University of Nevada, Reno

Frequently Asked Questions I
The Basques, origins and language

Who are the Basques?

The Basques are a people who live in a small region (about the size of Rhode Island) that straddles the border of Spain and France from the sea in the west into the Pyrenees in the east. This area is called Euskal Herria (comprising seven provinces, historically: Araba, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Navarra on the Spanish side; Laburdi, Zuberoa, and Behe-Nafarroa on the French side). Basques speak a language called euskara, but today only about 25% of the population is fluent in that tongue. Even so, the word for a Basque person, euskaldun, means “possessor of the Basque language.” The Basque population is distinguished physically by a high incidence of Rh Negative factor in the blood.

Where do they come from?

No one knows exactly where the Basques came from. Some say they have lived in that area since Cro-Magnon man first roamed Europe. Estimates of how long they have lived there vary from 10,000 to 75,000 years. Some say they are descended from the original Iberians. More fanciful theories exist, as well. One is that the Basques are the descendents of the survivors of Atlantis.

Where does the Basque language come from?

Just as no one is sure about the origins of the Basques themselves, linguists are not in agreement over the origins of Euskara, the Basque language, either. (In Basque, the word euskara is not capitalized, but when using it in English, it is customary to capitalize it, just as we capitalize the names of other languages.) Although there are theories (none of them proven beyond a doubt) that Basque is related to other languages (such as the Georgian family of languages in the Caucasus, or the Berber language family of Africa, or even the Quechua language of Latin America), so far the only thing most experts agree on is that Euskara is in a language family by itself. That is, it is not related to any other language in the world. It is, therefore, not an Indo-European language (the large group to which English, French, Spanish, and Russian belong).

How many Basque Speakers are there in the Basque Country?

There are less than 600,000 fluent speakers in the Autonomous Community of Euskadi (Araba, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa) and about 400,000 more who have learned some Basque but are not considered fluent. Since most of the Basque speakers of the world live in that area, these numbers give us a close estimate of the number worldwide. There are perhaps 15,000 speakers in Iparralde (the three provinces on the French side of the border), and it is estimated that about 10% of the people in Navarre speak Basque. There are also pockets of Basque speakers in Latin America and in North America. Basque speakers are called Euskaldunak, possessors of Euskara, and those who learn the language later in life are called Euskaldun berriak, “new Basques.”

Do you have anything in English about the Basques?

Yes, indeed! A Basque book series (all in English) is published by the University of Nevada Press. You can see them and order them. You can also visit the Basque Library on-line and search the library catalog for titles in English.



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