Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Basque language has mysterious origins

During our seven weeks in Spain, I enjoyed noting the language differences by region, and Basque is in a class by itself. It predates the arrival of Indo-European languages that surround it and has no relation to Spanish or any other language in Europe. (Spain has four official languages: Basque and three with Romance roots: Galician, Catalán and Spanish.)

Linguists are unsure where Basque came from; there are many theories. How it managed to survive as a separate language for thousands of years is a mystery.

Map of Basque Country (Euskal Herria) in France
and Spain.  From
I got a history of Basque from a native speaker, Ramón Salaverría, who grew up in Hendaye, on the border between France and Spain, in the heart of Basque country. In his town, there were three distinct dialects of Basque -- one used by those living in the city center, one in the fishermen’s quarter and one in the rural section. Speakers of one dialect often had difficulty understanding the others.

Salaverría said there were so many variations spoken throughout the Basque country -- at least eight -- that in the 1960s an academy was formed  to standardize it.  (Salaverría is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, where I made a presentation to their faculty.)

A Basque newspaper,

While we were in San Sebastian and Pamplona we saw television programs and newspapers in Basque. The Basque country is an autonomous region and one of Spain’s most prosperous, long a center of commerce and industry. Basque whalers, for example, taught their trade to the English and later the Americans.

There is a militant movement of Basque separatists, much like the Irish Republican Army, that has used bombings and assassinations to further its political goals.

Cindy and I visited an old fort that looms over San Sebastian and its large natural harbor. Basque whaling expeditions sailed from here all over the north and south Atlantic.



  1. Anonymous12:48 AM

    Thank you, James! Very interesting! I am Alicia P. Van Pelt, from Chile. (Suzanne Schluederberg married my ex husband John Lesko.) I believe you used to be in Guadalajara for a while? Great articles, I congratulate you.

  2. Thanks, Alicia. I'm in Mexico City teaching on the Tec of Monterrey campus.