The mysterious Basque language
Imagine that there was a mysterious language in Europe that was surrounded by languages that it has no connection with. Well, there is a language like that. The language is the Basque language.
What is Basque?
Basque is a language isolate, meaning that it has no known connection to any other language.
It’s located in Europe, but it’s not an Indo-European language. It forms its own language family, and it’s quite distinct, very different, from the Indo-European languages.
It is spoken by the Basque People in the Basque Country, a region that spans the Spain-France border in the western-most Pyrenees Mountains. It is not spoken by all Basques, but by around 27% of them in the Basque country overall.
The number of native Basque speakers is 714,135 (2016) out of a total population of 18.104.22.1688 (2016), and that includes about 663,000 (2016) on the Spanish side and 51,100 (2016) on the French side.
It is an official language at the regional level in Spain, in the Basque Autonomous Community, and Navarre. In France, it holds no official status.
The origins of the Basque language are shrouded in mystery. As I said before, it is a language isolate.
It is thought to be the last remaining language that existed in Europe before the arrival of the Indo-European languages. There are some other pre-Indo-European languages in the Caucasus region, but Basque is the only one in Western Europe.
The origins of the Basque language
The is conclusive evidence that Basque is a descendant of the Aquitanian language, which is an ancient language spoken in the Pyrenees region.
Some similarities are known between Aquitanian and the ancient Iberian language, so some people think that they might be related. But those similarities might just be due to geographic proximity and mutual influence. We don’t know.
Some linguists suggest that Aquitanian was part of a wider language family called the Vasconic languages, which covered most of Europe before the arrival of the Indo-European languages. But again, we don’t know.
Other people draw a connection between Basque and other non-Indo-European languages like the Caucasian languages. But again, we don’t know.
One thing we do know is that Basque people, who descend mostly from farmers who arrived in the area around 6,000 years ago, were isolated from the outside world for thousands of years. That’s probably partly because of the Basque country’s forested mountain terrain, and its lack of tempting resources that prevented invasion.
This isolation is probably what allowed their language to survive and develop into the Basque language of today. Of course, there were Latin borrowings into the language, and there have been other Romance language borrowings throughout the centuries, but nothing like the total disappearance of other pre-Latin languages in that area.
Basque was a unified language until the Middle Ages, when it began to diverge into dialects, because of administrative and political divisions within the Basque country.
Despite being ruled by outside regimes throughout the centuries, the Basque country still remained isolated and relatively uninfluenced by the outside world, and that includes the language.
But when Generalismo Francisco Franco became dictator of Spain in 1939, the use of Basque was heavily suppressed, because Franco wanted to assimilate all of Spain into Castillian culture.
It was forbidden to speak Basque in schools and in public. It was banned from media and removed from public services.
This led to a big reduction in the number of people who could speak the Basque language, and that’s part of the reason that only 27% of people in the Basque country speak the language today.
In the 1960s, that suppression was eased somewhat, and Basque language schools became permitted, and the language began being used in publications and in education again.
This led to the creation of a standardized language called Euskara Batua. It was developed by the Basque Language Academy, or the ‘Euskaltzaindia”, and it was intended to be comprehensible to the speakers of the various dialects of Basque.
There are five main dialects: Bizkain or Western Basque, Gipuzakoan or Central Basque, Upper Navarese, Navarro-Lapurdian, and Souletin in France. These dialects correspond with the historic provinces of the Basque country, but they don’t completely correspond with the modern provinces of today.
The level of intelligibility depends on the distance between those two dialects on the dialect continuum, with the most distant dialects having trouble understanding each other. But that’s where the standard language, Euskara Batua, comes in. So, what’s the Basque language like?
What’s the language like?
Its vocabulary has been influenced by the surrounding Romance languages to some extent. But when you look at its structure, you’ll see that it is unlike any other Romance language, or like any Indo-European language for that matter.
Basque has grammatical cases, 12 cases to be exact, but that is not really unusual in Indo-European languages, but it has something called the ‘ergotive case”. That means that there’s a special form of the noun when it’s the subject to a sentence and takes a transitive verb. That means it has a direct object. This ergative case is marked by a ‘k’ at the end of the noun.
Now, along with the ergative case, there’s also something called the ‘absolutive case’. This is for subjects of intransitive verbs, meaning that it has no direct object, and in this case, there is no ending on the end of the noun.
Let’s take a look at a couple of sentences.
Umea kalean erori da — The child fell in the street
If we look at it word by word, you can see the interesting structure of Basque, word-by-word it’s “child-the”, “street-the-in”, “fall”, “is”.
If we look at the first word there: “ume” is a child, but then the definite article is the “a” at the end.
Then for the next word, “kalean”, “kale” is street, and then the definite article is “a” and then “in” is the “n” at the end of the word.
If we look at the next word “erori”, that’s a verb meaning “fall”, but it’s in the perfect aspect, which means it shows the completed action. And then the auxiliary verb comes after the main verb, and this one means “is”. It’s the present-tense form of “to be”.
As you can see, the Basque language is very different from any Indo-European language, very different from any language that I’ve seen, but it also looks quite logical and systematic. It would be a shame to lose a language that’s so unique and that connects us with the ancient history of Europe.
The number of Basque speakers has sharply declined over the last century, but there are efforts in Spain to revive the language and to make it more widespread again, and hopefully, such efforts will continue and become more prominent in France as well.