The Past and Future of The Basque Language

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres

If you recognize the quotation “All Gaul is divided into three parts”- congratulations! But can you name the three parts that Julius Caesar divided Gaul into in the famous introduction to his De Bello Gallico (On the Gallic War)?

Caesar continues:

 … quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. Hi omnes lingua institutis legibus inter se differunt.

“…one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs, and laws.”

Caesar’s observation of the linguistic differences between the three populations was astute; however while both the Belgae and the Gauls both spoke some sort of Celtic language, the Aquitani spoke a language with absolutely no resemblance to them at all.

Before the Indo-European languages (which include the Celtic languages) arrived in Europe, a number of pre-Indo-European languages were spoken on the continent. These include Etruscan- the language spoken in what is now the Italian province of Tuscany before the Latin of the expanding Roman Empire replaced it- and the Paleohispanic languages Iberian and Tartessian, spoken in modern-day Spain and Portugal.

The Roman invasion of Hispania spelled the end of these languages as well. Around 7 B.C. the Greek geographer Strabo writes of the Turdetani (Tartessians) that they “have so entirely adopted the Roman mode of life, as even to have forgotten their own language.” Iberian had much the same fate.

However, while the Romans invested heavily in the development of their colonies in the salubrious climates of Hispania and in the fertile Gallia, the harsh character of the Pyrenees probably kept them less interested in the mountainous border between the two regions. Moving southwest across the Pyrenees into modern day Spain the Aquitani and their descendants have managed to keep their anomalous language alive long enough for it to morph into the last remaining pre Indo-European language in Europe- Basque.

Today, the Basque language is spoken by an estimated 700,000 people in Euskal Herria (Basque Country), a territory which runs along the point of the aptly-named Bay of Biscay in Northern Spain and Southwestern France. It belongs neither to the large extended family of Indo-European languages (which includes the Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic branches, among others) nor to the smaller Uralic family (which includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian).

Like the Uralic languages, Basque is agglutinative. 17 cases exist in Basque- just one less than the 18 of Hungarian. Considering that within each case a noun may be singular or plural, definite or indefinite, Basque nouns have a total of 68 possible forms. However, unlike the Uralic languages Basque is distinguished by ergativity, in which the transitivity or intransitivity of a verb is reflected in its arguments (subject and direct object). This explains how the Basque verb hil can be translated either as “to die” (if it is intransitive) or “to kill” (if it is transitive).

This complex language is far from extinction, but neither is it is terrific shape. It is spoken by only about 27% of all Basques in Basque Country. Although there are dialectical variations in the language, a standardized form known as Euskara Batua (Standard Basque) developed in the late 1960s is used in education, the media, and in most written productions of the language. In particular, Batua is used in Spain’s bilingual education programs, known as Models A, B, and D. In Model A, Basque is studied as a subject- much as foreign languages are in U.S. schools. In Model B, education is 40% in Spanish and 60% in Basque. In Model D, Spanish is the only subject which is not taught in Basque. Where it has been adopted, Model D education provides the best chances of preserving the future of a bilingual society.

In more than 2,000 years the Basques have successfully resisted Roman, Visigoth, Arabic, Frankish, English, French, and Spanish domination. Will they be able to resist the onslaught of globalization in the 21st century?


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