The Basque language (or Euskarian, as Basque-speakers refer to it) has long had to fight for its survival.
The term “Basque” is also used in reference to the Spanish Basques inhabiting the autonomous Basque Country and Navarra regions of north-central Spain, or the French Basques who inhabit the Pyrenees-Atlantiques area of southwestern France. The history of the Basque language is closely intertwined with the Basque people’s campaign for recognition and autonomy in Spain.
Classification of the Basque Language
Although extensive study of the topic has been completed, the exact origins of the Basque language remain a mystery to linguists. Some believe that Basque is related to the now-extinct Iberian language once found in eastern Spain and the French Mediterranean coast. Others argue that the similarities found between Basque and Iberian developed from cultural contact rather than a linguistic relationship.
Alternate theories suggest a relationship between Basque and the Afro-Asiatic languages, the Caucasian languages, or the ancient language of Ligurian. Since there is not enough concrete evidence to prove any one theory, most linguists have come to classify Basque as an “isolate” – a language with no known relatives.
Early History of the Basque Language
Records of the Basque language can be found as far back as the first century. Written records of Basque words – primarily proper names – can be found dating back to 1000 CE. Spoken north and south of the Pyrenees, the early Basque language is thought to have initially extended east to the Aran Valley in the northeast of Spain, and to later have undergone further expansion into the southwest.
Most historians agree that the disruption caused by Roman domination in these regions played an integral role in the preservation of Basque. Without this interruption by the Romans, it is likely that Basque would have been totally quashed by the predominance of the Latin language.
Written Basque Language
The earliest known example of written Basque consists of proper names that date to circa 1000 CE. The first known Basque language book appeared in 1545 and consisted of a collection of religious and love poems. Another literary landmark was reached with the publishing of a Basque-language version of the New Testament in 1571.
Later publications of significance included a variety of military and religious writings that appeared throughout the 1600s. Although early records of the written Basque language exist, it was not until the 20th century that a more colorful and diverse body of Basque literature began to develop.
History of the Basque People
The first historical record of the Basque people dates to 1000 CE after the Basques successfully withstood Roman invaders in Spain. The Basques maintained their independence for centuries, successfully defeating the Visigoths in the 6th century and withstanding invasions by the Moors who dominated the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to 11th centuries.
It wasn’t until the late 14th century that significant Basque-language speaking areas were incorporated into the kingdom of Castile. The establishment of a Spanish Kingdom in the late 15th century, however, had little affect on Basque-speaking regions, which continued to preserve their ancient laws, customs and language.
Incorporation into Spain: Suppression of the Basque Language
In 1876, Spain absorbed the Basque regions, marking a new era for the Basque people. During the Spanish Civil War, an autonomous Basque state was established and the Basque language was given official status for a brief period from 1836 to 1837. This autonomous rule was ended after the war, however, when the regime of Francisco Franco took power of Spain.
Franco’s regime actively suppressed use of the Basque language. Anti-Basque actions included the burning of Basque language books and the outlawing of Basque names. Such restrictive linguistic measures remained intact for many years.
Emergence of Basque Nationalism
The Basque nationalist movement that had begun to take root in the early 1900s was effectively suppressed after the Spanish Civil War, but the power of the Basque separatist movement gained steam in the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to Basque agitation, the Spanish government developed more lenient policies toward the Basque language in the 1960s, allowing Basque language church services and news broadcasts.
Formation of an Autonomous Basque Country: Basque as an Official Language
In 1979, the Spanish government granted the Basque Country regional autonomy. The first Basque parliament was elected one year later. The Basque language was declared one of the official languages of the autonomous region, alongside Castilian Spanish.
Since this time, the relationship between the central Spanish government and the Basque people has improved immensely; however, the infamous Basque separatist organization known as the ETA (Euzkadi ta Askatasuna, which translates to “Basque Fatherland and Liberty) has continued to push for a separate Basque state, often resorting to violent methods.
Modern Basque Language: The Fight for Survival
The Basque language has always struggled for its survival, even in the heart of Basque-speaking regions. Contemporary Basque has lost ground to modern rivals including Castilian Spanish and French.
In recent decades, intense efforts have been undertaken to revitalize the Basque language, such as the introduction of Basque-language teaching. Efforts to promote the standardized written Basque, known as Euskara Batua (literally “Unified Basque”) have been relatively successful as the language now finds widespread acceptance.
Basque Language Today
The Basque language is found primarily in the Basque country of Spain, which includes the province of Guipuzcoa and the areas of Navarra, Alava and Vizcaya. The total Basque-language area in France and Spain measures approximately 10,000 square kilometers.
Basque speakers can also be found in other parts of Europe and in North and South America. By the early 21st century, there were an estimated 1 million Basque speakers worldwide. Most speakers of the Basque language are bilingual and fluent in another regional language in addition to Basque.
Basque Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Euskara, El Vasco, Batua
Language Family: Basque
Spoken by Approximately 588,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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