `membrane'; mulo `haystack'; kobratu `collect (money)'; kotxe and boitura, both `car'.

A very few words are certainly or possibly very early loans from Celtic languages, including mando `mule', maite `beloved', and adar `horn'.

There are one or two loans from Arabic, including gutun `letter' and atorra `shirt'.

Nevertheless, the core of the vocabulary consists of indigenous words. A few examples: gizon `man'; alaba `daughter'; on `good'; handi `big'; beltz `black'; mendi `mountain'; ibai `river'; esku `hand'; buru `head'; zaldi `horse'; urde and zerri, both `pig'; argi `light, bright'; hotz `cold'; ur `water'; burdina `iron'; lur `earth'; iturri `spring'; etorri `come'; joan `go'; hartu `take'; jaio `be born'; egin `do, make'.

The late 19th-century nationalist Sabino de Arana coined many hundreds of neologisms, most of them badly formed. Only a few of these have found a place in the language: Euskadi `Basque state'; idatzi `write'; eratorri `derive'; ikurrin `(Basque) flag'; gudari `(Basque) soldier'; aberri `fatherland'; abertzale `patriot'. Most of his other eccentric creations are museum pieces today: donoki `heaven'; sendi 'family'; abesti `song'; olerkari `poet'; idazti `book'; gotzain `bishop'; and so on.

In recent years, the use of Basque for political, cultural, and technical purposes has led to the coining of thousands of neologisms. Here are just a few: hozkailu `refrigrator'; hauteskunde `election'; lagunkide `sympathizer'; sudurkari `nasal'; harremanak `relations'; biderkatu `multiply'; ikerketa `research'; ortzune `cosmos'; izenlagun `complex adjectival modifier'. In addition, a number of archaic and regional words have been pressed into service, such as berezkuntza `distinction' and etorki `origin, source'.

Particularly noteworthy is the use of independent words as prefixes in coining neologisms; the use of prefixes is entirely new in Basque. Examples: gainjarri `superimpose' (gain `top' plus jarri `put'); aurrehistoria `prehistory' (aurre `front'); kontrajardun `oppose' (kontra `against' plus jardun `be busy with').

The indigenous verb irauli `turn over' provides some good examples of modern word-formation. This has been given the extended meaning `revolt, rebel'. From it we have iraultza `revolution', with the native suffix -tza, which forms abstract nouns of action, and iraultzaile `revolutionary', with the native suffix -tzaile `one who performs'. This last yields kontrairaultzaile `counterrevolutionary', with the new prefix kontra `against', from the postposition kontra `against', which is borrowed from the Romance preposition contra.


The Basque numeral system is vigesimal. Here are the lower numerals and a representative sample of the others; the second form, where given, is French Basque.


  1 bat                   11 hamaika ~ hameka
  2 bi ~ biga             12 hamabi
  3 hiru ~ hirur          13 hamahiru ~ hamahirur
  4 lau ~ laur            14 hamalau ~ hamalaur
  5 bost ~ bortz          15 hamabost ~ hamabortz
  6 sei                   16 hamasei
  7 zazpi                 17 hamazazpi
  8 zortzi                18 hemezortzi
  9 bederatzi             19 hemeretzi
 10 hamar                 20 hogei ~ hogoi

 21 hogeitabat            31 hogeitahamaika
 22 hogeitabi             32 hogeitahamabi
 23 hogeitahiru           33 hogeitahamahiru
 24 hogeitalau
 25 hogeitabost           40 berrogei
 26 hogeitasei            41 berrogeitabat
 27 hogeitazazpi
 28 hogeitazortzi         50 berrogeitahamar
 29 hogeitabederatzi      51 berrogeitahamaika
 30 hogeitahamar
                          60 hirurogei
                          70 hirurogeitahamar
                          80 laurogei
                          90 laurogeitahamar
                         100 ehun
                        1000 mila

So, for example, 637 is written seirehun (ta) hogeitahamazazpi, while 2429 is written bi mila laurehun (ta) hogeitabederatzi.


Here is a sample passage in Basque, taken from an article on education in 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.

Let's analyze the first sentence. Eusko Jaurlaritza is `the Basque Government'; this is one of Sabino Arana's neologisms. The ending -ko marks this as a -ko phrase modifying Hezkuntza Saila `the Education Department'. This in turn bears the ergative suffix -k, marking it as the subject of a transitive verb. Next, aste is `week' and hon- is the stem of hau `this'; with the locative ending -n, this phrase means `this week'. (The morph -ta- is an anomaly found in certain local case-forms.) Now aurkeztu is the verb `introduce', here with the future suffix -ko, and du is the appropriate transitive auxiliary form; the ending -en shows that this is a relative clause modifying what comes next. Obviously, eskola mapa is `school map' (the article -a is invisible here); this bears the dative case-ending -i because it is the object of the postposition buruz `about', which governs the dative case. The word hainbat is `so many', or here just `many', and kezka is `problem'; this takes no article and no plural, because a quantifier like hainbat does not permit their presence. Finally, zabaldu is the perfective participle of the verb `spread' (here, better `open up'), and da is the appropriate intransitive auxiliary -- intransitive, because the verb is being used passively.

Fairly literal translation: So many problems have been opened up concerning the school map which the Education Department of the Basque Government will introduce this week.

Good translation: A number of difficulties have appeared with the school map which will be introduced this week by the Education Department of the Basque Government.

Now, the second sentence. The word sare is `net', here better `network', and publiko is `public'. Next, ordezkari is `representative', and it bears the dative plural ending -ei. The word ez is the negative `not', which induces a shifted word order. This is followed by the auxiliary form zaiela, which is intransitive and marked for no subject but for a third-plural indirect object (which we have just seen); this auxiliary also bears the suffix -la, which is comparable in function to English `that': it shows that this clause is a subordinate (complement) clause. Next, inolako means `of any kind' (this is a -ko phrase from the adverb inola `in any way'). Now informazio is `information'; it takes the partitive affix -(r)ik because it is the logical object of the negated verb coming up (which is, however, in the passive, so that informaziorik is technically its subject). That verb is eman `give'; the periphrastic form eman zaie means `has been given to them', but the full form here is ez zaiela ... eman, meaning `that (something) has not been given to them'. The verb haizatu is literally `blow', but it's being used metaphorically here to mean `protest, complain', and du is the appropriate transitive auxiliary form. Finally, EILAS sindikatua means `the EILAS syndicate', and the final ergative -k marks this as the subject of the transitive verb haizatu du.

Translation: The EILAS syndicate has complained that no information of any kind has been given to the representatives of the public school system.

The third sentence is slightly more complex. First, Argia is the name of the magazine, here with the ergative suffix -k. The verb jakin means `know' when it is imperfective, but `find out' when (as here) it stands in its perfective form. The now-familiar transitive auxiliary du takes two suffixes: -en to show that this is a subordinate clause, and the instrumental -z to express the sense of `as'. Naturally, sare pribatu is `private net(work)', with article -a and the locative case-suffix -n, meaning `in'. The verb geratu is `remain, stay', and the following auxiliary is dira, which is intransitive and marked for a third-plural subject; the suffix -en again shows that this a relative clause. The word ikastola means `Basque-language school', and here it takes the ergative plural ending -ek. The verb osatu is literally `complete', but here it should be read as `put together, form'; the transitive auxiliary this time is dute, marked for a third-plural subject, and this auxiliary too takes the suffix -en to show that it belongs to a relative clause. The phrase partaide kooperatiba means `cooperative partnership', and this too takes the ergative suffix. Next, eta is `and', and Eneko Oregi is a man's name, again with the ergative suffix. The adverb berriki means `recently'. Now comes a typical bit of Basque syntax. The verb izan is literally `be', but here it's being used suppletively to provide the perfective participle of the defective verb meaning `have'. The suffix -ta (here -da for phonological reasons) turns the participle into an adverb, so that it can now take the suffix -ko to produce a -ko phrase. This -ko phrase is the whole vast sequence beginning with sare pribatuan, a complete sentence with a non-finite verb which has been turned into a participial adverb. What all this modifies is merely bilera `meeting' (the article is again invisible). Now modu is `manner, way', and txar is `bad'; again we have the article -a and the locative ending -n, with a minor but regular phonological complication. Finally, amaitu is the perfective participle of the verb `finish', and zen is the intransitive auxiliary form, this time in the past tense, putting the whole verb form into the past.

Translation: As Argia has learned, the meeting recently held between the cooperative partnership formed by the ikastolas which have remained in the private system and Eneko Oregi ended badly.

Somewhat more literally, that long phrase in the middle is this: the meeting (which) the cooperative partnership which the ikastolas which have remained in the private system have formed and Eneko Oregi recently had.

Very literally: system private-the-in remained have-which ikastolas-the formed have-which partnership cooperative-the and Eneko Oregi recently had-ta-ko meeting-the.


There are two good textbooks of Basque in English:

  • King, Alan R. 1994. The Basque Language: A Practical Introduction. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

  • King, Alan R. and Begotxu Elordi Olaizola. 1996. Colloquial Basque. London: Routledge.

Both of these teach the Guipuzcoan variety of Donostia (San Sebastian); the second has an accompanying cassette.

There are many other textbooks, most of them in Spanish or French; these are highly variable in quality. There are also a number of teaching materials written entirely in Basque; these have to be used with a teacher.

At present the best reference grammar in English is this:

  • Saltarelli, Mario. 1988. Basque. London: Croom Helm.

This book is one of a well-known series based on a questionnaire, and it has the same strengths and weaknesses as the other volumes in the series: lots of information, especially on the fine points of syntax, but a strange and unhelpful organization and no index, making it difficult for the reader to look things up. This too describes the Guipuzcoan dialect.

The Dutch linguist Rudolf de Rijk is currently writing a grammar of Basque; I understand that it is well advanced, but as of July 1996 its publication has not yet been announced. I would expect this book to be more useful than the Saltarelli book.

A team of specialists under the general editorship of Jose Ignacio Hualde is drawing up plans for a projected reference grammar (in English) which will be very large and detailed, but this work is years away from completion.

There exists an excellent reference grammar of the French Basque varieties Labourdin and Low Navarrese:

  • Lafitte, Pierre. 1944. Grammaire basque (navarro-labourdin litteraire). Reprinted 1979, Donostia: ELKAR.

This is the best choice for someone interested particularly in the French Basque varieties, but note that it is linguistically unsophisticated and contains no adequate account of phonetics and phonology.

There is a comprehensive Basque-English dictionary:

  • Aulestia, Gorka. 1989. Basque-English Dictionary. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

This book includes a brief summary of points of grammar and word-formation. It has a companion volume:

  • Aulestia, Gorka and Linda White. 1990. English-Basque Dictionary. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

The second volume is more skeletal than the first, and it serves primarily as a guide to the first volume.

Basque-Spanish and Basque-French dictionaries are too numerous to list; most of these are practical dictionaries aimed at learners. The most important scholarly dictionary is this:

  • Azkue, R. M. de. 1905. Diccionario Vasco-Español-France's. 2 vols. Reprinted 1969, Bilbao: La Gran Enciclopedia Vasca.

Anyone interested in linguistic work on Basque must become familiar with this dictionary.

Since 1987 the Royal Basque Language Academy has been publishing a massive and comprehensive dictionary; only the first few volumes have so far appeared.

On the historical side, the best account of the history and prehistory of Basque is this:

  • Trask, R. L. 1996. The History of Basque. London: Routledge.

This book will be out in October or November 1996. It includes a history of the Basque Country, an external history of the language (that is, an account of the historical records available), a thumbnail sketch of the language, a detailed account of what is known about the prehistory of Basque phonology and grammar, an account of the sources of the Basque vocabulary, lists of structured vocabulary with etymologies (numerals, kinship terms, color terms, animal and plant names, day and month names, and so on), information on given names and surnames, house names, and place names, and a critical account of the attempts at finding links between Basque and other languages.


Prehistory & connections with other languages

Western Europe has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, but we know nothing of the languages spoken there before the introduction of writing into the area in the first millennium BC. Writing originated in the Middle East; by around 500 BC it had reached both Spain (via North Africa) and Italy (via Greece). Since a number of written texts have survived from this period, it is from roughly this date that we can begin to get some idea of what languages were spoken in the area.

The vast majority of the modern languages of Europe (including English, Spanish and French, for example) all belong to a single huge family called the Indo-European family. What this means is that all these languages are descended from a common ancestor -- that is, they all started off as no more than regional dialects of a single language. The various Indo-European languages have been spreading across Europe from east to west for thousands of years. The appearance of writing around 500 BC allows us to form a picture of the linguistic position in western Europe at the time.

So far as we know, the first Indo-European people to reach western Europe were the Celts. By 500 BC Celtic languages were spoken in Austria, Switzerland, southern Germany, northern Italy, most of France, much of Spain, Britain and Ireland. These languages had completely displaced the earlier languages that had previously been spoken in the same areas, and we know nothing about these earlier languages.

A second group of Indo-European languages, which we call Italic, was spoken in much of Italy; one of these languages, Latin, was destined later to become the most important language in Europe, but in 500 BC it was only the local language of the small city of Rome. The most important language of Italy at that time was Etruscan, spoken in what is now Tuscany. Etruscan was not an Indo-European language and it is not related to any other language we know of. With the spread of Roman power in the succeeding centuries, the Etruscans began speaking Latin and abandoned their ancestral language, which died out, leaving behind only some written texts which we can read only to a certain extent.

In Spain, the linguistic position was rather complicated. Much of central and northern Spain was occupied by the Celtic people who we call the Celtiberians. These Celts had writing, and they left behind some written texts, including the famous bronze tablet of Botorrita, which we can read only partly. The Mediterranean coast of Spain (and also a small part of southern France) was occupied by a quite different people who we call the Iberians. The Iberians too had writing, and they have bequeathed us a sizable number of written texts in their Iberian language. For a long time we could make no sense of these, but, in the first half of the 20th century, the Spanish linguist Manuel Gómez Moreno succeeded in figuring out the phonetic values of the characters, and so we can now read Iberian to the extent of being able to pronounce it. However, we still can't make the slightest sense of the texts, because Iberian has turned out to be a completely unknown language: it is certainly not Indo-European, and in fact we are confident that Iberian is not discoverably related to any other known language (including Basque -- see below).

In southwestern Spain and southern Portugal we find a few texts written in yet another unknown language; this language is sometimes called "Tartessian", a label which is completely meaningless. The little information we have been able to extract about this language suggests that it was again not related to anything else we know about. About the northwest of Spain we know almost nothing, since we have no significant written texts. Finally, there were a number of Greek and Punic colonies along the Spanish coast; these of course spoke Greek (which is Indo-European) and Punic (which is not; it's a form of the Semitic language Phoenician, introduced from the Middle East).

Writing did not arrive in Gaul (France) until the Roman conquest of Gaul in the first century BC. In his memoirs of the military campaign, the Roman general Julius Caesar tells us that Gaul was divided into three parts, occupied by three different peoples. Two of these peoples were Celtic, and they spoke Celtic languages which, as I remarked above, had already displaced the earlier languages of Gaul. But the third part was different.

The southwestern part of Gaul, from the Pyrenees to the Garonne, was inhabited by a people the Romans called Aquitani, or Aquitanians, and these Aquitanians, Caesar tells us, were entirely distinct from their Celtic neighbors.

As we shall see, there is good evidence that the Aquitanian language was also spoken in the Pyrenees themselves, at least as far east as the valley of Arán, in territory which is today Catalan-speaking, including Andorra. There is also evidence that Aquitanian was spoken south of the Pyrenees, at least in eastern Navarre. We suspect that Aquitanian was also spoken in at least part of Gipuzkoa, but we have no direct evidence for this, since no Aquitanian texts have ever been found there (in fact, there are hardly any texts at all from Gipuzkoa at this period).

The Aquitanians did not have writing at the time of the Roman conquest, but, after that conquest, they learned to write in Latin. We have a sizeable number of Latin texts written by the speakers of Aquitanian during the Roman period, and, crucially, these texts contain a large number of Aquitanian names: about 400 personal names and about 70 names of divinities, most of them found in votive and funerary inscriptions; these inscriptions typically identify the sex and the parents of the people referred to, a fact which is highly convenient.

Now here's the crunch: many of those Aquitanian names are unmistakably Basque. Consequently, we are now satisfied that Aquitanian was an ancestral form of Basque: modern Basque is the direct descendant of that Aquitanian language spoken in southwestern Gaul and in most of the Pyrenees, with (so far as we know) only a rather modest extension into Spain, in eastern Navarre and probably Gipuzkoa. Hence, in origin, Basque was primarily a language of Gaul which later spread west and south into Spain, into the remainder of the modern Basque Country. In the early Roman period, in Bizkaia, in Araba, and in western Navarre, we find evidence only for Indo-European speech: not a single Aquitanian name is recorded in this area. We therefore believe that Basque must have spread into these territories (and beyond) only later, probably after the collapse of Roman power in the area (see below).

Here is a sample of some Aquitanian personal names and elements of names; where relevant, all are found exclusively in the names of individuals of the appropriate sex.

    Aq Nescato; Bq neskato `young girl'
    Aq Cison; Bq gizon `man'
    Aq Andere; Bq andere `lady'
    Aq Sembe-; Bq seme `son' (from earlier *senbe)
    Aq Ombe- and Vmme; Bq ume `child' (from *unbe)
    Aq Osso-, Oxso-; Bq otso `wolf'
    Aq Heraus; Bq herauts `boar'
    Aq Bihos-; Bq bihotz `heart'
    Aq Beles-, Belex-; Bq beltz `black'
    Aq Sahar; Bq zahar `old'
    Aq -corri; Bq gorri `red'
    Aq -co; Bq -ko (relational suffix)
    Aq -tar; Bq -tar (ethnonymic suffix)

The word-structure of the Aquitanian names is identical to the word-structure of modern Basque; the phonology of Aquitanian is similar to that of Basque and even more similar to that independently reconstructed for Pre-Basque; a few of the Aquitanian names are attested as surnames in medieval Basque; the use of kinship terms as personal names is abundantly attested in medieval Basques. The identity of Aquitanian and Basque may therefore be regarded as established beyond reasonable doubt.

For about a thousand years after the Roman conquest, Basque is only very sparsely attested. From about the ninth century, though, we begin finding a few words and phrases recorded, and especially personal names and place names. The quantity of this material gradually increases throughout the Middle Ages, until publication in Basque begins in the 16th century. The first book published in Basque was a collection of poems brought out by the French Basque Bernard Etxepare (or Detchepare, and about six other spellings) in 1545; this was called Linguae Vasconum Primitiae. Several more books followed in the next century, and since then publication in Basque has been steady.

Is Basque related to any other languages, living or dead? No, it is not -- at least, it is not discoverably related to anything else. For over a century enthusiastic seekers after remote relations have tried to link Basque to almost all the languages of the Old World and to many of those in the New. In spite of their repeated claims of success, not one of these claims stands up to even casual scrutiny.

The favorite candidates for relatives of Basque have long been the several groups of Caucasian languages (themselves not known to be related) and the Afro-Asiatic family (especially the Berber language of North Africa), but people have tried everything: Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, Minoan, Sumerian, Burushaski, Niger-Congo, Khoisan, Uralic, Dravidian, Munda, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, the Na-Dene languages of North America -- even Indo-European. Nothing. Nada. Zero. All they ever come up with is a list of miscellaneous resemblances between some Basque words and a few words in some other language or family. But you can always find such miscellaneous resemblances between arbitrary languages, and finding them when you're looking at Basque means nothing except that the laws of probability are not taking the day off. Apart from Aquitanian, there is not the slightest shred of evidence that Basque is related to any other known language at all, living or dead, and people who claim otherwise are fantasizing. On all this stuff, see my forthcoming book The History of Basque, due out from Routledge in October or November 1996.



Basque words & culture

Below is a list of Basque words of particular interest, in alphabetical order. Under each word I explain what the word means, what is known about its origin, and something about the significance in Basque society of the thing it denotes.

Aberri Eguna The Basque national day, always celebrated on Easter Sunday. The word aberri `fatherland' was coined by the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana in the late 19th century; it consists of herri `country' preceded by a the fanciful word aba, supposedly `father', a confused invention of Arana's. Naturally, egun is `day', and the -a is just the Basque article. The practice of celebrating Aberri Eguna was itself introduced by Arana; since then, the day has become an event of considerable importance, and it has always been celebrated except when persecution by Spanish dictatorships has prohibited this.

abertzale `Patriotic' or `patriot'. As a rule, the word is only applied to a Basque patriot. This is another of Sabino Arana's inventions, from aberri `fatherland' (see the last item) plus the suffix -zale `fond of'. Today the word is also used to mean `Basque nationalist' in the broad sense: there is an important distinction between the abertzale political parties -- those which espouse Basque nationalism with varying degrees of militancy -- and the rest, the Spanish parties which are indifferent or hostile to Basque identity.

afari `Dinner' -- that is, the evening meal, usually the main meal of the day. One of the very rare native Basque words containing an /f/, this derives from auhari, preserved in the east; it has the regional variants abari and apari, and is probably a derivative of gau `night'. Dinner is eaten much later than in English-speaking countries, and it is a serious affair, taking an hour or two to get through and featuring several courses, lots of wine and bread, a coffee and a kopa or three. The other main meals are gosari `breakfast' (from gose `hunger') and bazkari `lunch' (archaic barazkari, from baratz `vegetable garden' or barazki `vegetable'). In addition, a mid-morning snack is common; this is the hamaiketako (from hamaika `eleven', a formation exactly parallel to British `elevenses'), and a further late-afternoon snack may be added, the merienda (of Romance origin) or askari (whose origin is debated).

agur The universal Basque salutation, equivalent to Latin ave. In the French Basque Country, it is used for both `hello' and `good-bye'; in the south, it is now confined to `good-bye', with kaixo now being preferred for `hello'. The word is thought to derive from *agurium, an unrecorded variant of Latin augurium `omen'.

Agur Jaunak An old Basque song, traditionally sung at the close of a special gathering; it is virtually a second national anthem. The name means `Farewell, gentlemen'.

Aitor A curious word. This is a man's given name, and quite a few people bear it. It derives from the legendary figure of Aitor, the shepherd who is supposed to be the ancestor of the Basques. This legend was invented by the 19th-century Basque Romantic writer Augustin Chaho (Xaho, in Basque spelling). Chaho had noted that the Basques habitually described themselves as aitoren semeak, apparently `sons of Aitor', and constructed his myth accordingly. In fact, philologists are satisfied that this phrase is merely a dissimilation of aitonen semeak `sons of good fathers' (aita `father', on `good').

akelarre The name of some kind of pre-Christian religious ritual. The name appears to be a compound of aker `he-goat' and larre `pasture, meadow', and the akelarre is commonly conceived as a kind of black mass or Sabbat involving the sacrifice of a goat. Thanks to the outraged attentions of the Church (see eliza), information about Basque paganism has been suppressed and garbled, and some Christian apologists have denied that such ceremonies ever took place. The great Basque linguist Azkue, who was also a priest, pointed out that Akelarre is also the name of a plain in Navarre which has some traditional associations with witchcraft, and suggested that the sacrificial ceremony might have been no more than a late and fanciful invention. But the Greek geographer Strabo, in his account of Spain, declares firmly that the sacrifice of rams was an important part of the religion of the Ouaskonous of northern Spain, presumably the same people as the Vascones of the Romans.

alboka A vernacular musical instrument, consisting of two animal horns joined by a mouthpiece. The name derives from Arabic al-buq, the name of a kind of trumpet.

amerikano A Basque who has emigrated to North or South America, or one who has returned to the Basque Country to retire after a life spent in the New World. After the Spanish discovery of America, huge numbers of Basques flocked to the New World and most of them remained there. From the Mexican city of Durango to the largely Basque-named vineyards of Chile, the frequency of Basque surnames and place names in Spanish America bears quiet testimony to the efforts of those Basque settlers who left their homeland forever to build a life across the sea. In the 19th century, a large number of Basques also emigrated to the western United States, where their legendary sheepherding skills were in great demand; many of these sheepherders eventually came into conflict with cattlemen in the range wars of the late 19th century. Today Americans of Basque descent, including some first-generation settlers, are mostly found in the western states of California, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming. Quite a few of them still speak Basque, and the very few studies of American Basque have revealed some interesting developments. The major center for Basque studies in the USA is the University of Nevada at Reno, which has links with the Basque Country and sends its students there. The writer Robert Laxalt, son of a Basque immigrant, has emerged as the principal voice of the Basques in America.

andere (also andre) `Lady'; also `madam' and `Ms'. The female name Andere is attested in the Aquitanian ancestor of Basque and is surely the same word. In Bizkaian, the local form andra often just means `woman'. Elsewhere, `woman' is today usually emakume

ardo `Wine'. The word has regional variants ardao, arno and ardu; the original form was *ardano, and combining form is ardan- today. The word is of unknown origin; the only remotely similar words for `wine' found anywhere are Albanian ardhi and Armenian ort, which are usually thought to be cognate with each other and sometimes thought to be connected with the Basque word. See sagardo.

arrantzale `Fisherman'. The word is derived from arrain `fish' (from *arrani) plus the suffix -zale; this suffix usually means `fond of', but here it is used as a professional suffix equivalent to the more usual -ari. With their long coastline on the Bay of Biscay, the Basques have undoubtedly been fishing since time immemorial, though records of this activity go back only as far as the 12th century. Soon after this time, if not before, Basque fishermen and whalers were ranging over the North Atlantic; they reached Iceland no later than 1412, and they may well have reached North America before Columbus. By the early 16th century the Basques were fishing along the coast of North America, especially around the mouth of the St. Lawrence River; a Basque pidgin became an important trading language there, and Basque words were in use by the local Indians for generations afterward. The Basque fishing fleet is still important today, and it has recently benefited from new EU fishing regulations.

arto `Maize, sweet corn'. At first it seems surprising that Basque should have an indigenous name for a plant unknown in Europe before the discovery of America, but the explanation is simple. The word originally meant `millet', which was formerly a staple foodcrop in the Basque Country. But the maize introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries proved to be far more productive and reliable in the damp Basque climate than millet; maize rapidly replaced millet as the staple crop, and the name was simply transferred from millet to the somewhat similar-looking maize. Today millet is called artatxiki `little arto'.

artzain `Shepherd'. The word derives from ardi `sheep' plus -zain `guardian'. Animal husbandry, and especially sheepherding, has almost certainly been the backbone of the Basque economy since prehistoric times; seasonal transhumance may have been practiced since the Stone Age, and the shepherd's hut (variously called ola, borda, txabola, or etxola) was until recently a frequent sight in the mountains. The Basques who went to the western USA and to Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries mostly went as sheepherders; they were much in demand because of their legendary skills and their tireless efforts at saving lost or sick lambs.

aurresku The most famous of all Basque folk-dances. The name derives from aurre `front' and esku `hand'.

azeri `Fox'. This word is surprisingly taken from a Roman personal name, Asenarius or Asinarius, which was once common in the west. It was borrowed into Basque as the personal name Azenari, which developed regularly into Azeari, a personal name or by-name well attested in the medieval period. This name was given to the fox, and it underwent further reduction to azeri (or azari in some areas). The use of a personal name as a word for `fox' is common in this part of the world; compare French renard, from the personal name Reginhard. A second word for `fox', used in Bizkaia, is luki; this too derives from a Roman personal name, Lucius. The Basque personal name Azenari was borrowed into medieval Spanish, and is the source of the modern Spanish surname Aznar.

azoka A market. In spite of the arrival of supermarkets, traditional open markets are still a prominent feature of life in the larger Basque towns, as local farmers set up stalls with their produce. The word is a rare direct loan from Arabic, from Arabic as-suq, the source of English souk.

balea `Whale', a loan from Latin ballaena. It is clear that the Basques were already engaging in systematic whaling by the 12th century, the earliest period for which we have records, and it is thought by some historians that the Basques invented the practice of whaling and taught it to their European neighbors.

Basajaun The Old Man of the Woods, a character of Basque folklore. His name derives from baso `woods, wilderness' and jaun `lord', and he is commonly depicted as a semi-divine figure with some animal characteristics; he is often, but not always, regarded as malevolent. Some versions give him a female companion, Basandere (andere `lady').

baserri A farmhouse; a more or less isolated house located in the countryside, with land attached to it. The name derives from baso `woods, wilderness' and herri `settlement'; it is the word used in most of the Spanish Basque Country, the northerners preferring borda. There has long been a certain divide between the baserritarrak, the people who live in the countryside, and the kaletarrak, the people who live in town (kale `street', from Romance).

baso `Woods'. More generally, this word means `wilderness', `uncultivated or unsettled land'.

beltz `Black'. This word appears to be attested in the Aquitanian ancestor of Basque as Belex, -belex, and it's doubtless a contracted form of an original *beletz. This in turn is built on an ancient element *bel `dark', which recurs in many other words: bele `crow, raven', harbel `slate' (harri `stone'), ubel `dark, livid, purple' (ur `water'), ospel `dead leaves' (osto `leaf'), goibel `cloudy sky' (goi `high place'), ezpel `box tree' (ez- is a common element in tree names), gibel `liver' (the element gi- occurs in other words pertaining to meat), and possibly also in sabel `stomach'. In the Middle Ages, Beltza `the Black' was a common by-name, presumably conferred upon people of dark complexion, but, unlike some other by-names, this one has not survived as a modern surname (compare English Black, Blake, and German Schwartz, surnames of the same origin).

bertsolari A Basque bard. The name derives from bertso `verse' plus the professional suffix -(l)ari. At a bertsolari competition, each bard is given a theme and then must immediately compose and sing an original song upon that theme. Sometimes two bards compose and sing alternate verses, each trying to get the upper hand. These performances are little short of miraculous.

borda `Farmhouse, farm'. This is the usual northern word, equivalent to southern baserri. Earlier this word simply meant `shepherd's hut', just like ola and txabola. But during the population growth of the 17th and 18th centuries, a number of high pastures were converted into new farms, and the existing shelters, the bordak, were of course converted into new farmhouses, leading to a change in the meaning of the word.

buelta A trip into town to drink and chat with friends. The buelta is a central activity in Basque social life. The word is borrowed from Spanish vuelta.

buruhandi A giant papier-maché head worn on the shoulders at Basque festivals. The name is buru `head' plus handi `big'.

dultzaina A traditional Basque musical instrument, a large end-blown flute resembling a clarinet, typical especially of Navarre. The name is borrowed from Romance and related to English dulcimer.

eguzki `Sun'. The word is formed from egun `day' plus the noun-forming suffix -zki, and it has variants iguzki and iduzki; there is also an eastern variant eki, from egun plus the different suffix -ki. Some anthropologists suspect that the sun might have played an important part in the old Basque religion, but we have no evidence. Nevertheless, it is interesting that the famous cemetery of Argiñeta, in Elorrio, Bizkaia, dated to 883 and thought to represent pre-Christian burial practices, has tombstones with no trace of a cross but with discoidal shapes which may perhaps be sun-signs.

eliza `Church', a loan from Latin ecclesia or from some Romance descendant of this. Christianity came late to the Basque Country: in the Basque heartland of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and the French Basque Country, there is not the slightest evidence for the presence of a single Christian before the 10th century, and in some areas even later than that. There is abundant evidence that the Basques remained pagans until that time: Christian missionaries met nothing but failure and opposition, the Arabs referred to the Basques as majus `wizards, pagans', and the famous cemetery of Argiñeta in Elorrio (Bizkaia) shows discoidal tombstones (sun-signs?) with no sign of a cross. Nevertheless, the eventual Basque embrace of the Church of Rome was so thoroughgoing that we know little about the old Basque religion, and the Church has been a major force in Basque affairs for centuries. Every Basque village has a prominent church, usually facing onto the town square; curiously, the local pilota court is almost always next to the church. So devout have the Basques been that the French have a saying: Qui dit basque, dit catholique -- though Protestantism is well established in the French Basque Country. Today, in the Basque Country as elsewhere, devotion to the Church is declining rapidly among young people.

erdara (variant erdera) The name given everywhere by the Basques to the Romance speech of their neighbors; depending on time and place, it may mean more specifically `Spanish', `Gascon', or `French'. The ending is the same -(k)ara `way' found in euskara, but the first element is mysterious: neither erdi `half' nor the archaic erdu(tu) `come, arrive' provides a satisfactory explanation. The 16th-century writer Garibay gives the word as erdeera, which complicates matters but sheds no light.

ETA The well-known militant (and sometimes terrorist) Basque separatist political group. The name in full is Euskadi Ta Askatasuna `Basque Homeland and Liberty'. ETA started life in 1953, deep in the years of the Franco dictatorship, as nothing more than a student discussion group at the University of Deusto in Bilbao; it was originally called EKIN, from the Basque for `get busy'. Associated for a while with the Basque Nationalist Party (a clandestine organization at the time), EKIN grew restless with the patient, non-confrontational style of the older organization, and in 1959 it broke away and re-named itself ETA. For some years the new group's activities were deliberately non-violent, but the sustained ferocity of the Spanish police in greeting every move eventually pushed ETA into armed resistance, beginning with the assassination of known torturers and murderers among the police but gradually escalating into increasingly indiscriminate shootings and bombings. Since the establishment of the Basque Autonomous Government in 1979, most former members of ETA have withdrawn into private life, but a handful of fanatics has continued its activities down to the present day.

etxe `House' or `household'. A traditional Basque house (a baserri or borda) is two stories high, with a distinctively asymmetric sloping roof, a built-in shelter for animals, and an amount of land attached. It always has a name; this name is conferred by the neighbors, not by the inhabitants. The house name is known to all, even though the surnames of the family living there may not be; it may be used as a postal address and as a way of addressing or referring to an inhabitant of the house. The organization of the household is highly formalized: the etxekojaun `master of the house' and the etxekoand(e)re `lady of the house' have precisely delineated roles and are responsible for all decisions affecting the household; when they retire, these titles are formally handed over to the child deemed most suitable to take over and to that child's spouse.

Euskadi The Basque state or the Basque nation, the Basque Country conceived as a political entity or at least as a nation. This name contrasts with Euskal Herria, the Basque Country conceived as a geographical area or as a cultural and historical entity. The name was of course invented by the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana (who spelled it Euzkadi; see euzk-); it consists of his eusko plus his all-purpose noun-forming suffix -di. During the Spanish Civil War, this name (spelled Euzkadi) was given to the short-lived Basque republic. Today it is used in two somewhat different senses. Narrowly, it is the political unit administered by the Basque Autonomous Government, the Eusko Jaurlaritza, which calls itself in Spanish el Gobierno de Euskadi. Broadly, it is applied to the whole territory of the Basque Country, the traditional seven provinces, north and south, by Basques who regard the Basque Country as a single nation.

euskal The combining form of euskara `Basque language'. This item is linguistically unusual: it can never stand alone, but it is used as a stem in word-formation (as in euskaldun `Basque-speaker') and as a preposed adjectival modifer to convey the sense of `Basque' in general, as in Euskal Herria `the Basque Country', euskal liburuak `Basque books', and euskal historia `Basque history'; when so used, it need not refer to the language. Northern varieties have a variant eskual. Compare eusko.

euskaldun 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 eskualdun.

Euskal Herria The Basque Country, the territory which is historically, ethnically and culturally Basque. The name has been in use for centuries, at least; today it is normally conceived as embracing the area of the traditional seven provinces (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba and Navarre on the Spanish side, Lapurdi, Low Navarre and Zuberoa on the French side). The name is formed from euskal, the combining form of euskara `Basque language', plus herri `country, with the article. Compare Euskadi.

Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (EHU) The University of the Basque Country. Established by the Basque Autonomous Government almost as soon as it took power, the EHU has its main campus in Vitoria-Gasteiz in Araba; its Department of Basque Philology is now the world's leading center for the academic study of the Basque language, and particularly for the study of its history and prehistory.

Euskaltzaindia The Royal Basque Language Academy. Founded in 1919 and now based in Bilbao, the Academy is chiefly responsible for the creation of euskara batua, the modern standard form of Basque; it publishes a scholarly journal devoted to the language (Euskera), organizes international conferences for scholars of the language, maintains an important library, collects and publishes data on the language, publishes scholarly books dealing with Basque, and generally tries to promote the status of Basque and to promote knowledge about the language. It has published a comprehensive grammar (in Basque), and it is currently publishing a comprehensive multi-volume scholarly dictionary, only the first few volumes of which have so far appeared. The name was coined by the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana years before the organization came into existence; it consists of euskal, the combining form of euskara `Basque language', plus -zain `guardian', Arana's all-purpose noun-forming suffix -di, and the article. It has been pointed out that a better choice of name would have been Euskaltzaingoa, with the human collective suffix -goa, but the traditional name is firmly established.

euskara The name of the Basque language; it has regional variants euskera and eskuara. Since we know that the ancient Aquitanians of southwestern Gaul spoke an ancestral form of Basque, it has long been suspected that the language name derives from the name of the Ausci, an Aquitanian tribe identified by the Romans. Recently, however, the Basque philologist Alfonso Irigoyen has made a good case for a different origin: he reconstructs a lost verb *enautsi `say', and sees this as the source of euskara, the final element being -(k)ara `way': hence `way of saying', or perhaps `way of speaking'. I find his case persuasive, especially since the 16th-century writer Garibay twice gives the name of the language as enusquera.

euskara batua The modern standard form of the Basque language. The name is literally `unified Basque' (batu, participle of the verb meaning `unify, unite', from bat `one'). The creation of batua was chiefly the work of the Basque Language Academy, Euskaltzaindia, with strong guidance from the great Basque linguist Luis Michelena (in Basque, Koldo Mitxelena). The standard orthography was promulgated in 1964, followed a few years later by a standard nominal and verbal morphology, standard forms of habitation names in the Basque Country, and some standard vocabulary for use in schools. Neither the pronunciation nor the syntax has yet received any standardization, and there continue to be substantial differences in the choice and use of words. The Academy has probably done all it reasonably can, and the standard language is now (one hopes) undergoing a period of consolidation and selection.

eusko A variant form of euskal, the combining form meaning `Basque'. This form was invented by the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, who spelled it euzko, on the fantastic assumption that euskal was an altered form of eguzkiko `of the sun' (eguzki `sun' plus the relational suffix -ko). This capriciously altered form was taken up with enthusiasm by Arana's followers; for example, it appears in Euzko Gudari `Basque soldier', the title of a patrotic song sung by Basque soldiers during the Spanish Civil War. Opponents of Arana's awkward coinages have often used euzko as a term of abuse for an Aranista, particularly for one who publicly embraces Arana's coinages while doing little to improve the status of Basque. Now respelled as eusko, this form still finds some use today, notably in the name of the Basque Autonomous Government, Eusko Jaurlaritza, but it is rejected as a barbarism by a majority of speakers.

Eusko Jaurlaritza The official name of the Basque Autonomous Government, which administers the three provinces of the Basque Autonomous Region: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba. (The fourth Spanish Basque province, Navarre, voted in a referendum to remain outside the Basque Autonomous Region, and Navarre now constitutes its own autonomous region.) With its capital in Vitoria-Gasteiz (in Araba), the EJ wields considerable power in its region: it collects taxes, maintains a Basque police force, funds education (including a Basque university), builds and maintains roads, promotes tourism, and supports Basque language and culture. Established in 1979, the EJ has usually been dominated by the Basque Nationalist Party (the PNV), but recently gains by other parties have led to power-sharing. The name consists entirely of some of Sabino Arana's neologisms: his eusko `Basque' plus his jaularitza `government', coined from jaun `lord' (combining form jaur-) plus the professional suffix -(l)ari plus the noun-forming suffix -tza.

euskotar An ethnic Basque, whether Basque-speaking or not. The word was coined by the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana (who spelled it euzkotar), from his eusko and the ethnonymic suffix -tar. This word filled an obvious gap, since the traditional euskaldun means specifically `Basque-speaker', and it is widely used today.

euzk- All the spellings in euzk- are the work of the late 19th-century Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, who tinkered with the language extensively but often not very skilfully. Somehow Arana got the idea that the language name euskara (euskera in his Bizkaian dialect) was derived from the word for `sun', eguzki; accordingly, he capriciously altered the spelling of euskera to euzkera, of euskaldun `Basque-speaker' to euzkeldun, and so on. The combining form Euskal he interpreted as a descendant of eguzkiko `of the sun', and he altered this accordingly to Euzko, which still survives today in the altered spelling Eusko. It was from this Euzko that Arana derived his new name for the Basque nation, Euzkadi; this spelling was used by the short-lived Basque Republic during the Spanish Civil War, but the word survives today only in the modified spelling Euskadi.

ezpata-dantza The sword dance, a traditional Basque folk-dance involving (would you believe it?) swords. From ezpata `sword', a loan from Latin < I>.

foru `Municipal charter', but the significance of this word is far greater than the gloss would suggest. During the early Middle Ages, Basque cities and towns on both sides of the Pyrenees, and sometimes entire provinces, were granted charters detailing their rights and obligations. These charters are called fueros in Spanish, fors in French, and foruak in Basque; the name derives from Latin forum, originally the name of a public square in which municipal business was discussed. Particularly on the Spanish side, these charters allowed the Basques for centuries to retain a high degree of local autonomy, to keep their taxes well below those demanded elsewhere in Spain, to avoid or buy out of military conscription, and to remain free of the depradations wreaked by a rapacious and autocratic nobility elsewhere in Spain; throughout the foral period, the Spanish customs frontier was located at the Ebro, making the Basque provinces a duty-free zone for imports. In the 19th century, the foral privileges of the Basques came under increasing pressure from centralist governments in Madrid, leading to a series of armed conflicts known as the Carlist Wars. In the north, of course, the few remaining foral rights had already been swept away by the French Revolution.

Gaueko In Basque folklore, a nocturnal spirit or demon which prohibits certain activities during the hours of darkness on pain of punishment. The name means simply `[creature] of the night' (gau `night' plus the relational suffix -ko).

gaztai `Cheese'. The regional variants gaztae, gazta, and gazna, and the combining form gaztan-, point to an original *gaztane. In spite of its vague similarity to Latin caseus `cheese', this cannot be a borrowing from Latin, and it appears to be a native word. Unsurprisingly in a country in which sheep- and goat-herding has long been a major part of the economy, Basque cheeses are commonly made from sheep's or goat's milk. Most of them are hard, though a soft cheese called gaztanbera, literally `soft cheese', is made in places; this somewhat resembles cottage cheese. I have not come across any blue cheeses in the Basque Country. Some of the Pyrenean cheeses have a ferociously powerful odor and are definitely an acquired taste.

Gernika The name of the Basque holy city, site of the provincial assembly of Bizkaia in the Middle Ages, to which Spanish sovereigns were obliged to travel at intervals and swear to uphold Basque liberties under the Tree of Gernika. The city was destroyed in 1937 by the Condor Legion, a unit of the German air force dispatched by Hitler to aid Franco's Fascist rebellion and to give his pilots some combat experience for the European war to come. The second use in history of air power purely to terrorize civilians (the Legion had similarly attacked the Bizkaian city of Durango a month earlier), this attack caused worlwide outrage and moved Picasso to produce his most famous painting, Guernica, which the Basques are today trying to claim for their own art museum. Like all place names in -ika and -aka, this one is of pre-Basque origin.

Gernikako Arbola (1) The Tree of Gernika, the ancient oak tree which stands in the town of Gernika in front of the Casa de Juntas, the traditional home of Basque liberties. During the Middle Ages, Spanish sovereigns were obliged to travel at regular intervals to Gernika to swear under the Tree to uphold Basque liberties. The Tree itself has long been regarded as the symbol and physical embodiment of these liberties; it appears on the coat of arms of Bizkaia, was the subject of a poem by Wordsworth, and miraculously survived the destruction of Gernika by Hitler's air force in 1937. The original tree finally died a few years ago, but a new Tree was already in place, grown from a shoot of the old one. (2) The Basque national anthem, a celebration of Basque liberties composed by the most famous of all Basque bards, Iparraguirre, in 1853.

godalet-dantza One of the most famous Basque folk-dances, associated particularly with the northern province of Zuberoa (Soule). It is performed by four men in a variety of elaborate costumes. The central figure wears a paper horse around his waist which prevents him from seeing his feet; a major feature of the dance consists of his leaping repeatedly onto and off a glass of wine placed on the ground without spilling a drop. This part is the source of the name: godalet `wine-glass' is a loan from Romance and cognate with English goblet.

gorri `Red'. This is an indigenous Basque word; the Basque linguist Azkue suggested it might be derived from an ancient element *gor `flesh' (and hence `flesh-colored), but this is doubtful. This color name has a number of transferred meanings: `high fever', `vigorous, energetic', and `cruel, terrible' (the opposite in this last sense is zuri `white'. The word has other associations in Basque: `bareness, nudity' (larrugorri `naked', from larru `skin'), the Devil (Galtzagorri `Red Pants'), and doubtless others.

gudari `Basque soldier'. This is another of Sabino Arana's inventions, but well-formed this time, from gudu `combat, struggle' and the professional suffix -ari (from Latin). Arana meant the word to mean `soldier' in general, but it was applied to the Basque soldiers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and ever since it has denoted specifically `Basque soldier', `person fighting for the freedom of the Basque Country'.

haitz `Stone, rock, boulder, crag'. The precise sense of this word varies according to region, but it is clearly ancient, since it occurs in a large number of place names and surnames, such as the mountain name Aizkorri in Gipuzkoa (gorri `red'), the village name Axpe in Bizkaia (-pe `below'), and the Bizkaian surname Atxa (the Bizkaian form of haitz is atx). It is clear that the earlier form of the word must have been *anetz or *anitz. Several Basque tool-names look as if they might be built upon haitz, such as haitzur `mattock' and Roncalese ai(n)zto `knife', but this etymology is not certain. But the similar-looking haizkora `ax' is almost certainly a loan from Latin asciola `hatchet'. Compare harri.

haizkolari `Woodcutter'. The word is formed from haizkora `ax' and -lari, a variant of -ari, the professional suffix. The word haizkora is almost certainly a loan from Latin asciola `hatchet'. Wood-chopping conteats among haizkolariak have long been a favorite sport in the Basque Country, and they have recently spread to several other countries, such as Australia and Canada, with the result that international competitions are now held from time to time.

haran `Valley'. This is the nearly universal Basque word for `valley', though ibar is used alongside it and is preferred in places. The word is native and clearly ancient, and it occurs in a large number of place names and surnames, such as the surname Haraneder `beautiful valley', and the surname Arana `the valley', borne by the father of Basque nationalism, Sabino Arana. On the basis of place-name evidence, scholars are confident that Basque was formerly spoken as far east in the Pyrenees as the valley of Arán, in territory which is today Catalan-speaking; the very name of this valley appears to continue Basque haran.

harotz `Smith'. A worker in wood and metal, the Basque harotz combines two trades which are elsewhere usually distinct, those of the carpenter and the blacksmith. The traditional ornately carved Basque wooden furniture, however, is not produced by the harotz, but by a different craftsman called a zurgin `cabinetmaker' (zur `wood' plus -gin `who makes').

harri `Stone'. The word is ancient, and it occurs in many place names and surnames, such as the place name Arrigorriaga near Bilbao (gorri `red' plus -aga `place') and the surname Harrieta (French Harriet), the name of the compiler of a huge but still unpublished dictionary of Basque.

harrijasotzaile A weightlifter. Lifting stone weights is a traditional Basque sport. The word derives from harri `stone' plus jaso `lift' plus -tzaile `-er'.

hego `South wind', south'. The original meaning was `south wind'; from this the compound hegoalde was constructed to denote `south' (alde `side, region'), but we also find hego used alone to denote `south'. The word Hegoaldea today commonly means `the South', i.e., the Spanish Basque Country. Compare ipar.

Herensuge A monstrous serpent in Basque folklore, often a sea serpent. The name derives from heren `third' (today only the fraction but perhaps formerly something else) plus suge `snake, serpent'.

herri A word of diverse meaning. Its two central senses are `inhabited place' and `people who live in a particular place'; in context, it may translate any of `settlement, habitation', `people', `nation', `country'. See Euskal Herria and baserri.

Herri Batasuna The most militant of all the Basque nationalist political parties; its name means `Popular Unity'. The relationship of HB to ETA has often been compared to that of Sinn Fein to the IRA.

hilargi `Moon'. The ancient Basque word for `moon' was *iLe or *iLa (where L represents a long, "fortis" lateral), but this ancient word survives today only as the first element of hilargi, originally `moonlight' (argi `light') and hilabete `month', originally `full moon' (bete `full'). Some anthropologists suspect that the moon may have been important in the old Basque pagan religion, but there is little in the way of evidence, and in particular there is seemingly no trace of any personification of the moon. The once-popular idea that the first element of hilargi was hil `dead' is now known to be wrong.

hiri `Town, city'. The word is ancient, and its earlier form *ili is attested in a number of ancient place names, the most famous being the mysterious Iliberris in Granada (modern Elvira); this is transparently *ili plus berri `new', but no one knows how a Basque place name could be found so far south.

hiztegi `Dictionary', a compound of hitz `word' and -tegi `place'. The first known Basque dictionary was compiled in 1562 by Niccolò Landucci, an Italian living in Vitoria; this appears to record the Basque spoken in that city at the time. A number of other dictionaries were compiled in the following centuries, some of which have been lost. Particularly famous is Larramendi's dictionary of 1745, which was published but which unfortunately contains a huge number of neologisms coined by the author. The French Basque Maurice Harriet compiled a vast 3500-page dictionary in the late 19th century which still remains unpublished today. In 1905 the great Basque linguist Azkue published his masterly dictionary; this is still today the best scholarly dictionary we have. The Basque Language Academy is currently preparing and publishing a huge multi-volume dictionary which is intended to be exhaustively comprehensive, but only the first few volumes have so far appeared. A comprehensive etymological dictionary of Basque has been published in fascicles by Manuel Agud and Antonio Tovar.

ibai `River'. This is the most widespread word, though there exists also uhalde, ugalde, especially in the east; this is a compound of ur `water' and alde `side'. The word ibai itself appears to be a derivative of ibar `valley', but perhaps originally `water-meadow'. Curiously, perhaps, the great majority of river names in the Basque Country are of non-Basque origin, though an outstanding exception is the biggest river in the Basque heartland, the Ibaizabal, from ibai plus zabal `wide'.

ibar `Valley'. The word exists alongside the synonymous haran, but there is reason to believe it once meant more specifically `water-meadow': in the Basque Country, the only water-meadows are in the valleys. The word is ancient and found in numerous place names and surnames, such as the surname Ibarrola (ola `place') and the place name Ibarra in Araba (Spanish Aramaiona, also a name of Basque origin).

idiprobak `Ox-trials', from idi `ox' and the loan word proba `test'. This is a traditional but rather cruel Basque sport in which pairs of oxen compete to drag a heavy weight as far as possible.

ikastola A Basque-language school. The word is a neologism, formed from ikasi `study, learn' and -ola `place where something is done'. The first ikastolas came into existence during the Franco dictatorship; they were clandestine, after-hours, and strictly illegal. With the gradual relaxation of some of Franco's restrictions, the ikastolas became quasi-legal, though they continued to be persecuted. Only with the achievement of autonomy after the old dictator's death did the ikastolas finally become integrated into the ordinary school system; today some of them have become part of the state-funded public school system while others remain private.

ikurrin The Basque national flag, consisting of a red field, covered by a diagonal green cross, covered in turn by an orthogonal white cross. In other languages, this flag is known as the ikurriña, with the Basque article attached and the palatal nasal arising from the usual pronunciation of the word in the western varieties of Basque. The flag was designed by the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, who originally intended it only as the flag of Bizkaia, but it was quickly taken up by Basques everywhere. The name too was coined by Arana in his tyoically eccentric way. He started with the native verb irakurri `read', and concluded that this must be an ancient -ra- causative of a lost verb *ikurri, to which he assigned the meaning `signify'. This in turn he proposed to derive from a lost noun *ikur `sign'; to this ikur he added a suffix -in of his own devising to obtain ikurrin. This word he intended as a new Basque word for `flag' in general, but, almost from the beginning, it has been taken as the name of the Basque flag. The ikurriña was the flag of the short-lived Basque republic of 1936-37, and it is the flag that Basque soldiers fought and died for during the war. It doesn't have such a long pedigree as some other national flags, but the soldiers of the Spanish Civil War thought it was good enough to die for, and I reckon theirs is the only opinion that counts. Today the ikurriña is the flag of the Basque Autonomous Government, but in fact it flies everywhere in the Basque Country, north and south.

indar `Force, strength'. Most of the rather rugged Basque sports are based upon displays of strength of one sort or another.

ipar `North'. The great Basque linguist Michelena sees this as a specialized and altered form of ibar `valley'; his thinking is that the meaning of `north' is extracted from ipar-haize `north wind' (haize `wind'), which in turn is an alteration of *ibar-haize `valley wind'. The name Iparralde is applied to the French Basque Country.

irrintzi The traditional Basque mountain cry, a ululation characterized by a rising pitch and concluded with a kind of demented laugh. It was formerly used for calling in the mountains; today it is most commonly heard at festivals. The word is probably of imitative origin.

Irurak Bat `The Three Are One'. This was the motto of the Real Sociedad Vascongado de Amigos del País, an important 18th-century organization founded to promote new ideas in education, agriculture, and technology in Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Araba. Founded in Azkoitia in 1764, this was the first such organization in Spain, and it was highly successful; among its other achievements, it established the first secular school in Spain (in Azkoitia). This motto was the inspiration for the modern slogan Zazpiak Bat.

itsaso `Sea'. Living along the coast as they do, the Basques have been seafarers since long before our records begin. Their fishermen and whalers have ranged the North Atlantic for many centuries; see arrantzale and balea. Basque sailors (itsasgizonak, from gizon `man') were involved early in the voyages of discovery; both Columbus and Magellan had Basque lieutenants, and, after Magellan's death, it was his lieutenant Elkano who successfully completed the first circumnavigation of the world. Today fishing is still an important industry, and seafood is a major component of the Basque diet.

iturri `Spring, fountain'. This is an ancient word, found in many place names and surnames, such as the place name Iturmendi in Navarra (mendi `mountain') and the surname Iturrieta (-eta `abundance of'). In Roman times a town called Iturissa existed on the Mediterranean coast; this looks very much like Iturritza, a transparently Basque place name recorded in the Basque Country itself, but the presence of a seemingly Basque place name in what was then Iberian-speaking territory is mysterious.

Izarra The name of a commercial liqueur manufactured in Bayonne. It is based on Armagnac, flavored with Pyrenean herbs, and colored yellow for the weaker version and green for the stronger. It somewhat resembles Chartreuse.

jai `Festival'. Every Basque city, town and village has a town festival once a year. These always feature performances by amateur and professional singers and dancers; there may be sporting contests, bull-runnings (see zezenketa and sokamutur), bertsolari contests, and all manner of other entertainments; and there is always plenty of eating and drinking. Even in a small village, the festival may go on for several days, and the banners displayed at the edge of town warning Jaietan Gaude `We're Having Our Festival' are meant to warn incoming drivers of the need for care to avoid running down a group of boisterous and possibly slightly inebriated revellers. This is one of the very rare Basque nouns with initial j, and its origin is a mystery.

jai alai See pilota.

jainko The ordinary word for `god' (in the generic sense) and also, as Jainko, a name for `God' (in the Christian sense). The word has a variant Jinko, and it is a puzzle. The most widespread name for the Christian God is Jaungoikoa, from jaun `lord' and goiko `who is on high', plus the article. This name too is odd, since the order of elements is very un-Basque: we would have expected *Goikojauna. It may be that Jaungoikoa has its anomalous form because it is a calque on some Romance term of the form `the Lord on high', but nobody knows. The word Jainko is still in use today, especially in the north, and in early texts it is often more frequent than Jaungoikoa. There are at least three hypotheses on the table concerning these two words. (1) Jainko is an ancient Basque word for `God' (possibly deriving from the name of a pre-Christian deity), and Jaungoiko is a folk-etymology designed to rationalize this name in Christian terms, thus accounting for the odd form of the latter. (2) Jainko is nothing but an irregular contraction of Jaungoiko. (3) The two names are not related at all, and the resemblance is purely coincidental. I myself favor the third of these, but I take no position on the origin of jainko. I note two things, however. First, it is extremely rare for a Basque noun to begin with j. Second, the presence of the cluster nk is highly anomalous: save only in the easternmost dialects, plosives in all Basque words, of whatever origin, were uniformly voiced after n some centuries after the Roman period, and hence this word does not look ancient: we would have expected *jaingo. Finally, the oft-made suggestion that English By jingo! derives from Basque Ala jinko! `By God!' seems too fanciful to be taken seriously, especially since English loans directly from Basque are virtually unknown.

jaun Originally, `lord'; today, just the ordinary word for `gentleman`, `sir' or `mister'. It is extremely unusual for a Basque noun to begin with a /j/, which is normally confined to participles of verbs (where it develops from original */e/ before a non-high vowel), and it is quite possible that jaun was originally a participle meaning something like `exalted'. Unlike its female equivalent andere, jaun is not attested in the Aquitanian materials. There is, however, a male name Andossus in Aquitanian, and Joaquín Gorrochategui has suggested an original stem *And-, with a female suffix *-ere for `lady' and a male suffix *-ots for `lord'. This idea is supported by the existence of a word-forming suffix -(d)ots in one or two names for male animals.

kale `Street', a loan from Spanish calle or a related Romance form. The word commonly has an extended sense of `town': a Basque who says Kalera noa does not mean `I'm going into the street' but rather `I'm going into town'. Since a very large part of Basque social life takes place in the streets and the bars of the town, what the speaker very often intends to do is to go into town to have a few drinks and to chat with friends doing the same thing. There is, in fact, a certain divide, not overwhelming but nonetheless real, between the baserritarrak who live in farmhouses outside of town and the kaletarrak who live in town.

koadrila A group of friends who regularly socialize together and who turn to one another in time of need. Koadrilak are of some considerable importance in Basque society. The word is borrowed from Spanish cuadrilla `group, gang, band'.

kopa A glass of spirits. Any respectable Basque meal concludes with a kopa or three; the favorite tipples are anis (anisette), koñak, and patxaran, though nowadays whisky is increasingly common. The word is borrowed from Spanish copa `drinking-glass'.

kopla zaharrak Traditional songs, or perhaps better traditional verses put to music. The word kopla `verse' is borrowed from Romance and related to English couplet; zahar is `old'.

Lamiak (also Lamiñak) Creatures of Basque folklore. Depictions vary, but they are often represented as beautiful but malevolent women with animal feet who deceive, enchant and kill young men. The Lamias are found all across southern Europe, as far east as Greece, and scholars believe the name is of Greek origin. The Basque variant with a second nasal is puzzling, but is probably secondary.

lauburu The Basque swastika, a rounded swastika resembling four commas joined at their points. Its name derives from lau `four' and buru `head'. The lauburu is found everywhere in the Basque Country, north and south, as a decorative emblem on houses, carved furniture, jewellery, and the covers of books with Basque themes; along with the beret and the Basque flag, it is one of the instantly recognizable signs of Basque identity. Its origin is completely unknown.

lehendakari `President'. This is another of Sabino Arana's coinages (he spelled it lendakari), derived from lehen `first' and a variant of the professional suffix -ari (I'm not sure what the bit in the middle is). This is the title conferred upon the President of the Basque Autonomous Government.

lur `Earth, land'. The word is indigenous and ancient, and it represents something of considerable importance: in traditional Basque society, there is a great divide between those who own land and those who don't. The first-ever Basque film was called Ama Lur `Mother Earth'.

Mari A rather shadowy figure of Basque folklore, usually conceived as a tall, beautiful and kindly woman with some kind of magical or semi-divine powers. Mari is strongly associated with particular locations, and some anthropologists have seen her as continuing ancient pagan deities associated with those locations; as usual, though, we have no way of investigating such suggestions. Whatever the origin of Mari, there is no doubt that the conception of her has been, at the very least, heavily overlaid by the Christian Virgin. Certainly the name cannot be of Basque origin.

mendi `Mountain'. In spite of its resemblance to Latin montem, this appears to be a native word; its earlier form was probably *bendi. The Basque heartland is, of course, overwhelmingly mountainous. The mountains are limestone and hence full of natural caves, some of which contain cave paintings from the Palaeolithic period. The most important of these caves are Otsozelaia in the French Basque Country, Ekain in Gipuzkoa, and Santimamiñe in Bizkaia. It is this mountainous terrain which is largely responsible for the survival of the Basque language down to the present day: the Romans apparently saw no point in trying to romanize the mountains, and the later Franks, Visigoths, and Arabs were simply unable to subdue the Basques in their mountains.

mus The traditional Basque card game, played by four people in two partnerships. Partnerships win beans by having the highest-scoring hands; first partnership to win an agreed number of beans wins the game. Hardly a bar is without at least one game of mus going on somewhere, especially on weekend afternoons. The game is never played for money, though the losers may be expected to buy a round of drinks. A remarkable feature of the game is the presence of a kind of institutionalized cheating, by which players are allowed to pass information about their hands to their partners by an agreed set of signals made with the face; unrecognized signals are not permitted, and a player caught signalling by an opponent must own up. The game is lively and skilful. The name, which is used in the game to request new cards during a hand, is of unknown origin, but cannot be native Basque; the Catalan etymologist Corominas thinks it derives from French mouche `fly'. Particularly noticeable during a game is the occasional cry of Hor dago! `There it is!', used to announce a particular sort of challenge.

nekazari `Farmer'. This is one of several Basque words for `farmer'; it is derived from neke `fatigue, work', which is a loan from Latin necem `death'. Though pastoralism has been the backbone of the Basque economy since prehistoric times, agriculture has been practiced in the area for perhaps 4000 years, wherever the terrain would allow it. Today almost every square foot of available land is under cultivation, and every farm produces a substantial proportion of its own food plus an excess which is sold at local markets.

ogi `Bread'. This word, which also means `wheat' in the east of the country (though `wheat' is otherwise universally gari), is surely ancient. Even in today's prosperous Basque Country, bread remains the staple food par excellence: no Basque meal, no matter how rich and elaborate, is eaten without bread.

ola An interesting word. Its most obvious sense is `forge, foundry', but it equally means `hut, cabin', especially a shepherd's seasonal shelter high on the mountains. It very frequently occurs as the final element in place names (and surnames); here it usually just means `place where something is done', or even just `place'.

Olentzaro A traditional festival associated with the winter solstice and characterized by eating, drinking and merrymaking; today this festival is increasingly assimilated into the celebration of Christmas, though it retains some distinctive characteristics, such as the personification of Olentzaro, often as an ugly little boy. As usual, next to nothing is known about whether, and to what extent, the Olentzaro might preserve remnants of pre-Christian religious practices. There is an attested variant Onentzaro, and specialists think this is probably the original form of the name, and that it has the obvious derivation from onen `best' and -zaro `season, time', making it parallel to Spanish Nochebuena `Christmas Eve'.

Orreaga The Basque name of the celebrated Pyrenean pass called Roncesvalles in Spanish and Roncesvaux in French. Here, in the year 778, a troop of Basques, apparently angered by the gratuitous sacking of their capital city, Pamplona, by a Frankish force retreating from combat with the Arabs, fell upon that force and annihilated it. Scandalized by this crushing defeat at the hands of an unregarded mountain people, Charlemagne's bards embroidered the tale into the magnificent Chanson de Roland, greatest of all medieval romances, in which the defeat is ascribed to a vast Muslim army aided by demons from Hell. Interestingly, a second Frankish army was crushed at Orreaga in 824. The name derives from orre `juniper' plus the suffix -aga `place'.

ortzi Probably the native Basque word for `sky', in which sense it is only marginally attested as an independent word. (The modern Basque word for `sky' is zeru, a borrowing from a Romance development of Latin caelum.) But ortzi and its western variant osti appear as the first element in dozens of formations with senses like `storm', `stormcloud', `thunder', `bright sky', `daylight', and `rainbow'; examples include orzargi `daylight' (argi `light') and ortzadar `rainbow' (adar `horn'). But there are two points that have intrigued many people. First, the 12th-century French pilgrim Picaud compiled a brief glossary of Basque words which is generally very accurate, and he reports that the Basque word for `God' was given to him as Ortzia. Second, the Basque name of Thursday is everywhere ortzegun or ostegun -- `ortzi-day' -- and of course Thursday is named after the local thunder god in both Latin and Germanic. These facts suggest that Ortzi might anciently have been the name of a Basque god of thunder, or of the sky generally. No one knows if this conjecture has any validity. Michelena has suggested that ortzegun might simply be *bortz-egun, from bortz `five', with a familiar phonological development -- but then `Friday' in Basque is ortzirale, with the same first element and a mysterious second one. It is also odd that the Basques should have been providing the name of a pagan deity as late as the 12th century, and Michelena suggests that, when Picaud asked for the word `God', he pointed at the sky, and that the Basques, misunderstanding his meaning, simply gave him their word for `sky'.

otso `Wolf'. Today no wolves survive in the Basque Country, though the last one was killed only a few generations ago, and wolves still prowl the mountains just to the west of the country. There is good evidence for the former importance of wolves among the Basques. The personal names recorded in Aquitanian (the ancestral form of Basque spoken in Roman times) show an element Osso- or Oxso- which is generally agreed to represent otso written in the defective Roman alphabet. In the medieval period, Otsoa `the Wolf' was a common by-name, and this survives today as the fairly common surname Otxoa, written Ochoa in Spanish. Interestingly, otso is widely used in the sense of `wild', especially in plant names, such as otsolizar `mountain ash, rowan' (lizar `ash') and otsoporru `asphodel' (porru `leek').

patxaran A favorite Basque tipple, made by soaking sloes in anisette. The name derives from the word for `sloe', basaran, which is baso `woods', wild' plus aran `plum'.

pilota The Basque national game, a member of the squash family. It is played in a number of different forms: one a side or two a side, with only a front wall or with three walls (no right-hand wall), with bare hands, with wooden racquets, or with a wicker basket strapped to one arm. By far the most famous version is cesta punta, played two a side with wicker baskets and three walls. This version is a professional sport of importance in the Basque Country, and it has spread to the USA and to much of Latin America; professional players, or pilotariak, regularly cross the Atlantic. In English, this version is somewhat curiously known as jai alai, a name which is Basque but is not used in Basque; it was deliberately coined by the 19th-century Romantic Serafín Baroja from jai `festival' and alai `merry'. The name pilota, of course, is a borrowing from Romance pelota `ball'.

pintxo A small snack eaten in a bar along with a drink. As elsewhere in Spain, pintxoak are a great tradition in the Basque Country, and the better bars usually display a wide range of hot and cold snacks, most of them prepared by the bar-owner's wife or daughter. Just as with drinks, payment is invariably on the honor system: only upon leaving do you list what you've consumed and pay up. The word is borrowed from Spanish pincho; the other Spanish word, tapa, is not normally used in Basque.

sagardo ~Cider', specifically hard cider, from sagar `apple' plus ardo `wine', with haplology. Cider is the traditional Basque tipple, and sagardotegiak `cider houses' were once commonplace in the Basque countryside. Indeed, it has been seriously suggested that the Basques were the first people to make cider, but such claims can rarely be evaluated. Today the ready availability of wine, beer and spirits has greatly reduced the consumption of cider, and cider-houses are rarer than they once were, but they can still be found in rural areas.

sokamutur A scaled-down kind of bull-running, in which a bull (rarely two or three) is led through crowded streets by handlers holding ropes attached to its nose. The idea is to reproduce most of the thrills of a genuine zezenketa while allowing the handlers to rein in an animal which looks set to injure somebody seriously. Sokamuturrak are very popular at festivals, and I can testify that stumbling into one unexpectedly confers remarkable and previously unsuspected powers of leaping and climbing. The name derives from soka `rope' (a loan from Latin) and mutur `snout' (a word of debatable origin: it is either a borrowing from Romance or an "expressive" formation).

sokatira A tug-of-war. This is a favorite Basque sport. The name derives from soka `rope', a loan from Latin, and tira `pull', a loan from Spanish.

sorgin `Witch'. Witches are important in Basque folklore, and anthropologists have sometimes suggested that some of the activities imputed to witches may represent garbled survivals of the old Basque pagan religion, but such suggestions are very difficult to evaluate. It is noteworthy that witches are strongly associated with particular locations, such as the mountain of Anboto in Bizkaia. The etymology of the word is obscure. The second element appears to be the common suffix -gin `who does, who makes', but the first is totally mysterious: neither zori `omen, fortune' nor the loan word sorte `fortune' can account for the form of the word. This word is frequently used in word-formation, as in sorgin-haize `whirlwind' (`witch-wind'), sorginorratz `dragonfly' (`witch-needle'), and, curiously, sorgin-oilo `butterfly' (`witch-hen'). The Zuberoan (Souletin) dialect has a different word for `witch', belagile; this is clearly `herb-maker', from belar `grass, herb' and -gile `who makes'.

Sugaar A serpent in Basque folklore, a somewhat shadowy but apparently hostile creature. The name is suge `snake, serpent plus ar `male'.

sukalde `Kitchen', from su `fire' plus alde `side'. The k is puzzling, but it might represent the relational suffix -ko. Until not so long ago, a Basque kitchen was indeed built around a large fireplace, and cooking was largely done in kettles suspended over the fire. Basque cuisine is rightly famous; it is generally regarded as the best cooking in Spain, and it is noticeably different from Spanish cooking -- for example, it makes no use of tomatoes. If you return to the main Basque page, you'll find a link to a Web site with a collection of Basque recipes.

taberna The most widespread Basque word for `bar', borrowed from Romance taverna, though several other words exist, such as ardandegi, literally `wine-place'.

trikitixa (also trikiti) An accordion, a traditional Basque instrument. The name is recent and of expressive origin.

txakoli (also txakolin) A kind of green wine, made from underripe grapes and having a sharp flavor. This is a favorite Basque drink. The name is of unknown origin.

txalaparta A vernacular musical instrument, consisting of a long wooden plank suspended on two padded barrels and struck with sticks. The name is of imitative origin.

txapela The Basque beret. The word derives from Latin capellum `cap', and the Basque word has the variants kapela and gapelu. The beret is the archetypal Basque artefact, and the Basques were probably the first to wear it. Basque men have worn black berets since time immemorial, both while working and on formal occasions, though in recent years the beret seems to be worn much less frequently. Both men and women may wear red berets on festive occasions. It is the custom to award a beret to the winner of a competition. especially a bertsolari competition, and the Basque word for `champion' is txapeldun -- literally, `one who has the beret'. Similarly, the usual word for `competition' or `contest' is txapelketa, with the suffix -keta, which forms nouns of activity. In Spanish, the beret is called a boina, a word unknown in Basque but widely thought to be of Basque origin, probably a Basque form of the Romance word that appears in English as bonnet.

txirula A vernacular flute resembling a txistu but differing in a few details. This instrument is typical of the province of Zuberoa (Soule). The name is of unknown origin; there is no obvious Romance source, and the word may be an imitative formation.

txistu A vernacular musical instrument, an end-blown flute played with one hand, usually while other beats a drum. The same word also means `saliva', and it may possibly be of expressive origin, but more likely it represents a Basque continuation of Latin fistula `shepherd's pipe'.

ur `Water'. The word is ancient and well-attested in place names and surnames, such as Urepele (`warm water'), a village in the French Basque Country, and U(r)beruaga (`hot waters'; i.e. `hot springs'), a surname. The great Basque linguist Azkue tried to make a case for a lost word *iz- meaning `water', but his case is rejected today as unsubstantiated.

Zazpiak Bat `The Seven Are One', a contemporary slogan asserting the unity of the seven traditional Basque provinces. This is a modern formation based on the 19th-century Irurak Bat.

zezenketa A bull-running, in which bulls are turned loose in the streets of a town or city, and young people run in front of them in order to demonstrate their own bravery or foolhardiness. As all readers of Ernest Hemingway will know, the most famous of these events takes place at the festival of San Fermines in Pamplona every July; there are always a few gorings, and occasionally there is a fatality among the not infrequently inebriated participants. Most of the victims, though, are tourists and not locals. The name derives from zezen `bull' and -keta, a suffix forming nouns of action. Compare sokamutur.

zori `Luck'. This word is unusually interesting. It is attested in early texts as meaning `omen', and the great Basque linguist Michelena reconstructs the original sense as simply `bird'. Centuries ago it was a common practice to try to foretell the future by studying the flight of birds, and the Basque word for `bird' came to have the sense of `omen'. It is the palatalized form of this word, (t)xori, which is today the universal Basque word for `bird'.

zuhaitz `Tree'. This is today the most usual word for `tree', and it is a compound of zur `wood' plus haritz, which today means `oak' but formerly just meant `tree'. There are over half a dozen other words for `tree' attested in early texts and in regional varieties today: errexala, habe, atze, ondo (this one only in compounds), zuhain(tze), zuhamu, ezkur, and the loan word arbola.

zuri `White'. The word often occurs in its palatalized form (t)xuri. It has a number of unpleasant associations, including `lazy', `useless', and `hypocritical, sycophantic'. The Basque linguist Azkue has proposed that it derives from zur `wood', which is possible but uncertain.



Color & metal terms in Basque

<beltz> `black'

This, we think, derives from *<beletz>, and contains the ancient element *<bel> `dark', found in a number of other words, such as <bele> `crow', <ospel> `dead leaves', and <goibel> `cloudy sky'. Aquitanian BELEX(-) is probably the same word.

<zuri> `white'

This may contain the ancient adjective-forming suffix <-i> (as in <gazi> `salty'), and Azkue suggested a derivation from <zur> `wood' -- hence -wood-colored', `light-colored'. Nobody knows.

<gorri> `red'

Again <-i>, and again Azkue, who suggested a stem *<gor> `raw flesh'. This would also be present in <gordin> `raw, crude', with the adjective-forming suffix <-din>, probably `resembling'.

<hori> `yellow'

Again <-i>, and this time Azkue wants <(h)or> `dog' as the source: hence the original meaning would have been `tawny' (lion-colored).

<urdin> `blue'

This originally covered all of green, blue, and gray: note <gibelurdin>, a mushroom with a bright green underside, and <mutxurdin> `old maid', but literally `gray-cunt' (and also <urdin> applied to gray hair and beards). Again we seem to have <-din>, and the first element looks like <ur> `water'. The semantics is great: `resembling water', but the form is funny. The ancient combining form of <ur> is <u->, and so we would have expected *<udin>.

These are the only color terms that can be securely reconstructed. Others are loan words, like <berde> `green', <gris> `gray', <arrosa> `pink', and <laranja> `orange'. There are modern compounds, like <gorrimotel> `weak red' for `pink'. Bizkaian <laru> `pale yellow' is from Latin <claru>, and Bizkaian <beilegi> `yellow' appears to derive from <behi> `cow'. And <orlegi> `green' is one of Sabino Arana's. Some northerners have <musker> for `green', but this is taken from the name of a green lizard, and the word does not look native.

Otherwise, we have several words of variable meaning. The most interesting is <arre>, today usually `brown' but formerly `gray', and possibly the source of <arrats> `evening'. The word <nabar> means all of `gray, drab, multicolored'. Eastern <dundu>, which cannot be ancient, is `blue' in Roncalese but `dark' in Zuberoan. Exceptionally interesting is <ubel>, which in many places is `purple, violet', but elsewhere it just means `dark' or `livid'. This doubtless contains *<bel> `dark'. And <beltzaran> `brunette, sun-tanned' is mysterious: it certainly contains <beltz>, but what the hell is the second element?


Ah, yes -- I forgot about this one. This is yet another word that sometimes means `(dark) gray' but sometimes just `turbid' (of water), or even `bitter'. I confess I don't know its etymology, but it does look as if it might be derived from <ur>, though the second element is puzzling.


As has been pointed out, there is something very odd about the Basque metal names.

To begin with, there are no indigenous Basque names recorded for any of tin, copper or bronze. Instead, we find only loan words: <eztainu> `tin', <kobre> `copper', and <brontze> `bronze'. I find this strange, since it is inconceivable that the ancient Basques did not know these metals. So the ancient names must have been replaced and lost, but why? True, the `bronze' of English and other European languages is itself of unknown origin, and not native in any of them.

But there is no doubt about the native status of <burdina> `iron', <berun> `lead', <urre> `gold', and <zilar> `silver'. Many people have tried to connect this last one to the Germanic word, as represented by English `silver', but this is awkward, and I gather that Agud and Tovar, in their etymological dictionary of Basque, reject it altogether, though I don't know why, since publication of the dictionary has not yet reached Z. Nor is it possible that <urre> could have anything to do with Latin <aurum>.

Exceptionally interesting is <burdina>. Since there is good evidence that the Celts introduced iron into the Basque Country, we might have expected Basque to borrow a Celtic name for the metal, but that didn't happen. The comparative evidence makes it pretty clear that the earliest form of the Basque word was *<burdina>, or just possibly *<burnina>, which seems less likely but cannot be ruled out. And it is not so easy to connect this with <urdin> `blue'.

First, such a source could not account for the final <-a> in the metal name. Second, it requires us to conclude that the word for `blue' has lost an initial /b-/ which it formerly had. This is not impossible, since initial /b-/ is indeed occasionally lost before /u/: compare <buztarri> ~ <uztarri> `yoke'. But it doesn't seem terribly appealing.

There are also problems with <urdin> itself. This might possibly be from <ur> `water' plus <-din> `resembling', which makes semantic sense, but the problem is that the combining form of <ur> in ancient formations is regularly <u->, not <ur->: note cases like <ubide> `ford' (<bide> `road, way'), <ubil> `whirlpool' (*<bil> `round'), <uhalde> `riverbank, river' (<alde> `side'), <uharte> `land between rivers' (<arte> `between'). (Western <ugalde>, <ugarte> are more recent, post-dating the loss of /h/ in the west.) Hence we would have expected *<udin>, not <urdin>. Moreover, the sense of `blue' is modern. Earlier, <urdin> covered the entire territory of English `green, blue, gray', just like the more famous Welsh <glas>. Note formations like <gibelurdin>, the name of a mushroom with a bright green underside, and <mutxurdin> `old maid', in which <urdin> clearly refers to gray.

I don't know what to make of all this, though I think `gray metal' is pretty neat on the semantic side, even though the phonology is pretty awful.


Letter H in Basque

It is believed by specialists that the sound /h/ (or better [h], for those of you who understand the difference) was formerly present in all varieties of Basque. The letter H is very frequent in the surviving Aquitanian materials (Aquitanian is the ancestor of Basque), including in those few texts found south of the Pyrenees, in Navarra. For example, one personal name recorded in Navarra from the Aquitanian period is VMME SA.HAR, which we have no hesitation in reading as UME ZAHAR.

The sound [h] seems to have been lost early in the center of the country (Gipuzkoa and Navarra), since there is no trace of it here in the medieval period. In Bizkaia and Araba, however, the letter H is very frequent in personal names and place names in the Middle Ages: for example, BAHAHEZTU for modern MAEZTU, ELHORZAHEA for modern ELORTZA, HURIUARRI for URIBARRI, ELHORRIAGA for ELORRIAGA, HARIZAVALET for ARRIZABALETA.

Today the [h] survives only in the French Basque Country, but it survives everywhere there except along the coast of Lapurdi. Hence, the French Basques say, and have traditionally written, things like these: HORI, HURA, HARRI, HERRI, AHO, NAHI, MIHI, ETHORRI, EKHARRI, ALHABA, SENHAR, ERHI (finger), URRHE (usually written URHE).

When Euskaltzaindia sat down to devise a standard orthography for Basque, therefore, it had to find a compromise between the French Basque spelling traditions and the southern traditions. Naturally, there were disagreements. On the H, some people wanted to retain *all* the written Hs, and to spell things the way Axular spelled them. Others wanted to get rid of H completely. The solution the Academy adopted was basically this: H is written in Batua wherever the northerners have it, *except* after a consonant. So, ETHORRI, EKHARRI, ALHABA, SENHAR, ERHI, URHE were rejected in favor of ETORRI, EKARRI, ALABA, SENAR, ERI, URRE. But HORI, HURA, HARRI, HERRI, AHO, NAHI and so on were accepted into the standard orthography.

This, in my view, was an excellent decision. The northerners have a spelling that matches their pronunciation. The southerners have to learn where to put the Hs, but they're used to doing the same thing when writing Spanish. Moreover, the Batua orthography has the advantage of providing different spellings for words like HARI, ARI and AHARI, which are often pronounced identically in the south -- or, come to that, for AHATE and ATE.

In the 1970s, though, there was a good deal of outrage in the south over the Hs in Batua. The left-wingers objected bitterly to the Hs, on the ground that they made the written form more distant from the speech of the masses. The right-wingers objected even more bitterly on the ground that they'd never had Hs before and didn't see why they should have them now. If I may be blunt, a lot of people wasted an enormous amount of time fulminating about Hs when they could have been doing something more useful to assist in developing Batua.

Eventually the whole kerfuffle died down. I have the impression that the young left-wingers just got too busy with jobs and families to worry about Hs any more, while the elderly right-wingers in many cases just died.


Monosyllabic words

Native and ancient monosyllables are not particularly common in Basque; there are probably no more than several dozen. The canonical form of a monosyllable looks rather like that for a two-syllable word: same beginning and same ending, but only one vowel (or diphthong) in between. Here's the pattern (verbs and verb-forms are excluded here because theu are constructed according to very different rules):


C1 can be any of /b g z s l n/; it can also be /m/, when this derives from original */b/, and it can be /h/, if we count this.

Initial /b/ is extremely rare in monosyllables, even though it's one of the commonest initials in two-syllable words. Initial /n/ is also very rare, but then it's also the rarest initial in two-syllable words.

C4 can be any of /n l r tz ts/.

Normally at least one consonant is present. Initial /h/ is somewhat preferred to initial zero.

At least one word has final /ltz/: BELTZ. This almost certainly derives from earlier *BELETZ. A few words have final /rtz/: HARTZ, BORTZ, ERTZ, ZURTZ, and one or two others. (Western BOST derives from earlier BORTZ.) Maybe these derive from longer forms with a second vowel, or maybe we should add the cluster /rtz/ to the possibilities for C4.

The rare nouns with initial J, like JAI and JAUN, were not originally monosyllables, and they were very likely once the participles of verbs.

The word EZ is unusual, but this is a grammatical word, and grammatical words sometimes show unusual characteristics. I personally suspect that EZ may derive from original *EZA, but I don't have much evidence.

The word KE is completely mysterious and out of line with the usual rules.

Words like NAHI, AHAL and ZAHAR were not monosyllables in Pre-Basque and should not be counted as such, even though they are monosyllables today for many southern speakers.

Some other modern monosyllables were formerly two syllables long, such as ZEIN (from *ZEREN), HAIN (from *HAREN), and GAUR (from *GAU-HAUR). The same is true of MIN `tongue' (also MIHI), from *BINI, and of ZAI ~ ZAIN, from *ZANI. BAT derives from original *BADA or *BADE. BI derives from original BIGA, preserved in the north. Western BART derives from original BARDA, preserved in the east. BORT very likely has a similar origin. HAR `worm' was formerly *ANAR. TZAR ~ TXAR `bad' derives from ZAHAR. A few other monosyllables seem to have lost a final A: thus ONTZ `owl' probably continues earlier *(H)ONTZA.

Here is an incomplete list of monosyllables which appear to be native and ancient. Note that the interrogatives ZER, NOR, NON, NOIZ and certain other items like HAN all consist of two morphemes.

*BEN (recorded only in derivatives like BENETAN)
MIN `pain' (from *BIN)
SOIN (possibly from *SONI, but this is not certain)
LAU(R) `four'
HAU(R) `this'
HAUR `child'
HAITZ (almost certainly this was once two syllables)
*HAR `that'

Plus, of course:


This list is not complete, but there aren't many others. Verbs in -TU, like SORTU, SARTU, GALDU, HARTU, BILDU and the strange-looking KENDU, may continue other ancient nouns or adjectives of one syllable, but we have no evidence.

There is one other point which I forgot to mention earlier. A Basque word can contain Z/TZ, or it can contain S/TS, but it can't contain a mixture of both. So, Basque has native words like ZEZEN and IZOTZ, and words like ITSASO and SITS, but it has no native words like *ZESEN or *ITSAZO or *SITZ.


Linguistic note links to





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