Euskara: Europe's Oldest and Youngest Language

Euskara is Europe's oldest and youngest language at the same time, because today the majority of Basque speakers are under the age of thirty.  So there is reason for optimism but challenges remain for this minority language.

Euskara Munduan Powerpoint


The Status of Euskara Today

at the annual meeting of NABO
Elko NABO Convention July, 2012
By Lourdes Auzmendi
Ministry for Language Policy
of the Basque Government


Egun on! I’d like to wish our friends in the NABO a very good morning!

I am delighted to be here before you to talk about how Basque has evolved over the last few years. I would like to thank the Organisers most sincerely for the opportunity that they have given me to take part in their annual meeting. It is vital for the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy of the Basque Government to reinforce the links between Basques on both sides of the Ocean. And, of course, the Basque language must take up its rightful place in this relationship. In this lecture I aim to provide you with some up-to-date information about the Basque language, its most recent history and its current situation.

And now, without further ado, let’s get right into the subject. As you know, Basque, the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe, is spoken on both sides of the Western Pyrenees, in areas that form part of Spain and France. In Spain in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country or Euskadi –that includes the provinces of Alava, Guipuzcoa and Biscay– as well as in the Foral Community of Navarre. In both communities, there are still important differences in the presence of the language depending on the area. In France, Basque is spoken in the old provinces of Labourd, Lower Navarre and Soule, which occupy the most westerly part of the Département of the Atlantic Pyrenees, in the Aquitaine region.

Basqueland has traditionally been a crossing point between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of the continent. Contrary to what a hackneyed, but now fortunately discredited viewpoint has tried to make us believe, Basqueland has never been an island; quite the opposite in fact. For this very reason the survival of Basque is so surprising. Among other peoples, Iberians, Celts, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths and Arabs passed through the Basque territories, each with their own language. All of them left their mark on the vocabulary of Basque (for example, the word gutun, “letter”, comes from the Arabic qutub) and some of them even influenced the structure and phonetics of the language.

 can’t spend too much time now in the various theories about the origin of Basque, most of which are utterly outlandish.

But I don’t want to resist the temptation to refute the hypothesis, that I am sure you have heard on some occasion, that makes Basque a Stone Age language, as would be proved, for example, by the word aizkora, “axe”, whose first element was supposed to be haitz, “rock”. Nothing could be further from the truth: Aizkora is a loan from post-classical Latin (asciola), not a palaeolithic term. If, something that is rather unlikely, a pre-historic Basque were to appear in this hall and speak to me in his language, I would understand nothing or almost nothing. In fact, in Aquitaine inscriptions have been found from that period written in a language that might be the direct forerunner of Basque, but you need to be a linguist to understand what they mean. One difference between Spanish and Basque is that we don’t call the Spanish of two thousand years ago Spanish, but Latin, whereas we still call the Basque of two thousand years ago Basque.

This semantic trap leads us to assume that Basque from the 1st century and from the 21st are the same language, which is not true, unless we accept that Latin and Spanish are also the same language. All languages have to adapt to changing times. If they don’t, they disappear. Basque is no exception. What I’m trying to say is: if Basque hadn’t evolved, and its evolution includes having borrowed a lot of words and structures from Latin and other languages, mainly from Spanish, Gascon and French (some say as much as fifty percent of its vocabulary), today it would be an extremely pure language, but it would have died out, just like Celtiberian or Iberian, other languages that were spoken in the Iberian Peninsula before the Romans arrived.

For centuries or even millennia, the Basque language, divided into numerous dialects that were sometimes mutually unintelligible, survived diglossically. That is, it was the language spoken by most of the population of Basqueland and used to be the only language of the lower classes, but was rarely written. The upper classes, who were the only ones who were literate, wrote first of all in Latin (it is even possible that they previously did so in Iberian or in Celtiberian) and later in Spanish, in Gascon and in French. The Basque areas in France preserved their autonomy until the 18th century and the ones in Spain did so until the 19th century, but the Parliaments, Assemblies and Provincial Councils in the Basque provinces, that were precisely those that represented the rich, only used Basque on very few occasions. The central governments in Paris and Madrid didn’t attach too much value to Basque either, but it was tolerated or, at least, ignored most of the time, except during the forty years that General Franco’s dictatorship lasted (1936-1975), during which it was persecuted and driven to the margins of public life. However, this repression carried out by Franco’s regime did have one positive result: it increased the linguistic awareness of Basque-speakers. During the dictatorship an alignment took place in Euskadi between demands for democracy and those that were purely about language, and this alignment has survived to the present day. We can say that the consensus that exists today in Euskadi regarding language policy was forged in the dark years of Franco’s regime.

According to the latest estimates (we have just learnt the first details in the 5th Sociolinguistic Survey) about 930,000 people are able to speak Basque in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, Navarre and French Basqueland, although in differing degrees. On the other hand, there are practically no monolingual Basque speakers, as less than 1% of the Basques don’t speak Spanish or French. In the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, where Basque has official status alongside Spanish, 37% of the population claim to be able to speak it, but only 20% of them use it regularly (in other words, about 430,000 of the more than two million inhabitants in the Autonomous Community). In French Basqueland, where Basque has no kind of administrative recognition, Basque speakers make up a quarter of the population (about 70,000 people). And in Navarre, where it is official in the northern part of the province, it is spoken by a tenth of its inhabitants (about 65,000 people).

In the last few years, we have been able to note an improvement in the legal situation of the Basque language in France, with whose authorities the Basque Government has signed several agreements (for example, for picking up Euskal Telebista, the Basque public television station). The current president of the French Republic, François Hollande, promised during the election campaign to ratify the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages and he reaffirmed this commitment after he was elected. This would mean a greater degree of official recognition of Basque in French Basqueland and would probably require the Constitution of the Republic to be modified, which only gives official status to French. As for relations with Navarre, these have been practically inexistent in more than thirty years of autonomy and that is why the cooperation agreement that we signed with its government just yesterday will represent, without exaggerating, a real historic landmark. Furthermore: the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy of the Basque Government, the Basque Language Institute of Navarre (Euskarabidea) and the Public Office for the Basque Language in French Basqueland are going to jointly manage projects to promote Basque in all the Zazpiak Bat which will be financed by the European Union. Nothing like this has ever occurred to date in the long history of our language.

As I have already mentioned, the basic reason for the survival of Basque over the centuries has been precisely its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Basque is not just the language of shepherds and farmers, according to an image that some people identify it with, but is also the language of the university and the Internet. A few years ago, a very important politician during the Transition period, who is still alive, questioned whether Basque would be any use for talking about nuclear physics. Nowadays Basque is used completely naturally to talk about nuclear and non-nuclear physics, telecommunications and whatever you need. It isn’t, by any means, the oldest language in Europe, as is usually proclaimed with a certain degree of romantic pride, but is one of the youngest and most flexible. I’m going to tell you about a fact that you perhaps don’t know. The version of Wikipedia in Basque has 135,000 articles. In proportion to its number of speakers, the version in Spanish of this encyclopedia should have 65 million articles. However, it only has 900,000. I think that this will give you a good idea of the vitality of our language.

I have come here as a representative of the Basque Government, so that in this presentation I will be referring especially to the three provinces that make up our autonomous community. As we’ve seen, in Euskadi there are two official languages: Spanish, which is also official all over Spain and is spoken by almost all the citizens of the autonomous community, and Basque, which is spoken by a third of the population. The main aim of the Basque Government is to move towards a feasible form of bilingualism, based on three principles: consensus of the political forces represented in the Basque Parliament, acceptance of the plural nature of Basque society and respect for the language options that citizens choose. This is precisely the spirit of the Normalization Law, approved in 1982 by the vast majority of the Basque Parliament. The basic aim of this law is to promote Basque through positive measures; that is, by providing every chance for those who want to learn or use it, but without forcing anyone who didn’t wish to do so. If we were to sum up this idea in a slogan, it could be expressed as: “don’t impose, don’t impede”.

When in 1979, Euskadi regained its autonomy, which had been snatched away from it by the dictatorship, only 22% of the population was able to speak Basque. Since then the situation of the Basque language has improved a great deal. This percentage, as we have already mentioned, has risen at the present time up to 37%, almost double. In the last ten years Basque has gained 181,000 speakers in the Autonomous Community. This is a great success, with very few historical precedents, and needs to be recognized as such. The other side of the coin is that the percentage of people actually using the language hardly reaches 20%. The entire language policy of the Basque Government is aimed at increasing the number of people who use Basque, so that this gradually comes close to the number of people who know the language. To achieve this aim, each year the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy subsidises dozens of projects to increase the presence of Basque in a variety of public and private spheres (town halls, media, new technologies, workplace…). To consolidate the use of Basque is also the leitmotif of the new Action Plan for the Promotion of the Basque Language (ESEP), the result of the cooperation between the Basque Government and the Basque Advisory Board which affects all areas of daily life. If everything goes as well as we hope, the Basque Parliament will approve the ESEP before the end of the year.

In Euskadi normalization has always been conceived of as a plus. For almost all citizens, normalization means “Basque + Spanish”, as against the policy of “Spanish Only” followed by Franco’s dictatorship. The people of Euskadi and their government are committed to bilingualism, not to a policy of “Basque Only”. The idea of language rights is vital in the legislation and political practice of the autonomous community. And when we talk about language rights, we are talking about the rights of both Basque speakers and monolingual Spanish speakers. In the last few decades, the situation of Basque has improved, but Spanish hasn’t declined at all. This is an achievement that we can all Basques can feel proud as Basques.

Over these thirty years, Basque language policy has been based on two priority areas: education and the administration. The third priority area in any normalisation process, the mass media, especially television, has not had a major impact on the evolution of the language in our case. When the Normalisation Law was approved, it was taken for granted that the distinction between priority and non-priority areas (such as the police, the public health system, justice and the private sector) would only last for a few years. In fact, we will soon be going into the fourth decade of the process and this distinction is still in force, as the presence of Basque in the latter areas has not increased much.

Let’s start with the first of the priority areas. Right from the start of the normalisation process, the political class and Basque society in general were quite clear about the fact that Basque would be official all throughout the region, even in areas where it had not been spoken for centuries. In actual fact in the case of Basque, it would be more correct to talk about “recovery” or “revival” rather than “normalisation”, which is a term that may be more suitable to reserve for language communities, like Catalonia or Galicia, whose territory has not significantly shrunk over the centuries. This “recovery” or “revival” meant that it would not be enough to just pass on the language through the family. It would have to have wholehearted decisive support from schools. In the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country it is the language chosen by 60% of parents (whether they speak Basque or not) for their children’s education. A further 22% also opt for a bilingual model, and the rest, 18%, choose Basque as a subject. In Primary Education, the percentage of parents who raise their children in Basque is even higher, which means that monolingual Spanish speakers form an endangered species among children under six years of age.

The main problem that schools face is that children whose mother tongue is Spanish identify “Basque” with “homework”. They usually forget about Basque as soon as they step outside the Ikastola. In general, children in non-Basque-speaking areas speak in Spanish at home and in the street, unless at least one of their parents is Basque-speaking. Despite this, the school has proved to be the cornerstone in the process of reviving the language. It is also important to note that this revival process is being achieved by means of social consensus and individual freedom, as it is the parents, and not the Basque Government, who choose the language their children are to be educated in.

In the Basque Government we have aimed to reward and show our gratitude to the education system for the contribution that it has made to the normalization of the language. Together with this act of justice, we have rationalized the complex slapdash system of qualifications, as up to now practically every administrative department issued their own qualifications. To do this, among other measures, we have drawn up a decree that states that those students who have studied up to High School or University level in Basque no longer need to take exams that provide proof of their proficiency in Basque; from this moment on they will have, as the case may be, their B1, B2, C1 or C2 Common European Framework of Reference Language qualifications directly recognized. In this way we have avoided numerous bureaucratic formalities for our students and, at the same time, reduced our technicians’ working hours, which can now be devoted to much more productive tasks.

Up to now I have only spoken to you about children and teenagers. However, a vital aspect of education that we need to dwell on in Basqueland (as well as here, in the United States, as we will see later on) is linguistic Basquization (euskalduntzea), that is to say, the teaching of Basque to adults. For centuries, the relationship between Basque and Spanish or French was a one-way process. Many Basque speakers gave up their language, usually forced by circumstances, and adopted one of the official languages. Since the 1960s, the relationship between Basque and Spanish or French has been reciprocal. Basque is still losing speakers in French Basqueland, but at the same time, many Basques whose mother tongue is French or Spanish are learning Basque. Some people who have learned Basque as adults have obtained such a command of the language that they have become famous writers in Basque or even members of the Basque Language Academy. At the present time, no less than 40,000 people are learning Basque or improving their level at what are called euskaltegis, centres for adult learning and for perfecting Basque. Without the euskaltegis and the new speakers, the revival of the Basque language would have been impossible. It is precisely the Basque Literacy and Language Learning Institute for Adults (HABE), that brings together the euskaltegis in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, with the aim of keeping Basque alive in Basque centres all over the world, that has launched the Euskara Munduan programme, that I will be spending more time on later on. Furthermore, Basque is also taught at 32 universities in Europe and the Americas (including four in the USA: Boise, Santa Barbara, Chicago and Stanford), through assistantships coordinated by the Etxepare Institute of the Basque Government.

I am now going to refer to the second of the priority areas. Right from the start of the normalization process, the administration, far from forcing citizens to use one language or another, has gone to great lengths to respect their various language options. This meant that many civil servants would have to learn both official languages of the autonomous community. On occasions, the media publish news stories claiming that in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country monolingual Spanish speakers are discriminated against because all government employees have to know Basque. This is utterly false. Currently, only 44% of Basque Government employees have a qualification that provides proof of their knowledge of the Basque language. That is: it is possible to be a Basque Government employee, even at a high level, without knowing a single word of Basque. Sometimes we forget that the administration is there to serve its citizens, and not the other way around, and that this service includes respect for the various language options that exist in our society.

It is obvious that there is still a lot to be done in the long process to establish a balance between both official languages and equal respect for the language rights of all citizens. However it is undeniable that in the last few decades a great deal of progress has been made, at least in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country. It goes without saying that none of this could have been achieved without the existence of a standard variant of the language, the one called euskara batua, a goal that had already been proposed at the beginning of the 20th century, but which was not achieved until 1968 by the Basque Language Academy, led by Luis Michelena, a brilliant linguist and an extraordinary man. Without this standardization process, Basque, split into dialects, would have been denied access to the university, to the administration and to the other spheres of modern life. Without Euskara batua Basque literature would not have experienced the boom of the last few years, which has enabled it to win the Spanish National Literature Prize on no less than four occasions, three times for Fiction (Bernardo Atxaga, Unai Iturriaga and Kirmen Uribe) and on another occasion for the Essay category (Anjel Lertxundi). 2,023 books were published in Basque in 2010, compared to the 41 that were published in 1968, the year in which the euskara batua was created. Today all the classics of universal literature have been translated into Basque and each year a huge fair with the latest books published in Basque is organised in Durango (I’m referring to the one on the other side of the Atlantic.) At this point I can’t forget either the great singers like Mikel Laboa, Oskorri, Benito Lertxundi, Imanol… whose success has even transcended frontiers. Without a standardized version, Basque would be an extremely interesting museum piece, but it wouldn’t be a living language, and I wouldn’t be standing here speaking about its past and future.  

The process of recovering the language in Basqueland has entered its mature phase. Almost without noticing it, we Basques have found ourselves at a new stage. Among political leaders and society as a whole we need to examine what has gone right to date and what needs to be improved. The rigid models of the past may no longer be of any use. We need to establish fresh priorities and clarify our aims; with the same enthusiasm as always, but perhaps with a greater degree of realism.

Basque needs the consensus that was formed in 1982 around the Normalisation Law to be extended in order to go further into areas that it hasn’t touched upon up to now. We are on the right path. As a matter of fact in 2009 the Basque Parliament approved almost unanimously the Euskara 21 proposal and we hope that the new Action Plan for the Promotion of the Basque Language (ESEP) that has been prepared by the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy and the Basque Advisory Board will also achieve the maximum degree of agreement. With both these tools, what the Basque Government is aiming for is to ensure that the level of use of Basque gradually increases until it reaches the level of knowledge. Together with this it also aims to make it easier for the language to move into new areas, such as new technologies. I have already referred to the presence of Basque in Wikipedia, and I could say the same about Twitter, Facebook or other social networks. In actual fact, in our case the Internet is playing the role that classic sociolinguistics studies attribute to television. Among other tools, every citizen, free-of-charge, has within reach on the Internet a powerful automatic translator, that we presented to the public just a few months ago, that is going to make it easier for many individuals and companies to translate texts from Spanish to Basque and then straight from Basque to Spanish and from English to Basque. As we usually take a healthy pride in saying at the Deputy Ministry: “Basque is not an isolated language anymore”.

After three decades of the normalisation process, now is the time for Basque to increase its presence in those areas that were not considered to be a priority at the time (such as the Autonomous Police, the Basque Health Service, the Judiciary and the private sector, not to mention the Central Administration in Euskadi). The Government has drawn up two separate decrees to gradually introduce the Basque language into these sectors.

Before I finish I am going to refer to the Euskara Munduan program that is being carried by the Basque Literacy and Language Learning Institute for Adults (HABE) in collaboration with the Presidency Department of the Basque Government and the local federations of Basque centres, in this case, the NABO. Many of you are directly or indirectly familiar with this programme. The aim of Euskara Munduan is to teach Basque to the Basque communities in the Americas. For this reason it stresses teacher training and the preparation of didactic materials tailored to meet the circumstances in each place, which in the North American case, are quite different to those in Basqueland itself, starting with the source language itself. Sometimes the problems seem insurmountable. That is why it is vital to keep alive contacts with Basqueland.

Basque has always been a language with a presence in the western North American states. In all Basque families on this side of the Ocean they tell stories about the mythical shepherds from Navarre in California or the ones from Biscay in Idaho. It is a source of pride for us that since 1998 there has been an Ikastola in Boise. We have always felt great admiration and even a certain degree of envy for the cousins who stayed here. That is why I can tell you that you will always be able to count on our solidarity and our support. Today, thanks to you, Basque has no frontiers. The entire world is Euskal Herria.

The problems are considerable. Until very recently we have only had fourteen Basque teachers in the United States. At the present time, in a supreme act of generosity, another sixteen people are training to be able to teach the language. Altogether, about 250 people are learning Basque at Basque clubs, distributed in twenty groups. Basque is alive and well in the United States, and its situation is going to get even better in the future.

As many of you will be aware, in the Euskara Munduan program two types of courses are given: classroom courses, that around 90% of all students take part in, make it possible to reach up to A2 intermediate level. For those who want to progress further there is the Internet Boga course, that many clubs have, which extends up to level C1, which is the level that certifies fluency in the language. So it is possible to learn Basque perfectly in the United States. I’d like to encourage those of you who still haven’t done so to give it a try, and I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who, despite all the difficulties, are teaching and learning Basque in the United States. Mila esker, bihotz-bihotzez!!! And of course, thanks a lot to you as well, Kinku, for your determination to get this wonderful programme off the ground. Thanks to all your efforts you are ensuring that the Ocean that separates us is a little less wide.

And now I am going to bring things to an end. After so many years of horror and suffering, Basque society is at last heading towards a process of democratic normalisation. The definitive pacification of the country is going to allow us to extend the consensus around the Basque language that was reflected, as I said, in the Normalisation Law of 1982. Because, at the end of the day, the normalisation of the language is merely one aspect of the social and political normalisation process that has taken so much hard work to achieve in Basqueland. The end of murder, blackmail and threats is going to make it possible to include certain sectors in the process of reviving the language that have been reluctant to accept it up to now, as they considered it to be something imposed on them. I dream of a Basqueland in which “zulo” (which in the Spanish spoken in Spain means “weapons arsenal” or “place where a kidnap victim is hidden”) recovers its original harmless meaning, which is simply “hole”, and that other terms that have passed on into Spanish, such as “kale borroka” (“urban guerrilla”), will disappear for ever, to be replaced by others like “bakea” (“peace”), “elkartasuna” (“solidarity”) and “begirunea” (“respect”).

Thank you very much for listening. Eskerrik asko.




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