Imagine for a second; an indigenous ethnic group located in the heart of Europe that has barely changed over the centuries, unique, culturally different, even genetically distinct. A group of people that the Visigoths were unable to conquer. Settled in lands of lush green highlands and daunting, gorgeous high-rock cliffs. A place where, not long ago was common to see whales breaking the cold waters of its Atlantic Ocean shores. Imagine a culture with a shared ancestry, a common social structure so distant and strong that has survived the most prominent historical changes — invasions, kingdoms, and empires — the European continent has ever seen. Meet: The Basques.
The Basques are one of the most isolated ethnic groups in the world. Yet, somehow they have remained true to their identity since Paleolithic times. During prehistoric times, the Celts lived among them. Later, Basque speakers were influenced by the Romans and the introduction of Christianization, a fact ascertainable from the large number of old borrowings from Latin into the Basque language. For almost 40 years they suffered the regime imposed by dictator Francisco Franco who prohibited the use of the Basque language and cultural expressions. Villagers throughout the Basque territories were penalized and even jailed if they were seen speaking or showcasing their traditions. When the Spanish language took over, the Basque language lost its appeal and the number of speakers dramatically decreased for over two generations.
Currently, the Basque language (Euskara) is the second most-widely spoken isolated language in the world, after Korean. With no living linguistic relatives, linguists around the world have long speculated about its origin, with some stating that the language’s roots date back to pre-Indo-European times, while other scientists like Kalevi Wiik argue that the most plausible candidates for the ancient languages of the Iberian refuge are the Basque languages.
Nowadays, Euskara, spoken in the autonomous communities of Navarre and the Basque Country across northern Spain and south-western France, is thriving thanks to the efforts made by grassroots movements in the 1960’s and the Basque government revitalization plans established after the transition to democracy in Spain in the late 70’s.
When I moved to the Basque Country I had a different view and perspective of what Spain was supposed to be like: the sunny weather; the sangria, and the eternal ”fiesta.” But deep-down I also had a mild knowledge of the wide range of Spanish identities. In a country so small, it is incredible how many cultures, traditions, and languages exist alongside each other, not just Spanish, but Catalan, Valencian, Galician, Aranese and, of course, Basque.
There was no doubt that I wanted to immerse myself into this mysterious, old culture, yet out of fear I didn’t do it immediately. I was worried that learning a minority language was going to be a waste of time. Something that would not add any value to my life. At the same time I was also on the fence about learning it since not even all the Basques speak it — only 35% of the population actually do — some of them were usually left aghast at the idea of an outsider learning a language that had almost no use and was way too difficult for an adult to learn. I remember telling one of my Basque friends about it. He told me bluntly “Nothing would change if you do. Nobody here ever speaks it.” His message was clear: if I were you I wouldn’t even bother.
Minority languages are often misunderstood and socially frowned upon. Take for example Welsh. Despite the huge effort made by activists, government officials and The Welsh Language Society, the amount of speakers has decreased over the years, a drop from 21 per cent to 19. Youngsters in Wales prefer to speak in English, a cool, hip language rather than in one that lacks the modern factor. Yet, not everything is bad news, Welsh has seen the light in the last decade, as Holly Williams told The Independent “Welsh now enjoys official status; public services are obliged to have language schemes and bilingual provision; Welsh education is available from nursery to university; laws protect your right to speak Welsh in the workplace”.
People tend to learn languages that are mainstream, useful or have an easy grammar structure, sound sexy or have some sort of dominant culture or global power behind them. 100 years ago languages like English weren’t as popular as they are today. Nowadays the lingua Franca. Before it was French, and 400 years ago Spanish was the universal tongue to be learned.
Languages, just like people, are worlds within themselves. They have the incredible ability to provide us with a clearer, more profound and detailed perspective of a culture and its views on life, nature and death.
After three years of being in the Basque country I was at the cusp of an intense episode of cultural shock. Basque people seemed cold, frigid and at times even indifferent. Most of the time I was dealing with a constant case of emotional conflicts. I wasn’t getting them. At times they were way too distant and direct for my tropical taste. But at the same time I was making Basque friends, they were kind, approachable, and nice to me. Why I was experiencing such an extreme cultural shock?
It didn’t take me long to realise something was missing. Like a piece of a puzzle I started to look out for it, although I wasn’t able to figure it out that quickly. A couple of years of struggle and then something remarkable happened; I was hired as a junior researcher at the University of the Basque Country. It all came to me. I had been doing it all wrong. I was putting an invisible wall between them and me, I was the one who needed to integrate myself into their society, not them into my world. The piece missing was the language, and even in a small region where not all Basques knew their own tongue, there is still a deep connection between Euskara and their identity, because in the Basque country their culture has been for centuries transmitted through orally traditions, like the Bertsolaris, an art form, very strong nowadays, that consists of singing improvised songs with rhymed verses. Bertsos (verses) have been used as an expression of political manifestation and social organization becoming a spontaneous-live form of oral literature.
It was clear that if I ever wanted to be part of the tribe, all I needed was to learn their own tongue first. As I began to pick up my first words in Euskara I started to understand them better somehow.
Basques were geographically secluded from the rest of the world by the Pyrenees and that has shaped the way they see the world. They only thing they had around were animals and nature, and until Christianization they practiced their own religion and adored the goddess Mari. Euskara has given me a different perspective of a rural upbringing. I believe each language has its own personality and the identity of a tribe is reflected in the way they communicate. Take for instance proverbs, they are used in a given language to speak to what is valued in the culture. In the Basque culture there are a lot of sayings linked to nature and the rural world.
Below some examples:
“Uztarria erosi, idiak erosi aurretik”
Literally, buying the yokes before getting the oxen first. The equivalent of “Counting the chickens before they hatch.”
“Mendiak mendia behar ez du, baina gizonak gizona bai”
The mountains do not need the mountain, but men, do need each other.
“If you live with people and you share a life with them and you speak their language, they trust you.” — Peter Rohloff, MD, Wuqu’ Kawoq
As the world becomes more globalised, so do its cultures. The wisdom, traditions and the richness of so many people have unfortunately died, are dying or are about to, all because of a global shift towards internationalization. Super languages and societies are with their power and dominance forcing — wittingly or not — small cultures and ethnic groups to adapt or change, all in favor of modernization. It’s imperative to change this horrible trend.
It is up to us and to policymakers to make an equal effort to keep alive the diverse native languages and cultures of people around the globe. Otherwise, we will face the risk of wiping out minority languages and their embedded source of knowledge. For now, I’ll continue to learn the most mysterious and unique tongues in the planet. The journey will be long, but I’m sure I’ll have fun with it.