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More about Basque language

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House names, part of our cultural heritage

The importance of the house to both family and society in the Basque Country, both historically and today, is a well-known fact. The existence of house names in oral literature bears witness to this (one of the best known is in a verse by Xalbador in reference to Xalbadorrenea, his home in Urepel). House names are also cited in the rights and obligations assigned to houses under the Basque royal charters. And, it goes without saying that house names remain alive in the surnames of the people who lived there.

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In fact, in the Basque Country there are cases in which the house itself gave the family its surname and other cases in which the town named a house after a particular characteristic of its owner (given name, surname, nickname, profession, origin or just about anything else).

As a result, house names can have different origins. As I mentioned before, we sometimes find houses named after references to the people who built or lived in the house, including given names (Paularena, Migelenea), family names (Petrisantzenea, Agirrenea), nicknames (Gorraren borda, Txipitonea), shortened names or diminutives (Martikorena, Gartxienea), professions (Arotzenea, Barberenea) and social status (Kontearena, Txantre). Other times houses are named after a particular feature of the house itself, such as size or colour (Etxetxikia, Bordaxuria), location (Mendiondoa, Berekoetxea), place-name (Elordi, Mugerdia), function or use (Dolarea, Errota), etc.

Until recently the people in Basque towns were known by the name of their house rather than their own given names or surnames. We are all familiar with the question the older people would ask the young people in town: «What house are you from?». Indeed, house names are part of our historical and cultural heritage and of the identity of a people, as well as containing a good deal of information about life in the past and how society was organized.

Fully aware of the cultural value of house names, a number of towns in the Basque Country have begun to collect, research and publish the names of houses to keep them from falling into oblivion. The research cited comes under the category of oikonymy (a term derived from two Greek words: oikos, house; and onoma, name), the branch of onomastics that centres on the study of house names and is very prevalent in the Basque Country. These studies combine anthroponomy (the names of human beings) and toponymy (the names of places).

To mention a just a few examples, a recent project in Navarra compiled the names of houses of two towns Etxalar and Garde. Earlier, in the Baztan Valley a telephone book was created containing the houses in Baztan. In addition to a historical curiosity, the phone book is considered a useful resource.


Paula Casares
Associate Lecturer of the Public University of Navarre