time a Basque
speaking Euskara, a little
dies, becomes lost.”
bakoitza mundua ikusteko era desberdin bat dela."
"A language isn't something
you learn so much as something you join."
an endangered language. Generally, any language that is spoken by less
than a million people today is in danger of soon disappearing. Even
generous estimates of the number of Basque speakers leaves the number
well below this mark.
we use the word Basque to describe both a people and a language. This
is derived from the French variation (the Spanish is vasco) of “Eusk.”
In their own language—Euskara—Basques refer to themselves as
Euskaldunak. This is one of the rare instances of a people defining
themselves by their language. Euskotar, for example, means ethnic
Basque and can be applied to any Basque whereas Euskaldunak is specific
to those who speak Basque.
Euskara come from? According to the late Larry Trask, an Euskara
specialist, it doesn't really "come from" anywhere -- it's just been
there for a very long time. 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.
related to any other language? No responds Trask. The relatives that
Basque once had have died out without a trace. Basque absolutely cannot
be shown to be related to any other language at all. Trask declares
that some people will try to tell you differently, but they don't know
what they're talking about, and the great majority of them don't even
know anything about Basque.
book written in Euskara was by Bernard Etxepare in 1545. In it he
included this plea:
Euskara, euskara, jalgi hadi kanpora,
Euskara, euskara, jalgi hadi plazara,
Euskara, euskara, jalgi hadi dantzara,
Euskara, euskara, jalgi hadi mundu guztira!
“Let’s take Euskara out,
to the plaza, dancing,
and to the whole world.”
Etxepare’s 1545 book Linguae Vasconum Primi
Euskara as a secret
One of the more profound
exhibits at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum is one designed
by Jenny Holzer (b. 1950, Gallipolis, Ohio, U.S.A.). It consists of columns of scrolling words in English with
red lights, that when first seen appear to be up against a dark wall. But if
one moves closer, you find that the nine LED light columns are
actually double-sided and in front of the wall. Stepping through the light columns you
turn to find scrolling words on the back-side of the columns,
but this time in blue lights and in the Basque
language (as seen in the image below).
Note that this article does not
presume to know what exactly the artist, Jenny Holzer,
intended to relate with this work; instead the exhibit
is taken as an metaphor for the place of Euskara.
To view a video of this exhibit click on
It is a perfect metaphor for Basque culture
because in many ways the world of the Basques remains hidden
from view. To ultimately
discover that world one needs to know Euskara or the Basque
Now this statement is controversial, because some might be
offended that their "Basqueness" is being called into question,
while others might feel bad that they don't know Basque.
For the former, the response is a matter of reason.
Many a visitor or tourist to the
Basque country might know they are in the Basque country and
take in some of its charms, but there is larger world that the
non-speakers of Basque are likely to miss. Just like the
example above, one might think they have seen--or know--all
there is about the Basque Country, and that the "lights end at
the wall." But if one moves closer and passes through the
metaphorical columns into the Basque-speaking world, things show
up, in a matter of speaking, as a different color. The reason for this, is that some
things in life just don't translate. Each of the world's
languages have their own internal dynamic. Ask anyone who
is more than monolingual and nine of ten will tell you the same:
each language carries its own unique, cultural attributes; i.e.,
we communicate (i.e., relate, connect, understand) differently with people in different languages,
and it is not just because the words sound or are spelled
I'm convinced. So how do I learn Euskara?
For the latter--those who feel bad that they don't know Basque
because they too would like to know that "hidden world," well
there is good news for you! There's never a time like the
present to follow through on what you've always told yourself: "I
wish I knew Basque." There are opportunities out there now
that make learning easier, including classes at Basque clubs and
now an online option as well.
Check out learning options at