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The vocabulary of nationalism: the Basque language, Euskera, is the only language that hasn't been linked to any of the world's language groups. It's also the glue that binds together the notoriously nationalistic Basque people. Outlawed under Franco, the language has, in recent years, undergone a rennaissance.


The Basques have a word for it: desagertarazte, 'extinction'. It reflects a deep-rooted fear of losing Euskera, the unique Basque language, which has never been linked to any of the world's language groups, and, with it, the defining feature of Europe's most enigmatic culture.

The perceived threat to the Basques, whose forebears have inhabited their Cantabrian enclave, which straddles the Spain-France border, for the past 30,000-40,000 years, is such an emotionally charged issue that it has given birth to a terrorist movement: ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or 'Basque Homeland and Liberty'), which recently celebrated 50 years of fighting for an independent Basque state.

ETA is almost unique among insurgencies in that its founders weren't urban guerrillas or militants of the revolutionary proletariat--they were middle-class university undergraduates at Bilbao University whose inspiration was drawn not from Chairman Mao or Che Guevara, but from Sabino Arana, a 19th-century Basque nationalist. The future guerrillas were enraged at what they saw as a deliberate plot by the Francisco Franco dictatorship to stamp out the Basque identity, as embodied in some of Arana's more inflammatory racial proclamations. For instance: 'We, the Basques, must avoid mortal contagion, maintain firm our faith in our ancestors and the religiosity that distinguishes us, and purify our customs ... now so infected and at the point of corruption by the influence of those who have come from outside.'

Spain's semi-autonomous Basque Country (Euskadi) comprises the three provinces of Guipuzcoa, Alava and Vizcaya. Basque nationalists also lay claim to France's Pays Basque, with its three departments of Basse-Navarre, Labourd and Soule, as well as Navarre on the Spanish side, which, despite its large Basque-speaking population, is recognised as a separate legal entity under the Spanish constitution. The separatist battle cry is 3 + 4 = 1.


The 'Basque question' is a running sore in the side of the Spanish government, but beyond politics, the Basque people and their language remain a conundrum to anthropologists and linguists. Does Euskera face the threat of extinction? And more intriguingly, how does one define a culture?

For the Basques, the answer is simple: language. 'It is noteworthy that in Euskera, the Basques call their country Euskalherria ('land of the Basque language') and refer to themselves as euskaldun, or those who possess the Basque language,' says Xabier Kintana, secretary of the Basque Language Academy. By this definition, anyone who speaks Euskera is accepted as a Basque. But so fragmented is the language that there are Basques who can't understand the dialect spoken by those of a neighbouring village, and the academy has made efforts to devise a compromise solution with a modern standardised version called Batua, which is now taught in Basque-language schools.

'Resistance to the Visigoths, who swept across the Iberian Peninsula nearly 1,600 years ago, reinforced the concept among the different Basque tribes that language was their only shared link,' says Kintana. 'It was this, not the concept of race or history, that promoted the cultural union of the Basques. The idea of nationhood was born in the fight against the Visigoth invaders.'


Professor Xabier Irujo at the University of Nevada Centre for Basque Studies says that recent genetic studies point to the arrival of the first people in Europe roughly 30,000-40,000 years ago. 'There they remained, locked in by the last glacial period, which ended some 8,000 years ago. This most likely gave birth to the proto-Basque culture, and genetic, climatological, archaeological and linguistic studies support this conclusion.'

The Visigoths were determined to expel the Vascones from their territory and this, ironically, is what saved the Basque language from extinction. As Kintana explains, it was the Visigoth invasion that kept the Basque culture intact. 'The Vascones, as these tribes were called, lived in harmony with the Romans and divided their society between the pastoral lands of the Cantabrian hills and the farmland of the southern plains,' he says. 'These were interdependent economies, but when the Visigoth armies marched south, determined to expel the Vascones from their territory, the Basques were forced to unite to defend their economic survival. Had the Romans remained in Iberia, they would have eventually absorbed the Vascones into their society, with the loss of that culture and its language.'

Kintana has carried out extensive research into the origin of the Basques and says that during the last Ice Age, before the migration of the Indo-Europeans, there is evidence of communities of hunter-gatherers in what was then the only habitable strip of land from north of the Mediterranean to the Caucasus. 'There are some primitive Caucasian languages that could be forebears of the original European tongues, including the sole survivor, which is Euskera,' he says. 'This is a reasonable hypothesis and one worthy of further investigation. In fact, blood tests have revealed genetic similarities between Caucasians and inhabitants of the Pyrenean region. I have been to the Caucasus studying Georgian and I've found structural similarities, with a similar phonetic structure and similar words. But a linguist must remain sceptical.'


Euskera began to lose ground during the 16th century, following the conquest of Navarre by Spanish troops. Around this time, the language also disappeared in the north of Aquitaine. 'The rise of the French state after the 1789 Revolution and the formation of the Spanish state after the Seven Years' War in 1839 and the Second Carlist War in 1876 brought an excluding linguistic policy that, without doubt, accelerated the retreat of the Basque language,' says Irujo.

However, the worst threat to Euskera's survival came during the Franco dictatorship, when it was banned, and any manifestation of Basque culture was treated as subversive, particularly after ETA launched its campaign of violence in 1959. 'Saving the language was a miracle only intellectuals and priests could have performed,' says Basque novelist Bernardo Artxaga.

'My own case is typical, in a way,' he continues. 'As a child, I asked myself why I was losing the use of a language I had inherited from my father. Political repression was fierce when I was a child. My brothers and I were beaten at school if we were caught speaking Euskera, the language we spoke at home. We knew we risked punishment if we spoke Euskera in public.'

Basque nationalists would argue that even in today's democratic Spain, the language is viewed with suspicion. 'They tend to equate Euskera with radical politics,' says Sagrario Aleman, director of the Arturo Campion Basque-language academy in Pamplona. 'This is one of the reasons we find it so difficult to obtain funding to promote the language.'

Pello Apezetxea is a priest in the northern Navarre town of Etxalar and a celebrated defender of Euskera, his native language. 'The Navarre government has withdrawn support for Basque language media,' he says. 'It is promoting English at the expense of Euskera. Today, English is rated on a par with Euskera for anyone applying for a government post.'

This claim is refuted by Xabier Azanza, the Navarre government's director for promotion of the Basque language. 'We are not cutting back on our Euskera budget and, in fact, it has been increased by 45,000 in 2010, no mean achievement in these difficult times,' he says. 'Today, two thirds of parents in Navarre choose to send their children to schools that teach Euskera. Moreover, UNESCO has lowered its classification of Euskera from "endangered" to "requires attention", so we don't consider it under threat of extinction.'


Euskera speakers over the age of 16 in the three official Basque provinces in Spain, as well as Navarre and the Pays Basque, have risen from 22.3 per cent in 1991 to 25.7 per cent in 2006, out of a total population of 2.6 million, and the percentage continues to rise. But Euskera's health depends on robust legislation to defend and promote the language, according to Irujo. 'Today the Basque departements of France are losing Basque speakers, the numbers are being maintained roughly unchanged in Navarre, and it is gaining speakers in Euskadi,' he says.

'The problem on the French side is that Euskera is not a co-official language, as it is in Spain. French nationalism is based on language, and today there is only one official language,' he continues. 'It's the same with education. For the past 40 years or so, French law has allowed minority languages to be taught as a subject for a few hours a week; however, this isn't enough to keep a language alive. On the Spanish side, the law is more supportive. In Euskadi, legislation is imperfect, but at least it allows the language to grow, while in Navarre, legislation is weak in the southern half of the region, so it is still losing speakers. Legislation is crucial for the growth of a language.'

In spite of cultural and political pressures, Euskera is proving to be as resilient as the Basques who speak it.

There is reason to be optimistic about the language's improving health, although the question of its origins may always remain a tantalising puzzle. After devoting a career to studying the language and rejecting the main theories, Kintana acknowledges that 'we have no idea where Euskera came from'.

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Title Annotation:culture: EUSKERA
Comment:The vocabulary of nationalism: the Basque language, Euskera, is the only language that hasn't been linked to any of the world's language groups.
Author:Stewart, Jules
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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