Earlier this year, a series of four articles investigating how native speakers consider their own languages was featured as guest posts on the Lingua Greca website. The series now continues with four different languages. This week, we look at how proudly Basque speakers feel about their own language, Euskara, and whether its neighbouring languages – French and German – are posing a threat.
What do I know about Basque? I know that it is perhaps one of Europe’s most interesting languages. Etymologically speaking, it is completely unrelated to any other surviving language in the world and spoken by around 750,000 people.
I have limited experience with the Basque language – only a day trip to Biarritz. Although the road signs were bilingual, I didn’t really sense much of a presence of the language used in daily life in this French-administrated part of the Basque Country. Perhaps things are different on the Spanish side of the border.
With such a relatively small number of native speakers, is this a language of which its people are as fiercely proud as one would imagine?
“For speakers of more influential languages, such as Spanish or English, this question is very difficult to understand, since they have never faced the problem of being discriminated against,” says Itziar Gonzalez. “For us, respecting our language means to speak it, above all. When everyone is bilingual and one of the other languages is more influential (French in the northern part and Spanish in the southern part), respect means speaking Basque.”
In the Franco era (1939-1975), speakers of languages other than Spanish (or rather Castilian) were prohibited from speaking any other language in Spain. Imagine two Catalans in Barcelona not being able to converse in their native Catalan language. Fortunately, since Spain’s transition to democracy in 1975, it has come to recognise its linguistic diversity and introduce legislation to protect its regional languages.
“Conversations between Basque speakers are sometimes held in Euskañol (a mix of Basque and Spanish) or even just Spanish itself, but the use of Basque is based on the language in which the first contact was made. And it’s very difficult to change.”
It is understandable why this is the case. Not everyone in the Basque Country speaks Basque. In the part of the territory on the
French side of the border, one is much more likely to hear French – a language that has traditionally not been afraid to assert its dominance over its neighbouring languages. In the southern side of the Spanish Basque Country, very few people speak Basque as well. So how does this work in such a linguistically divided area?
“In a shop or public office, a Basque speaker will usually say the first words in Basque. If other person speaks Basque back, then Basque is spoken. If not, then Spanish is spoken. In public offices, civil servants should speak Basque, or at least have a basic knowledge of it, so a lot of people continue to speak Basque, but this depends on the reaction of the civil servant. Some of them are kind and try to speak Basque, but when they say “Talk to me in Spanish” unkindly, the conversation turns to Spanish, but it is not so nice and Basque speakers are annoyed by this reaction. In cases where it is legally obligatory to speak Basque, such as in a public office, people should have the right to speak Basque face-to-face, and it is very annoying, since this is often not respected.”
So, it seems that Basque speakers have to fight for the right to hold a conversation in their own language in their own country. Europe has come a long way in recognising and even promoting its regional languages, reversing traditional trends of oppression. In theory, Spain is one of the most tolerant countries in terms of respecting its linguistic diversity. It recognises Basque as one of its co-official languages, but evidently linguistic legislation isn’t working.
Basque is a group of dialects. More or less each province and each town has its own variation of the language. Until 1968, standard Basque did not exist and each writer used to write in their own dialect. Now we have this unified Basque orthography, is there respect for the written, standard language?
“When writing in official contexts such as school, university, books, reports and scientific writing, then yes. Private writing like text messages, emails and on social networks, then no. Does it matter? No. Standard Basque was created as a unified way of writing, and this goal has been achieved. Also, the spoken language is not one language, but several dialects, so not speaking the standard language is not considered as a lack of respect. But they are considered as mistakes in official language, i.e. if you use a dialectal form of an auxiliary verb in an exam, it a mistake.”
Being surrounded by two of the world’s most dominant languages – French and Spanish – how are foreign words affecting Basque?
“Well, that’s not a problem at all nowadays. We do not have any problem saying interneta, telefonoa, autobusa, tableta. We know they are international words, not just Spanish, French or English words. They do not threaten us, they enrich us and we don’t have a problem with that. Our problem is that our language is not spoken everywhere.”
With recent regional elections to the Basque Parliament resulting in the Basque National Party maintaining its presence as the largest party in the region, the people are clearly proud of their heritage but must continue to assert their right to speak their own language in their own country. After all, Spanish was once a regional language too.
Itziar Gonzalez is PhD student in Computational Linguistics and Basque Philology. She studied German Philology as an undergraduate degree and also holds a Master’s in Computational Linguistics. In addition to her native Basque language, she also speaksEnglish, German, French and Spanish.