ez dakit euskeraz /ɛs ˈdakɪt ɛʊskˈɛɹas/. Language: Basque. Meaning: “I do not know Basque.” A blank stare conveys similar information.
If you’re moving to Basque Country, or if you’re just passing through to visit the gorgeous San Sebastian or the famous Guggenheim museum, chances are you’ll see a lot of gibberish containing a surplus of X’s and K’s. That, my friends, is Basque (“Euskera” in Spanish, “Euskara” in Basque), a language so complex and linguistically isolated that it has taken me 9 months of living in Bilbao to summon the courage to write a post about it.
While you’ll primarily hear Spanish spoken in Bilbao because of the city’s size and relative “diversity” (ha, right), in most smaller villages around Basque Country, Basque is the first language. And even in the bigger metropolises, some words, like “Kaixo,” (hello) “Agur” (goodbye) and “Eskerrik asko” (thank you) are much more frequent than their Spanish counterparts.
The Basque language is spoken by about a half million people in Euskal Herria, a region spanning the Spain-French border that encompasses four provinces in Spain (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba and Nafarroa) and 3 provinces in France (Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea, and Zubaroa [names in Basque]). There are several dialects (sources range from 7-10) spanning the region, and some are nearly mutually unintelligible (i.e. the speakers of one can’t understand the speakers of another).
Basque is unrelated to any living language on Earth, and its origins are unknown. It predates Indo-European languages, and is considered a true language isolate. You’d be amiss to think that, since it’s tucked in between Spain and France, it has Latin roots. While some words look very similar to Spanish (and English, come to think of it)—Baguettea, (baguette), ospitalea (hospital), txokolatea (chocolate)—Other words . . . well, you decide: Asteazkena (Wednesday), batzuetan (sometimes), elikadura (food), idazmahaia (desk).
A study by the British Foreign Office found that the Basque language is one of the top 10 hardest languages to learn for English speakers. It has 24 grammatical cases—compare that to English’s practically non-existent case system, and German’s seemingly difficult 4 cases. (Cases are a grammatical function explaining the relationship of nouns and pronouns to the rest of the sentence—and you thought grammar wasn’t fun!) Basque is an agglutinative language, meaning new words are formed by adding prefixes and suffixes onto the roots, instead of separating them into distinct words. This is semi-equivalent to writing bootofJohnplural instead of John’s boots. The auxiliar verb, English’s equivalent of “have,” must agree not only with the subject but with the direct object and the indirect object. Are you seeing my point here? I was just pleased to pick up the word for hello.
History Under Franco
When dictator Francisco Franco came to power in Spain in 1939, he banned the speaking of any language besides Castillian Spanish. Basques were forbidden to use their native tongue, even if they didn’t know Spanish, which means that many were essentially forced into silence. It was a time of extreme oppression throughout the country, but particularly so for regions that celebrated their own unique cultural and linguistic heritage, like Basque Country, Cataluña, and Galicia.
With the death of Franco and the onset of democracy in 1975, there was a growing movement to reintroduce the Basque language into schools and the public domain. A mandate was passed that required all signs to be written in both Spanish and Basque, and today, many schools are solely taught in Basque. (The secondary school where I worked taught every subject in Basque, with the exception of Spanish and English class, of course.)
If you are a civil servant in Basque Country, the government provides you incentives to become fluent in Basque. Landing a job is much easier in Euskal Herria if you speak Basque; it’s more highly regarded than knowing English, in some cases. My friend and colleague Alex is a Basque Country native, and a Spanish teacher at Zorroza secondary school. Since he is a funcionario (civil servant) in the field of education, he was offered a 4-month paid leave by the Basque Government to take an intensive course in Basque language. You read that right—FOUR MONTHS PAID TIME OFF to take a course for a language he already speaks at a bilingual level. * jaw drops to floor. *
(bold=stressed syllable; italics=secondary stress)
Aupa– “ow-puh” –Howdy/hey (for the non-Texans out there)
Ongi etorri– “on-gee (‘g’ like ‘goat’) eh-tour-ee”–Welcome
Eskerrik asko– “es-care-rick ass-co”–Thank you
Barkatu– “bar–kah–too”–Excuse me
Egun on– “egg-oon own“–Good morning
Gabon– “gah-bone“–Good evening/Good night
I spoke to a number of colleagues at work about their relationship with Basque; whether they felt differently using Spanish versus Basque; their upbringing with the language; and their views on the importance of preserving it. Since I worked in a large city, most of my colleagues speak Spanish as their native tongue, and learned Basque in school starting from a very young age. They are required to use Basque at work, since the school operates under the Basque teaching model. Below are the highlights of our conversation, translated into English:
On Contexts of Use:
“If the friendship has always been in Spanish, then I use Spanish. If the friendship started in Basque, then it’s only natural to continue it in Basque. But in general, Spanish is easier for me.” –Txemi
“My social life is in Spanish. I only use Basque at work. It’s like a lab coat: when I leave work, I take it off.” –Javi
On Bilingual Difficulty:
“When I speak Basque, I feel like a pianist with only one hand.”–Javi
On the Importance of Linguistic Diversity:
“Every language is a distinct way of seeing the world; a different pair of glasses. I can’t interpret the world the same way in two different languages.” –Joseba.
“Basque is a luxury and it has to be kept alive. Not celebrating it is like keeping your Ferrari parked in the garage.” –Alex
On Passing on the Language:
“I’m going to raise my kids with Basque because it’s important to maintain the culture. But of course, they will know Spanish as well, and all the other languages they possibly can. The more, the better.” –Andoni
“I only talk to my kids in Basque, because I know they will learn Spanish in the street. They are 4 and 1. It doesn’t matter to me that they listen to the radio or watch TV in Spanish–that’s how they’ll learn it. But in my house, it’s only Basque. My grandparents didn’t even know Spanish.” –Ainara
On Language and Culture:
“Language is culture. They are inseparable. Sociolinguistic studies show that the areas with the highest concentration of Basque Language have a population that feels the most Basque, and take the most pride in being Basque.
The students here [at Zorroza secondary school] don’t have an emotional attachment to Basque. For them, it’s just academic. They don’t value it. Sociologically speaking, many families are from outside of Basque Country, and they don’t know Basque. There are also some families, that, for political reasons or complexes, didn’t transmit the language to their offspring, so now it’s being lost. I wish that Basque could be seen as equal to Spanish, and that we lived Basque, and simply knew Spanish.” –Joseba.
When traveling or moving to Basque Country, it’s important to know how integral the Basque language is to the culture and traditions. The region’s difficult past makes its present all the more vehement, and without understanding the origins of linguistic oppression and rejuvenation, one can hardly begin to grasp the roots of Basque Country’s pride, uniqueness, and ultimately, its desire for independence. The locals are open and accepting of those who don’t speak the language—they themselves know just how complicated the verb conjugations can be to learn—but throwing a kaixo or an eskerrik asko into your speech goes a long way to garnering favor, and can make you feel just a tiny bit more united with the Basques’ strong identity.