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.

Bryan Dijkhuizen, BA.
Sep 26 · 5 min read
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Photo by 1983 (steal my _ _ art) on Unsplash

What is Basque?

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.

Speakers

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

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.

Isolation

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.

Middle Ages

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.

Franco

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.

The 1960s

Euskara Batua

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?

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”.

Conclusion

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.

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Bryan Dijkhuizen, BA.

Written by

Editor of Lessons from History & Evolve You. Pursuing my Bachelor in Computer Science. Dutch parliament ambitions. Top Writer in History, Government

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Bryan Dijkhuizen, BA.

Written by

Editor of Lessons from History & Evolve You. Pursuing my Bachelor in Computer Science. Dutch parliament ambitions. Top Writer in History, Government

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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