The Basque language, known to natives as Euskera, is the only language isolate in Western Europe, meaning that it is the only existing language that has no known living ‘relatives’: it is unique! Linguists and historians alike have attempted to discover a link between Basque and other languages, but, despite trying to connect it to languages such as Egyptian, as well as languages of Asia and North America, no connection has been found.
The ancestral form of Basque was introduced into Western Europe several thousand years ago, whereas the majority of the languages spoken today arrived much later. The first written records of the Basque language can be traced back to the first century BC.
Basque has been a co-official language in the three Basque regions of Vizcaya, Alava and Guipuzcoa since 1979. However, it has no official status in France. In 2006, it was recorded that Basque was spoken by just over 1 million people from the south-western French town of Bayonne to the Spanish city Bilbao, stretching from the coast and reaching 30 miles inland.
At the ten year celebrations of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the announcements were made first in Basque, and secondly in Castilian, demonstrating the importance of the language to the natives of the region. Thankfully, given the number of non-Basque speakers who visit the region annually, the majority of road signs and directions, as well as the all-important menus in restaurants and bars, appear in both Basque and Castilian!
Currently, there are 330,000 students in the Basque education system, and four modelos with regards to the language in which students are taught. With Model A, students receive the majority of their lessons in Castilian, and learn Basque as a separate subject. Model B is bilingual: the students study half of the subjects in Castilian, the other half in Basque. When they choose Model D, the students study in Basque, and learn Castilian as a second language. With Model X, Basque is not taught at all. This is the least popular of the variations, whilst Model D is the most popular. Interestingly, there is no Model C, and there is a valid reason for this: there is no letter ‘C’ in the Basque alphabet!
The Basque language has borrowed thousands of words from Castilian, but there is little evidence of the reverse. One common exception is the Castilian word izquierdo, meaning left. This word came from the Basque word esker, and perhaps more noticeably, from the unrecorded Basque derivative ezkerdo.
At face value, Basque words seem to be an unpronounceable amalgamation of the letters x, z and t! Castilian and Basque often have different spellings for the same word, which are in fact pronounced in exactly the same way. The drink Calimocho, for example, is spelt Kalimotxo, and the Basque tapas pincho is pintxo.
There is a lot of history, and a lot of politics, surrounding the Basques and their language. Whilst that continues, we should recognise the Basque language for what it is: complex, interesting, individual, and full of ‘x’s!
2 November 2009 16:13