TheBasque language, Euskara, has been spoken in this area for thousands of years and is the oldest language of Western Europe. Basque speakers are called euskaldun, which literally means “the one that speaks Basque.” Learn the language and you will become Basque! Basque preceded Indo-European and Latin languages and therefore has no relationship to French or Spanish. There is often talk of a link with the languages of the Caucasus region, such as Georgian, citing similarities in words and sentence structure. However, no obvious link was ever convincingly established. One can even consider Basque to be an isolated language, that is to say, a language without a broader family. Basque is also divided into several dialects whose development was supported by the relative isolation of the Basque population in the heart of the Pyrenees. For over thirty years, the Academy of the Basque language, Euskaltzaindia, has been developing a unified language, Euskara batua. This modern Basque language is used today in the media, government and literature, and is taught in schools.

NATIVE BASQUE SPEAKING POPULATION

In 1877, the Basque made up 80% of the population of the Basque Country. Today, only about 25% of the total population speak Basque. The vast majority of Basque speakers live in the Basque Country (Euskadi ) where the language has had official status since 1978. In the French Basque Country, the Basque language has no official status. The circumstances of the Basque language have improved in recent decades, when less than a century ago, some were announcing its disappearance from “the circle of living languages”.

Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi)

24%

French Basque Country (Iparralde)

20%

Province of Navarre (Spain)

10%

EUSKARA’S DECLINE AND AWAKENING

A combination of factors have contributed to the marginalization of the Basque language in favour of Spanish or French. The lack of linguistic unity, the massive influx of non-Basque speakers, the emigration of many Basque to America, repressive policies in Spain, and the unitary nature of the French state are all factors which contributed to the Basque population becoming a minority. In addition, the use of Basque was endangered by the advent of compulsory schooling for children which did not include teaching regional languages such as Basque. Basque speakers themselves tended to favour dominant languages in the public sphere instead of Euskara, leading to further marginalization of their language. Euskara had a place in the fields and within the family, but it has become almost invisible in cities and public institutions.
Concerned about the sustainability of Euskara, intellectuals in the early 20th century attempted to unify different dialects in order to modernize the language. Euskara then began the slow process of recovery, which continues to this day. This movement to re-affirm Basque identity was accompanied by Basque nationalist political movements. This process was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War and in particular by the dictatorship of General Franco that followed. Until the early 1970s, speaking Basque was forbidden in Spain under threat of severe punishment. Nevertheless, brave parents organized a network of underground schools in the Spanish Basque Country, the Ikastolas, to ensure their children received an education in Basque. This network of schools, providing education exclusively in Basque, extended into the Northern Basque Country in the following years, and eventually provided a foundation for the current school system.

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LANGUAGE GAMES: THE BERTSO DUEL

The Bertso duel is a special cultural event where poets, artists and singers improvise poetry (bertso) in Basque on a particular theme. The bertsularis take the stage and must create a poem about a theme (not disclosed in advance), all within the constraints of a predetermined melody and beat. Bertsolari duels are organized within festivals or more formally at championships, bringing together the best of all the Basque Country. The exchanges take the form of singing jousts, during which improvisers keep the audience spellbound with their alertness and ability to spontaneously create poems, manipulating words and melody. The phenomenon holds a special place in the Basque society and bertsolaritza is becoming increasingly popular among the younger generations who perpetuate this tradition.

THE BASQUE LANGUAGE TODAY

Nowadays, language policies in Spain strive to give euskara an equivalent presence to Spanish within the public sphere of Spanish Basque country. Basque is included, for example, on road signs and public buildings. City names are also written in euskara: San Sebastian is ” Donostia” and Bilbao is ” Bilbo”. Above and beyond the veneer of bilingualism, education is seen as the key to the future of the language, which finds itself surrounded by a sea of Spanish and French speakers. Throughout the region of Euskadi and in the Basque areas of Navarre, schools are required to provide a certain level of education in Basque. In France, the ikastola movement is gaining momentum and is now recognized and supported by the government. All share the same goal of producing fully fluent Basque speakers (euskaldunes), that is to say, children who can read, write and speak Basque in their everyday lives. Adding new euskaldunes allows the emergence of an urban Basque language that thrives in the cities as well as in rural areas, and that has a dramatically increased social use. Nevertheless, the dominant languages continue to be Spanish in the southern Basque Country, and French the Northern Basque Country, especially in the workplace where the presence of Euskara is still marginal. Efforts therefore continue in order reinstate Euskara’s rightful place, and to allow Basque to continue to evolve in a pluralistic linguistic environment, despite the challenge that this represents.
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