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Editor's note.  Keith Johnson's Nov. 6th frontpage article in The Wall Street Journal is another example of what confronts those who hope to keep Euskara (the Basque language) alive.  I debated posting it because among other things it is one sided.  But the greater value comes from not living in an intellectual ghetto where everyone thinks the same. The fact of the matter is that there is plenty of resistance to the Basque language as you will see reflected here.  The author Keith Johnson according to the interactive.wsj.com website, is a special correspondent in the Wall Street Journal's Madrid bureau.  The article is reproduced here in its original entirety in case it is re/moved. It appeared as a news item (rather than an editorial piece). It is then followed by some representative responses allowing the reader to derive their own conclusion.

NABO's response to this article

Automatic email option to the editor states:
"I use Basque to laugh, get angry, compromise, and reach agreements in work. To talk to my friends and family. To find things out and learn. To dream and day-dream. To play, make me happy, love, chastise and quarrel with my children. To flirt, make love and have a good time. And for everything you can do in any language."  To send this click on:

The Wall Street Journal Home Page

Basque Inquisition:
How Do You Say Shepherd in Euskera?
Through Fiat, Separatists Bring Old Tongue to Life; 'Zientzia' & Other Updates

The Wall Street Journal
November 6, 2007; Page A1


BILBAO, Spain -- Rosa Esquivias is caught on the front line of the Basques' fight for independence from Spain. Actually, she's in the front row -- of her Basque language class.

Ms. Esquivias, a 50-year-old high-school math teacher and Spanish-speaking native of Bilbao, must learn Basque or risk losing her job. Like her nine classmates, including a man who teaches Spanish to immigrants, she has been given at least a year off with pay to spend 25 hours a week drilling verbs and learning vocabulary in Euskera -- a language with no relation to any other European tongue and spoken by fewer than one million people. About 450 million people world-wide speak Spanish.

[map of Basque region]

"For the job I do, I think learning the language is clearly over the top," Ms. Esquivias says.

Basque separatists have been waging a struggle for independence from Spain for 39 years. But lately, many have taken to wielding grammar instead of guns. Separatists still dream of creating their own homeland, but in the meantime they are experimenting with pushing a strict regime of Euskera into every corner of public life. Of the present-day Basque Country's approximately 2.1 million inhabitants, roughly 30% speak Basque; more than 95% speak Spanish.

The regional government of the Basque Country has begun to tighten the screws on its language policy to the point where now, all public employees, from mail-sorters to firemen, must learn Euskera to get -- or keep -- their jobs. Cops are pulled off the street to brush up their grammar. And companies doing business with the Basque government must conduct business in Euskera. Starting next year, students entering public school will be taught only in Basque.




Read the anthem of Athletic Bilbao, a Basque soccer team, in English and in Euskera, plus listen to a clip.

Although there is a shortage of doctors in the Basque Country, the Basque health service requires medical personnel to speak Euskera. Health-service regulations detail how Euskera should be used in every medical situation, from patient consultations down to how to leave a phone message or make an announcement over a public-address system (Basque first, then Spanish). There are rules specifying the typeface and placement of Basque signs in hospitals (Basque labels on top or to the left, and always in bold).

The official goal of the Basque policy is to transform Euskera from a "co-official" status with Spanish to "co-equal" status. That, say Euskera proponents, is necessary to make up for years of linguistic repression. The language was banned during the 36-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and only began to re-emerge in the 1980s.

"To have a truly bilingual society, you need positive discrimination," says Mertxe Múgica, the head of the Basque language academies where Ms. Esquivias studies. Many Basque speakers still feel discriminated against because of the pervasiveness of Spanish.

But as Basque nationalists try to push their language into the mainstream, they are bumping up against an uncomfortable reality.

"Euskera just isn't used in real life," says Leopoldo Barrera, the head of the center-right Popular Party in the Basque regional Parliament. Though it has existed for thousands of years -- there are written records in Basque that predate Spanish -- it is an ancient language little suited to contemporary life. Euskera has no known relatives, though theories abound linking it to everything from Berber languages to Eskimo tongues.

Airport, science, Renaissance, democracy, government, and independence, for example, are all newly minted words with no roots in traditional Euskera: aireportu, zientzia, errenazimentu, demokrazia, gobernu, independentzia.

Meanwhile, there are 10 different words for shepherd, depending on the kind of animal. Astazain, for instance, is a donkey herder; urdain herds pigs. A cowpoke is behizain in Euskera. While Indo-European languages have similar roots for basic words like numbers -- three, drei, tres, trois -- counting in Euskera bears no relation: bat, bi, hiru, lau, and up to hamar, or 10. Religious Basques pray to Jainko.


The Basque language, or Euskera, has no relationship to Indo-European languages, and has its own particular grammar. Some key differences with Spanish or English: There is no gender, or separate prepositions, and it is a heavily inflected language. The same noun phrase can have 68 basic forms, depending on case, number, etc.


1. She bought me the tickets for the game.
Berak erosi zizkidan partidurako sarrerak.

-- Prepositions are included with word endings, as in Latin. The "-rako" ending of "game" means "for the."

-- "Berak" is the same whether "he" or "she" bought the tickets.

2. I told him not to drink it because it was too hot.
Nik ez edateko esan nion, oso bero zegoelako.

-- The "-k" marker is very characteristic of Euskera, used for plurals and direct objects.

-- "Elako" means "because" and goes at the end of "hot."

3. So in the end, are you going to the fiestas in Pamplona?
Azkenean joango zara iruñeko jaietara?

-- "Iruña" is Basque for "Pamplona," while "etara" means "to the (plural) fiestas."

Source: WSJ research, AEK Euskaltegi (Bilbao)

The regional government has spent years of effort and billions of euros to make sure that every official document, from job applications for sanitation workers to European Union agricultural grants, is available in Euskera. But this year, in San Sebastian, a hotbed of Basque nationalism and the region's second-largest city, not a single person chose to take the driver's license exam in Euskera, says Mr. Barrera.

The Basque-language TV channel is loaded with Euskera favorites, such as the irrepressible redhead "Pippi Galtzaluze." But the channel has a 4.4% audience share in the Basque Country, according to data from Taylor Nelson Sofres -- less than the animal-documentary channel of public broadcasting.

Even some of the biggest proponents of Basque independence stumble over Euskera's convoluted grammar. Juan José Ibarretxe, the Basque regional president, speaks a less-than-fluent Euskera at news conferences. Like most people in the region, he grew up speaking Spanish and had to learn Euskera as an adult.

Other adults who are now running afoul of the new language policy are having similar trouble picking up the tongue. "I guess we're the last of the old guard, but we don't have any choice," says Ignacio Garcia, a math teacher who is a classmate of Ms. Esquivias, and is sweating over a stack of notes before his first big Euskera exam.

The language policy has led to a massive adult re-education push, as tens of thousands in the Basque Country head back to school. Their predicament has become a popular sendup on a Basque comedy show. In one sketch, non-Basque-speaking adults who have been sent to a euskaltegi, or Euskera language school, have to ask schoolchildren to help them with their homework.

Joseba Arregui, a former Basque culture secretary, native Basque speaker, and onetime architect of the language policy, feels that Euskera is being pushed too far. "It's just no good for everyday conversation," he says. "When a language is imposed, it is used less, and that creates a diabolical circle of imposition and backlash."

In the classroom, Euskera use has also allowed separatists to control the curriculum. Basque-language textbooks used in schools never tell students that the Basque Country is part of Spain, for example. No elementary-school texts even mention the word Spain.

Students are taught that they live in "Euskal Herria," stretching across parts of Spain and southern France, that was colonized by "the Spanish State."

Some local politicians worry that the insistence on Basque language makes any type of reconciliation between separatists and Spain impossible. "Everything young Basques later encounter in life -- like the fact they live in Spain -- then appears to be an imposition from Madrid," says Santiago Abascal, a regional deputy from the Popular Party who campaigns against the linguistic policy. "That creates frustration that keeps violence bubbling in the Basque Country," he says.

But back in the classroom, most of the frustration seems to be with the dense grammar, forthcoming exams, and the difficulty of finding quality shows on Basque TV.

Arantza Goikolea, Ms. Esquivias's teacher, leads a class through an exercise about their daily routines. Tamara Alende, 25, watches a lot of TV at night, she says in pidgin Euskera.

"Basque shows?" asks Ms. Goikolea. Ms. Alende lowers her head and turns red. "No, Spanish series," she mumbles, to a chorus of boos from the teacher and the rest of the class.

Write to Keith Johnson at keith.johnson@wsj.com



REACTION I: Patxi Baztarrika
Vice-Minister of Language Policy of the Autonomous Basque Government of Euskadi

This was published in the Wall Street Journal 12/12/2007 but alas on page A19 and not the front page like the original


For the Love of Basque . . . and Spanish
December 19, 2007; Page A19

If insult is the lowest form of language, then one would have to delve deep into the English dictionary in order to find a suitable term to describe the article "Basque Inquisition: How Do You Say Shepherd in Euskera?" (Page One, Nov. 6).

The two main pillars upon which the language policy pursued by the Basque institutions has always rested are the current legal framework and social adherence, never imposition. The policy is open, democratic and respectful of the Spanish tongue. Obviously, language policy is open to debate, which is only logical in a social process spanning 25 years. According to the Spanish Constitution, the Statute of Autonomy of the Basque Country and the Constitutional Court, Basque citizens have the right to use any of the two official languages -- Basque and Spanish -- and the public authorities must determine what public jobs have to be bilingual in order to ensure this right.

So for the last 25 years, the Basque institutions have spearheaded a process that has put Euskera firmly on the path toward normalization, because we believe that the aim of any language policy should be the normalization and peaceful, amicable coexistence between languages. The vast majority of Basques aspire to real and effective bilingualism, to a true state of equal opportunities for use. We aspire to ensuring that those who wish to conduct their lives in the Basque tongue may do so freely and without hindrance.

We aren't advocates of monolingualism, either Basque or Spanish, and you will never find us defending ideas based on imposition or exclusion. We aren't working against anyone or anything because we love and respect the Spanish language, which is also the language of Euskadi. We are working in favor of a bilingualism that considers both Euskera and Spanish to be part of our common heritage. The development of these languages is a task that involves us all, which means that, in light of the current imbalance, we require an active, positive policy of support for the minority, lesser-used language. We require a policy that is designed and enforced on the basis of a deep respect for Spanish, as well as a firm conviction that bilingualism has an intrinsic value in itself and that peaceful, amicable coexistence between languages is an asset that will contribute to enhancing the cohesion of Basque society.

Patxi Baztarrika Galparsoro
Deputy Minister for Language Policy
The Basque Government
Bilbao, Spain


REACTION II: Aitor Sotes, Basque Government delegation in New York.

Wrote a letter to the Executive Editor of the Wall Street Journal pointing out the misinformation in Keith Johnson's article that "is surprising [for] such a prestigious newspaper."


Mr. Alan Murray
Executive Editor
The Wall Street Journal
200 Liberty Street
New York, N.Y. 10281

Dear Mr. Murray,

After Reading the article written by Keith Johnson and published by your newspaper under the title “Basque Inquisition: How do you say Shepherd in Euskera”, I would like to express my astonishment with the lack of knowledge and culture of its author, as well as my indignation for the lack of respect and the treatment shown to very sensitive aspects of the Basque cultural identity and the Basque language. There are so many false statements and so much lack of knowledge of the Basque Country, Basque language and its political structure in this article that it is surprising to me that such a prestigious newspaper as the Wall Street Journal published it.

After 40 years of active repression under a dictatorship, the Basque language is rebounding and headed off the list of moribund languages.  This is due to an effort by the Basque government to provide services, including education and health, in Euskara, the language that most people in the area prefer to use.  While Basques are comfortable using Spanish in everyday activities, the majority continue to vote for the parties that encourage more use of Euskara in public.  In fact, public schools that provide instruction mainly in Euskara continue to grow due to voluntary enrollment by parents.  Basque children do not leave these institutions unable to speak or write in Spanish.  Quite the contrary, under current linguistic policy they graduate with academic fluency in Basque, Spanish, English, and quite often a fourth language. 

I would also like to note that by Spanish constitutional law Basque is an official language in the Basque Country along with Spanish. Therefore, all public institutions have the obligation to protect it, promote it and require its knowledge, especially in public areas such as education.

In mixing political issues with educational policy and the personal stories of a minority of teachers, the author creates confusion and paints a picture of a climate of manipulation that is far from reality. The teachers that the author mentions in his article have had the opportunity to learn Euskara for free during work hours for 2 to 3 years with a full salary paid by the Basque Government. After this period these teachers didn’t pass the required exam: Is that discrimination?

Furthermore, all languages are systematic and cannot be judged to be more highly evolved than another.  The Basque language, though spoken by a relatively small group of people, is just as worthy of respect as any other.  The examples for its so-called primitiveness would make any linguist in the world laugh.  All languages borrow words from other languages.  The same words that Mr. Johnson uses to show the backwardness of Basque are similar in English and Spanish as well.  Democracy, democracia, demokrazia.  These are all words with Greek origins. 

Lastly, Mr. Johnson notes that theories link Basque to Berber and Eskimo languages.  I’m not sure what “theories” these are since linguists believe Basque is the last of many languages that once existed across Europe and were forced out by the arrival of Indo-Europeans beginning about 2000 BC.  Basque seems to have survived more serious assaults than this article, though it is a stunning piece of misinformation.

Aitor Sotes,
Delegate of the Basque Country in the US

  REACTION IV: Dr. John Bieter

November 13, 2007

Dear Mr. Keith Johnson,

I am writing you a letter to tell you how deeply disappointed I was with your article titled "Basque Inquisition:  How Do You Say Shepherd in Euskera?" in the Wall Street Journal on November 6, 2007.   I felt that your article exhibited poor journalistic practices.  It only portrayed one side, provided no historical context, and resulted in the type of journalism that many feared would occur with new ownership.

The tenets of responsible journalism require writers to research both sides of an issue and to provide sufficient information to let readers make an informed decision.  You fail to do so.  A fair and impartial perspective would include more than one line from one director of a Basque language academy.  It would include an interview from the current Minister of Culture rather than a predecessor.  These poor practices create an article so severely one sided that it smacks of propaganda rather than professional journalism.  

Your poor journalistic practices exhibit precisely the ammunition that further incites culture wars.  Instead of consulting linguists, you assert that Euskera "is an ancient language little suited to contemporary life."  You note that there is no Basque word for airport, science, Renaissance, democracy, government or independence.  However, you fail to identify that these words do not originate from Spanish but from English, French, and Greek.  One of the integral aspects of our world is that languages and cultures borrow continuously from each
other.  Furthermore, low levels of language use do not preclude linguistic revival.  Sixty years ago Hebrew was nearly a dead language; today it flourishes.   

Above all your article lacks historical context.  You mention Euskera being banned during the Franco dictatorship, but this simple reference ridiculously distorts the historical reality of centuries of Spanish and French oppression of Basques.  While you note that Euskera "has no
relation to any other European tongue" you miss the punch line - this is the single most prevalent feature that separates the Basques from others.  Furthermore, your article makes no note of the Fueros, the ancient laws of Basques recognized by the kings of Spain.  Even John Adams noted that while neighbors had suffered an erosion of autonomy the Basques had preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government and manners without innovation longer than any other nation in Europe.

Your lack of research fails to contextualize that President Juan Jose Ibarretxe "speaks a less-than-fluent Euskera".  You make no reference to the cultural, linguistic and military imperialism that the Spanish imposed for centuries, which created the conditions that resulted in his lack of native fluency.  The evidence you provide actually supports the need for greater Basque language instruction rather than less.   In short, you failed to do what qualityjournalists always do – their homework.   

Thorough research would have revealed that unlike Ms. Esquivias, Basques were not given a paid year's leave to study Spanish.  Instead of compensation, Basques paid with the loss of their language, their culture and in many instances their lives.  Please write another front
page article Mr. Johnson and this time do the work necessary to make you, your profession and your newspaper proud.  

John Bieter
Assistant Professor of History
Boise State University


Reaction IV: Letter from 180 speakers of a "modern" language

Reaction V: By Michael Morris
Author of a leading Basque-English dictionary

Dear Mr. Johnson,

My name is Mikel Morris and am the author of the leading English-Basque dictionary (which you can see at www.euskadi.net/morris ).  Thus, I feel that I am qualified to speak on this subject. It is a shame that you did not contact expert people who are actually familiar with languages in general and with Basque in particular.

To begin with, Leopoldo Barrera is hardly an authority to have an informed opinion of Basque since he knows hardly any Basque (and I am skeptical as to whether he could get by in any other language other than Spanish). It is scientifically false to say that a language is more ancient than another and wholly inaccurate to say that a language such as Basque is little suited to modern life. Every bona fide linguist knows that any language can express any idea, especially when language planning has taken place.

I fail to understand what you mean by "newly minted" words such as aireportu, zientzia, demokrazia. Every language creates neologisms when new concepts come up. You should study the case of Icelandic or even French. Basque is no exception.

Your observation on shepherd is an example of gross ignorance of not only Basque but of English as well. The origin of the word shepherd is sceaphierde, (From Old English) from sceap "sheep" + hierde "herder," from heord "a herd" ( Cf. M.L.G., M.Du. schaphirde, M.H.G. schafhirte,
Ger. dial. schafhirt.)  The Webster dictionary defines "shepherd" as "1 : a person who tends sheep" Thus, you probably meant "herder" or "drover" rather than "shepherd", but then again that term is too general in English and is usually combined with the animal being driven.

You mention that Basque numbers have no relationship to Indo-European and that would seem to be a disadvantage. Are European children in Finland, Hungary, Estonia and Turkey at an equal disadvantage? I think not. Finns pray to "Jumala", is that bad or equally as bad as "Jainkoa"? Why?

I am especially amazed at Joseba Arregi (who writes his surname as Arregi not Arregui as you write it though you could have written it as Arregy to make it more palatable to an English-speaking readership;-)). If you quoted him correctly, he has turned full circle in what he had been working for when he basked in power in the PNV. He helped me with my own dictionary project.

As for statistics, I fail to see where you got the figure 450,000,000 speakers for Spanish. Are you including Anglos who speak "Taco Bell" English in the States? German tourists who can order a beer in pidgin Spanish in the Costa Brava? George Bush? Indians in Guatemala who can barely utter a sentence in intelligible Spanish? An authoritative estimate from the Ethnologue Survey (SIL) gave a figure of 332,000,000 in 1999. Has Spanish acquired an extra 120,000,000 since 1999? If so, that is truly amazing but  hardly plausible.

Finally, we get to the crux of the problem: is Basque an official language? If so, it should be equal in every way to Spanish. If not, that should be so stated and either be accepted as a fact or changed. Swedish is still official in Finland even though a small minority actually uses it as their mother tongue. I can hardly feel sorry for Spanish-speaking teachers who refused to learn Basque before. I myself, a native speaker of English, was able to give classes in Basque and Spanish at a High School.

It is a shame that you won't answer me but at least you are confronted with some facts and questions. Although I understand your rabidly pro-Spanish leanings, you should, in the name of good journalism, get your facts straight and talk to competent people who know something about languages.

Sincerely Yours

Mikel Morris

Reaction VI: Pete T. Cenarrusa
Former Idaho Secretary of State; founder Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture

I am astonished that such a prestigious newspaper as the Wall Street Journal would publish such an article full of errors, inaccuracies, and blatant misinformation.

As the longest elected Secretary of State of Idaho, I took great pleasure in my subscription to the Journal because I believed that the information printed for public consumption was true and accurate. I am retired now after serving over 52 years under the Capitol dome of Idaho. But in my retirement, to read such a distorted news article is exceedingly disappointing. For a reporter of news to err is to fail. News articles should be checked and double checked so that errors are eliminated.

I shall always remember a former columnist for the Idaho Statesman newspaper, (with the largest state-wide circulation) whose advice to journalists was: “When a factual error makes its way into print, it is read by thousands, and worse, believed by them. Through error and inaccuracy, we could lose the trust of our readers – we could undermine the newspaper’s overall credibility.”

I believe that millions read the Wall Street Journal. In order for the newspaper to regain its credibility with your readers I feel it is necessary to print a retraction of the errors in the newspaper with equal space and visibility.

You have probably received a statement prepared by Dr. Xavier Irujo, who speaks Basque, Spanish and English fluently, who is a professor of Contemporary History of the Basque Country at the University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada. He also puts on workshops in Basque History and Language at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho.

In his statement you can learn about the errors made by Mr. Johnson and facts correcting those errors. He included names and addresses of 180 individuals who have expertise in Basque history and ethnology.

My mother and father were immigrants from the Basque Country who became naturalized citizens and built a highly successful livestock business. We five siblings, (I am now the only survivor), learned the Basque language first at home in our close-knit family. Upon entering the first grade, we learned English. Basque heritage lends credibility as evidenced by many scholars and associates of various countries who speak highly of the Basques. Some scholars tell us that when we find the origin of the Basque language, we will find the origin of civilization, and it is worth keeping alive.

Rodney Gallup, an English writer said, “If the Basques have preserved their language and their own distinctive stock, the explanation is not to be found in the geographical features of their land, but in the character.”

In addition, I would like to add a few other quotes from various writers:

Nikolai Yakovlevich Marr, Russian writer and philosopher said, “An ivory tower should be built to protect the Basque people and their language, to insure that this jewel does not disappear.”

Alan H. Kelson de Montigyni, Secretary, International Anthropology and Linguistic Circle, “Chairs in Basque should be set up at all universities, to prevent the loss of anything to do with the Basques. Such a move would benefit everyone. It is the only means we have of knowing what words are the oldest in Europe, perhaps the world.”

Alejo Peyret, French writer, “The Basques always preserved their independence, their autonomy, as we now say, making use of a Greek word. A long time before the Swiss had formed their confederation, Iruracbat; long before the English had won for themselves their Magna Carta; long before the North Americans and the French had proclaimed their declarations of the rights of man, and the citizen; they had organized a representative government, and their representatives met beneath the tree of Guernica. Thus they had government for the people, by the people, they had self government.”

And finally, John Adams, who became the second president of the United States, wrote on October 4, 1786, in researching all the democratic republics of Europe: “In a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the Government, Biscay (the Basque Country), ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbors have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation in Europe. They once inhabited some of the finest parts of the ancient low lands, but their love of liberty and unconquerable aversion to foreign servitude, made them retire when invaded and overpowered in their ancient feats into the mountainous countries called by the ancients, Cantabria.  .”

It is a Republic, and one of the privileges they have insisted on is not to have a King – another was that every new lord, at his ascension, should come into the country in person, and take an oath to preserve the fuero, or laws, of the Basques.”

All I am asking is to be fair. Fairness begets success.

Sincerely and Eskerrik Asko, (Thank you)

Pete T. Cenarrusa
Chairman, Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture

Where to write a reaction

Wall Street Journal Likens Basque Language Policies to Support of Separatists

In his November 6 article in the Wall Street Journal Online, Keith Johnson compares the Basque language policy of Euskadi to the Spanish Inquisition.  There are even more twisted words, untruths and biased reporting. Among those that stand out the most are:
---- "Euskara just isn't used in real life" Partido Popular member Leopoldo Barrera.
---- "In the classroom, Euskara has allowed separatists to control the curriculum"
---- "It's just no good for everyday conversation" Joseba Arregui, former Basque culture secretary 
---- the map that accompanies the article shows only the Autonomous region of Euskadi as being Euskal Herria
---- no interviews with current members of the government of Euskadi, nor anyone else with anything positive to say
---- halfway through the article, the term "separatists" is replaced by the term "nationalists"

Too many biased articles like this one are written about the Basque Country and it's issues.  The Basque Diaspora could do something.  Let's start responding to them.  There are little things that can be done very easily.  In this case, e-mails and/or calls to the author of the article and the Editors of the Wall Street Journal can be done.  Please be polite in your e-mails and phone messages.  Rudeness will only hurt our message.
Contact info:
---- Keith Johnson, article's author:  keith.johnson@wsj.com
---- Wall Street Journal comments and feedback:  feedback@wsj.com
---- Alan Murray, Executive Editor:  a.murray@wsj.com
---- Jamie Heller, Deputy Managing Editor:  j.heller@wsj.com
---- Dave Pettit, Deputy Managing Editor:  dave.pettit@wsj.com
---- Customer Support, United States:  1-800-369-2834
Cathleen Acheritogaray, Corte Madera, CA

To read more reactions click on: http://www.newyorkbasqueclub.com/  as well as http://www.eurolang.net/