This article was translated by John R. Bopp

In August 2013, we wrote about an entry in the blog about José Miguel Ramírez, a Colombian who speaks 15 languages.  Among those languages is Basque, which he defines as his “favorite language”.

Now, our favorite polyglot has surprised us with an article about Basque in the “Correveidile” the Cervantes Institute of Sao Paulo’s students’ blog,.  This article tells its readers about the Basque language and its history.

We have to admit that this really got us excited.  In just over 1600 words, José Miguel Ramírez takes a journey through the history of the Basques, telling their stories, their problems, the effort they’ve made to preserve their language, and the hopes they have for its future.

We really liked it.  Its opening line, absolutely brilliant: “Basque, the language that laughs at time”, the perfect sentence to accompany the legendary phrase by 18th-century Basque Pierre d’Iharce de Bidassouet when he explained the origin of the Basques: “‘Know that we Rohans date from the 12th century,’ said a French nobleman.  The Basque villager responded, ‘Well, we Basques don’t date.’”

The people and their language, still undefeated, in their will to continue being a part of the reality that his Humanity and not turn into a reference in the history books, as some doomsayers predicted, for both the people and the language, in the 19th century.

Yes, they are a people and a language that keep their deep roots in history strong, but still take a starring role in history throughout the centuries.  It’s no coincidence that the Smithsonian Institute has made Basque culture the guest of honor at the 2016 Folklife Festival, highlighting the ability of the Basques to maintain their culture and their roots without forgetting to innovate.

José Miguel Ramírez, a “friend of the Basques” has created, in a part of Colombia where the immigrant Basque heritage is very strong, a show of great love and commitment to the Basque language and culture.

Eskerrik asko!

Blog Correveidile – 2/5/2016 – Brasil

“El euskera, el idioma que se ríe del tiempo”

Reza un adagio popular egipcio que “el tiempo se ríe de todo, pero las pirámides se ríen hasta del propio tiempo”. Pues bien, en cuestión de idiomas, podríamos decir que el de los vascos, quizás más antiguo que las pirámides, se ríe a mandíbula suelta del tiempo. Y no solo del tiempo, sino también de todos los idiomas que lo rodean y que durante milenios han tratado de devorárselo vivo como el latín, el español y el francés, o hasta de lenguas de aquí y de allá que han reclamado en vano ser parientes de tan noble huérfana; porque si algo es cierto, es que los padres y hermanos del euskera, si los hubo, hace mucho fallecieron.


By: José Miguel Ramírez G.

An old Egyptian proverb has it that “time laughs at all things, but the pyramids laugh at time itself.” Well, as far as languages are concerned, we could say the language of the Basques, perhaps older than the pyramids, laughs at time, and it does so out loud.

And not only does it laugh at time, but also at every language surrounding it, which for millennia has tried to wolf it down as Latin, Spanish and French have, or even at languages from every corner of the world having claimed in vain to be related to such noble orphan. Because, let’s admit it, if Euskara (the Basque language) ever had any relatives at all, they are all long gone.

A Prehistoric origin

Remember those rock paintings scattered all over the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France? It is believed that they were the work of the ancestors of the Basques. Archaeological finds reveal traces of human presence there going back as far as 35,000 years, well into the last ice age. There are indications that the current Basque territories were even ground zero for colonization of most of Western Europe after the last ice age, according to the most recent studies based on mitochondrial DNA. Just ask British Professor Stephen Oppenheimer if you are curious.

Of course, while it is hard to establish what language exactly those Paleolithic hunters spoke, there’s a number of geographical names across Western Europe with a Basque flavor such as the Arán valley in Catalonia , and the rivers Ébréon in France Ebrach in Germany and even the Ebro river itself in Spain. Haran and Ibai mean “valley” and “river” respectively in Basque. Professor Theo Vennemann from Munich University can tell you more about it.

More importantly, while almost all languages spoken today in Europe belong to only two large families that arrived in Europe no further than 3000 BC, Basque is a language isolate of unknown origin and without any known relatives, and a unique vocabulary and structure of its own (e.g. its verb system and core vocabulary are unmatched).

This added to the fact that it was Basque other languages borrowed from, before setting on borrowing words from other languages itself. These languages are certainly newer than Basque. In Spanish and Portuguese, for instance, there are several words of Basque origin such as de bruces and debruçar-se respectively (from bruz <buruz, “head down” in Basque), and the little bell that hangs from cow necks called cencerro in Spanish (Basque “zintzarri”). Even Dutch seems to have borrowed from Basque at some point its intriguing reciprocal pronoun “elkaar” (each other), a grammar feature thoroughly researched by Dutch linguist Van Eys in the late XIX century.

Some attribute these etymologies also to Iberian (See Basque-Iberian theory). Iberian was one of the most widely spoken Roman languages and it has been argued it could have been a close relative of Basque. However, it is also proved that the Basque language was spoken until a few centuries ago in a much broader area than it is today: across Aquitaine (France), Cantabria, La Rioja, Aragon and even in the Kingdom of Castile itself.

Even more surprisingly, the Basques still use words of a clear prehistoric origin, since they relate to the Stone Age. The root (h)ai(t)z (rock) still appears in several tool names like aizkora (ax), aizto (knife) and aitzur (hoe). It is obvious that when they coined these words, such tools could only be made of stone!

Surviving despite it all

But it has been a long and tortuous road for Basque, a language that hasn’t had an easy life at all. Among other things, the Basques having lived in isolation, is nothing but a myth. On the contrary, there are traces of Celtic, Roman, Germanic, and even Muslim invasions, with several Basque towns being founded by the invaders, such as Pamplona and Irun.

There are even loanwords from these invading languages in Basque like errege (King, from Latin), azoka (market, from Arabic) and landa (field, a disputed Germanic/Celtic root) which are neither recent nor entered via Spanish or French and prove that contacts did take place.

But how then has this enigmatic orphan language managed to survive? This remains a great mystery and I fear some of the greatest linguists in the world have gone bald from scratching their heads while mulling over the matter.

The Basques themselves argue their language has refused and will continue to refuse to disappear simply because they are just terribly stubborn, and losing the language means losing their identity. Here the Basque farmers have played an important role because despite having to speak Erdera (Spanish, French, or any other foreign language) at the marketplace, church and school, at home and within their farm boundaries they always demanded their children to stick to their ancestral language. Not to mention that for centuries it was forbidden to sell the family property to outsiders, and that they tended to marry their neighbors or if in need, even their own cousins.

And although rather than laughter, it has actually cost them rivers of blood, sweat and tears, it can be said that they have gotten away with it because their language remains Europe’s oldest living language. Even having often been ignored, stigmatized and even banned for centuries. Even by Basques themselves. A striking example was the Franco dictatorship (1936-1977) which persecuted, fined, imprisoned, tortured, sent into exile and even shot thousands of Basques dead just for using their language in public.

Significantly, Euskal Herria, the native name of the Basque nation comprising of 7 territories (Basque Country, Navarre and three provinces across the Pyrenees on the French side), literally means “The Country of the Basque Language”. So without Euskera, there would simple be no such thing as the Basque people.

Basque Revival

Between 1879-1929, after the bloody Carlist wars, the Basque territories were decimated in autonomy and deeply wounded in their self-esteem. Consequently The Basque nationalist movement was born and with it, the Euskal Berpizkunde (Basque Renaissance). As a result of this Renaissance, several institutions are created, e.g. Euskaltzaindia (The Basque Academy) in 1918, commissioned to standardize and modernize the language.

This movement is severely repressed by the fascist dictatorship of Franco and pushed underground for four almost decades, but remained active in the shadows. Finally in 1964 Euskara Batua (Basque unified or standard language) was signed and sworn. This was a huge breakthrough, because a language that is not standardized tends to be absorbed by another one which is, until it finally fades away completely.

After the dictator’s death and subsequent democratic transition in Spain, Basque finally acquires co-official status in 1982, the ikastolas (Basque-speaking schools) are legalized, many others created across all Basque territories -including towns where Euskara had been lost for centuries, various university courses start to be offered in Basque and the language makes it to the mass media at last.

Even today 5 or 6 Basque dialects and dozens of sub-dialects are still spoken, all of them very noble and charming, but Batua (Standard Basque) is almost without exception the type of Basque used in the administration, the media and the educational system, and also the sort of Basque learned by more than 300,000 euskaldunberris like me in the last 40 years. Eukaldunberri is the word for a speaker of Basque as a second language.

The Future Of Basque

They say that he who laughs last laughs best. Today Basque universities offer multiple doctorates through Basque in law and medicine, for example, so much of the intellectual and scientific production is made in Basque. In addition, a large percentage of children speak exclusively Basque before entering school and the vast majority of young people are graduating from Model D schools, that is, institutions providing nearly all subjects in Basque.

All this suggests that although the latest figures show that over 50% of the inhabitants of Euskal Herria live there without speaking any Basque at all, and even worse, forcing others to remain bilingual, Basque continues to gain speakers and will increasingly be used in more areas. Let’s not forget that the Basques live in the “first world” with quite an autonomous and relatively prosperous even if not independent government. A Basque government that has been able to invest almost 2 billion euros in promoting their ancestral language since 1982 and no doubt could invest much more.

In any case, the challenges will be great for a minority language which has to compete with two giants like the French and Spanish. Even with English, since we live in a globalized world, where some might think even Spanish and French have to disappear in order to make way for a single world language, which may be English, Mandarin Chinese or even some artificial language.

But there are many things that make Euskara great and competitive. It is the European minority language with the broadest presence on the Internet and ICT in general, and there are nearly 200 Euskal Etxeak or Basque Centers scattered around the world from Tokyo to Patagonia, where Basque language and culture are promoted. No other minority language has this.

Therefore, although with a bittersweet laugh, I think Basque will still be laughing at time and history for a long while. As for me, I keep laughing at those who still believe that all European languages descended from Greek, Latin or even Hebrew; that Basque isn’t but a dialect, no good for culture or science, and other nonsense of the like. You are different of course, because you are better informed, and from now on can laugh along with me.

By: José Miguel Ramírez G.

Last Updated on Dec 20, 2020 by About Basque Country

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