1.The Basque Myth
The Basques share with the Celts the privilege of indulging in unrivaled extravagance on the subject of themselves. —Miguel de Unamuno quoting Ampère, HISTORY OF FRENCH LITERATURE BEFORE THE TWELFTH CENTURY, 1884
The Basques seem to be a mythical people, almost an imagined people. Their ancient culture is filled with undated legends and customs. Their land itself, a world of red-roofed, whitewashed towns, tough green mountains, rocky crests, a cobalt sea that turns charcoal in stormy weather, a strange language, and big berets, exists on no maps except their own.
Basqueland begins at the Adour River with its mouth at Bayonne-the river that separates the Basques from the French pine forest swampland of Landes-and ends at the Ebro River, whose rich valley separates the dry red Spanish earth of Rioja from Basqueland. Basqueland looks too green to be Spain and too rugged to be France. The entire area is only 8,218 square miles, which is slightly smaller than New Hampshire.
Within this small space are seven Basque provinces. Four provinces are in Spain and have Basque and Spanish names: Nafaroa or Navarra, Gipuzkoa or Guipúzcoa, Bizkaia or Vizcaya, and Araba or Alava. Three are in France and have Basque and French names: Lapurdi or Labourd, Benafaroa or Basse Navarre, and Zuberoa or Soule. An old form of Basque nationalist graffiti is “4 + 3 = 1.”
As with most everything pertaining to Basques, the provinces are defined by language. There are seven dialects of the Basque language, though there are sub-dialects within some of the provinces.
In the Basque language, which is called Euskera, there is no word for Basque. The only word to identify a member of their group is Eushaldun-Euskera speaker. Their land is called Euskal Herria-the land of Euskera speakers. It is language that defines a Basque.
The Central Mystery Is: Who are the Basques? The early Basques left no written records, and the first accounts of them, two centuries after the Romans arrived in 218 B.C., give the impression that they were already an ancient-or at least not a new-people. Artifacts predating this time that have been found in the area-a few tools, drawings in caves, and the rudiments of ruins-cannot be proved to have been made by Basques, though it is supposed that at least some of them were.
Ample evidence exists that the Basques are a physically distinct group. There is a Basque type with a long straight nose, thick eyebrows, strong chin, and long earlobes. Even today, sitting in a bar in a mountainous river valley town like Tolosa, watching men play mus, the popular card game, one can see a similarity in the faces, despite considerable intermarriage. Personalities, of course, carve very different visages, but over and over again, from behind a hand of cards, the same eyebrows, chin, and nose can be seen. The identical dark navy wool berets so many men wear-each in a slightly different manner-seem to showcase the long Basque ears sticking out on the sides. In past eras, when Spaniards and French were typically fairly small people, Basque men were characteristically larger, thick chested, broad shouldered, and burly. Because these were also characteristics of Cro-Magnons, Basques are often thought to be direct descendants of this man who lived 40,000 years ago.
Less subjective physical evidence of an ancient and distinct group has also surfaced. In the beginning of the twentieth century, it was discovered that all blood was one of three types: A, B, or O. Basques have the highest concentration of type O in the world-more than 50 percent of the population-with an even higher percentage in remote areas where the language is best preserved, such as Soule. Most of the rest are type A. Type B is extremely rare among Basques. With the finding that Irish, Scots, Corsicans, and Cretans also have an unusually high incidence of type O, speculation ran wild that these peoples were somehow related to Basques. But then, in 1937, came the discovery of the rhesus factor, more commonly known as Rh positive or Rh negative. Basques were found to have the highest incidence of Rh negative blood of any people in the world, significantly higher than the rest of Europe, even significantly higher than neighboring regions of France and Spain. Cro-Magnon theorists point out that other places known to have been occupied by Cro-Magnon man, such as the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Canary Islands, also have been found to have a high incidence of Rh negative.
Twenty-seven percent of Basques have O Rh negative blood. Rh negative blood in a pregnant woman can fatally poison a fetus that has positive blood. Since World War II, intervention techniques to save the fetus have been developed, but it is probable that throughout history, the rate of miscarriage and stillborn births among the Basques was extremely high, which may be one of the reasons they remained a small population on a limited amount of land while other populations, especially in Iberia, grew rapidly.
Before Basque blood was studied as a key to their origins, several attempts were made to analyze the structure of Basque skulls. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a researcher reported, “Someone gave me a Basque body and I dissected it and I assert that the head was not built like that of other men.”
Studies of Basque skulls in the nineteenth century concluded, depending on whose study is believed, that Basques were either Turks, Tartars, Magyars, Germans, Laplanders, or the descendants of Cro-Magnon man either originating in Basqueland or coming from the Berbers of North Africa.
Or do clothes hold the secret to Basque origins? A twelfth-century writer, Aimeric de Picaud, considered not skulls but skirts, concluding after seeing Basque men in short ones that they were clearly descendants of Scots.
The most useful artifact left behind by the ancient Basques is their language. Linguists find that while the language has adopted foreign words, the grammar has proved resistant to change, so that modern Euskera is thought to be far closer to its ancient form than modern Greek is to ancient Greek. Euskera has extremely complex verbs and twelve cases, few forms of politeness, a limited number of abstractions, a rich vocabulary for natural phenomena, and no prepositions or articles.
Etxea is the word for a house or home. “At home” is etxean. “To the house” is etxera. “From home” is etxetik. Concepts are formed by adding more and more suffixes, which is what is known as an agglutinating language. This agglutinating language only has about 200,000 words, but its vocabulary is greatly extended by almost 200 standard suffixes. In contrast, the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled from a data base of 60 million words, but English is a language with an unusually large vocabulary. It is sometimes said that Euskera includes just nouns, verbs, and suffixes, but relatively simple concepts can become words of formidable size. Iparsortalderatu is a verb meaning “to head in a northeasterly direction.”
Euskera has often been dismissed as an impossible language. Arturo Campión, a nineteenth-century Basque writer from Navarra, complained that the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defined Euskera as “the Basque language, so confusing and obscure that it can hardly be understood.” It is obscure but not especially confusing. The language seems more difficult than it is because it is so unfamiliar, so different from other languages. Its profusion of ks and xs looks intimidating on the page, but the language is largely phonetic with some minor pitfalls, such as a very soft b and an aspirated h as in English, which is difficult for French and Spanish speakers to pronounce. The x is pronounced “ch.” Etxea is pronounced “et-CHAY-a.” For centuries Spanish speakers made Euskera seem friendlier to them by changing xs to chs as in echea, and ks, which do not exist in Latin languages, to cs, as in Euscera. To English speakers, Basque spellings are often more phonetic than Spanish equivalents. The town the Spanish call Guernica is pronounced the way the Basques write it-Gernika.
The structure of the language-roots and suffixes-offers important clues about Basque origins. The modern words aitzur, meaning “hoe,” aizkora, meaning “axe,” aizto, meaning “knife,” plus various words for digging and cutting, all come from the word haitz or the older aitz, which means “stone.” Such etymology seems to indicate a very old language, indeed from the Stone Age. Even though the language has acquired newer words, notably Latin from the Romans and the Church, and Spanish, such words are used in a manner unique to this ancestral language. Ezpata, like the Spanish word espada, means “sword.” But ezpatakada means “the blow from a sword,” ezpatajoka means “fencing,” and espatadantzari is a “sword dancer.”
Though numerous attempts have been made, no one has ever found a linguistic relative of Euskera. It is an orphan language that does not even belong to the Indo-European family of languages. This is a remarkable fact because once the Indo-Europeans began their Bronze Age sweep from the Asian subcontinent across Europe, virtually no group, no matter how isolated, was left untouched. Even Celtic is Indo-European. Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are the only other living European languages that are not related to the Indo-European group. Inevitably there have been theories linking Finnish and Euskera or Hungarian and Euskera. Did the Basques immigrate from Lapland? Hungarian, it has been pointed out, is also an agglutinating language. But no other connection has been found between the Basque language and its fellow agglutinators.
A brief attempt to tie the Basques to the Picts, ancient occupants of Britain who spoke a language thought to be pre-Indo-European, fell apart when it was discovered the Picts weren’t non-Indo-European at all, but were Celtic.
If, as appears to be the case, the Basque language predates the Indo-European invasion, if it is an early or even pre-Bronze Age tongue, it is very likely the oldest living European language.
If Euskera is the oldest living European language, are Basques the oldest European culture? For centuries that question has driven both Basques and non-Basques on the quest to find the Basque origin. Miguel de Unamuno, one of the best-known Basque writers, devoted his earliest work, written in 1884 when he was still a student, to the question. “I am Basque,” he began, “and so I arrive with suspicion and caution at this little and poorly garnered subject.”
As Unamuno pointed out, and this is still true today, many researchers have not hesitated to employ a liberal dose of imagination. One theory not only has Adam and Eve speaking Euskera but has the language predating their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The name Eve, according to this theory, comes from ezbai, “no-yes” in Euskera. The walls of Jericho crumbled, it was also discovered, when trumpets blasted a Basque hymn.
The vagaries of fact and fiction were encouraged by the fact that the Basques were so late to document their language. The first book entirely in Euskera was not published until 1545. No Basques had attempted to study their own history or origins until the sixteenth-century Guipúzcoan Esteban de Garibay. Spanish historians of the time had already claimed that Iberia was populated by descendants of Tubal, Noah’s grandson, who went to Iberia thirty-five years after the Flood subsided. Garibay observed that Basque place-names bore a resemblance to those in Armenia where the ark landed, and therefore it was specifically the Basques who descended from Tubal. Was not Mount Gorbeya in southern Vizcaya named after Mount Gordeya in Armenia? Garibay traced Euskera to the Tower of Babel.
In 1729, when Manuel de Larramendi wrote the first book of Basque grammar ever published, he asserted that Euskera was one of seventy-five languages to have developed out of the confusion at the Tower of Babel. According to Juan Bautista de Erro, whose The Primitive World or a Philosophical Examination of Antiquity and Culture of the Basque Nation was published in Madrid in 1815, Euskera is the world’s oldest language, having been devised by God as the language of Adam’s Paradise, preserved in the Tower of Babel, surviving the Flood because Noah spoke the language, and brought to present-day Basque country by Tubal.
In one popular legend, the first Basque was Aïtor, one of a few remarkable men who survived the Flood without Noah’s ark, by leaping from stone to stone. However, Aïtor, still recognized by some as the father of all Basques, was invented in 1848 by the French Basque writer Augustin Chaho. After Chaho’s article on Aïtor was translated into Spanish in 1878, the legend grew and became a mainstay of Basque culture. Some who said Aïtor was mere fiction went on to hypothesize that the real father of all Basques was Tubal.
Since then, links have been conjectured with languages of the Caucasus, Africa, Siberia, and Japan. One nineteenth-century researcher concluded that Basques were a Celtic tribe, another that they were Etruscans. And inevitably it has been discovered that the Basques, like so many other peoples, were actually the lost thirteenth tribe of Israel. Just as inescapably, others have concluded that the Basques are, in reality, the survivors of Atlantis.
A case for the Basques really being Jews was carefully made by a French clergyman, the abbot J. Espagnolle, in a 1900 book titled L’Origine des Basques (The Origin of the Basques). For this theory to work, the reader first had to realize that the people of ancient Sparta were Jewish. To support this claim, Espagnolle quotes a historian of ancient Greece who wrote, “Love of money is a Spartan characteristic.” If this was not proof enough, he also argues that Sparta, like Judea, had a lack of artisans. The wearing of hats and respect for elders were among further evidence offered. From there, it was simply a matter of asserting, as ancient Greek historians had, he said, that the Spartans colonized northern Spain. And of course these Spartan colonists who later became Basques were Jewish.
With issues of nationhood at stake, such seemingly desperate hypotheses may not be devoid of political motives. “Indigenous” is a powerful notion to both the French and Spanish states. Both define their history as the struggle of their people, the rightful indigenous occupants, to defend their land against the Moors, invaders from another place, of another race, and of another religion. In Europe, this heroic struggle has long been an essential underpinning of both nationalism and racism. The idea that Basques were in their European mountains, speaking their own indigenous European language, long before the French and the Spanish, is disturbing to French and Spanish nationalists. Unless the Basques can be shown to be from somewhere else, the Spanish and French are transformed into the Moorish role-outside invaders imposing an alien culture. From the sixteenth century on, historians receiving government salaries in Madrid wrote histories that deliberately minimized the possibility of indigenous Basques.
But the Basques like the idea, which most evidence supports, that they are the original Europeans, predating all others. If true, it must have been an isolating experience, belonging to this ancient people whose culture had little in common with any of its neighbors. It was written over and over in the records of those who observed the Basques that they spoke a strange language that kept them apart from others. But it is also what kept them together as a people, uniting them to withstand Europe’s great invasions.
Q1. Where is Basque spoken?
A1. At the western end of the Pyrenees, along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The Basque-speaking region runs from the city of Bayonne in France west to the city of Bilbao in Spain, a distance of about 100 miles (160 kilometers); it extends inland about 30 miles (50 kilometers), not quite reaching the city of Pamplona.
Q2. Was Basque formerly spoken in a larger area?
A2. Yes, certainly. In the Middle Ages it was spoken throughout the entire territory of the Basque Country, the region which is historically, ethnically, and culturally Basque. This includes the four Spanish provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Alava, and Navarra, as well as the three former French provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule (now officially obliterated and incorporated into the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantique). In the early Middle Ages Basque was also spoken in the Spanish province of Burgos and in adjoining parts of the Rioja, and it was spoken in the Pyrenees as far east as the valley of Arán, in territory which is Catalan-speaking today. In Roman times the language was spoken throughout southwestern Gaul (France), as far north as the Garonne.
Q3. How many people speak Basque?
A3. About 660,000, according to the 1991 census. Fewer than 80,000 of these are on the French side of the frontier which runs through the Basque Country, the rest on the Spanish side.
Q4. Where does Basque come from?
A4. It doesn’t really “come from” anywhere — it’s just been there for a very long time. Western Europe has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, but for most of that time writing was unknown and hence we have no records of the languages spoken. In the second half of the first millennium BC, writing was introduced into southern and eastern Spain by the Phoenicians and the Greeks, but it didn’t reach the ancestral Basques farther north. It was only the Roman conquest of Gaul and Spain in the first century BC that brought writing to the Basques, and only from that time do we have any written records of the Basques.
Like the Celtic and Germanic languages, the Latin language of the Romans was an Indo-European language, descended from an ancestral language originally spoken far to the east. As these Indo-European languages spread slowly westward across Europe, they gradually displaced most of the earlier languages, which died out. By the time the Romans arrived, an ancestral form of Basque, which we call Aquitanian, was the only pre-Indo-European language still surviving in Gaul. The position in Spain was much more complicated, with several pre-Indo-European languages still spoken, including Aquitanian and the famous Iberian, but all these others were soon displaced by Latin. Uniquely among the pre-Indo-European languages of western Europe, Basque has refused to die out and has survived down to the present day, though, as Q2 makes clear, the language has been gradually losing territory for a long time.
So: the ancestral form of Basque was introduced into western Europe long, long ago — at least thousands of years ago, and maybe even tens of thousands of years ago. Nobody knows. All the other modern languages of western Europe arrived much later.
Q5. Is Basque the oldest language in Europe?
A5. The question is meaningless. Except for creoles, which arise from pidgins and are a special case, all languages are equally “old”, in that all descend in an unbroken line from the earliest human speech. What we can say about Basque is that its ancestor was spoken in western Europe before (possibly long before) the ancestors of all the other modern western European languages arrived there. That is, Spanish, French, English, Irish, and all the others are descended from languages which were introduced into western Europe (from farther east) at a time when the ancestor of Basque was already there.
Q6. Is Basque related to any other languages?
A6. No. The ancient Aquitanian language was, of course, an ancestral form of Basque, as we can easily see by examining the personal names and divine names of the Aquitanian-speakers, which are all that is recorded of Aquitanian. But the most strenuous efforts at finding other relatives for Basque have been complete failures: obviously the relatives that Basque once had have died out without trace. People have tried to connect Basque with Berber, Egyptian, and other African languages, with Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, Minoan, Sumerian, the Finno-Ugric languages, the Caucasian languages, the Semitic languages, with Burushaski (another language with no known relatives, spoken in the Himalayas) — in fact, with almost all the languages of Africa and Asia, living and dead, and even with languages of the Pacific and of North America. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Basque absolutely cannot be shown to be related to any other language at all. Some people will try to tell you differently, but, not to mince words, they don’t know what they’re talking about, and the great majority of them don’t even know anything about Basque.
Q7. Has Basque influenced the neighboring languages?
A7. Very little. Perhaps the chief reason Basque has survived is that the Romans had very little interest in the Basque Country and they largely left the Basques alone. As a result, the region was not romanized until very late. By the same token, Basque had little influence on the neighboring languages — though Basque itself has borrowed thousands of words from Latin and its Romance descendants like Gascon and Castilian. In the Middle Ages, though, when the Basque-speaking Kingdom of Navarre was powerful, a number of Basque words were borrowed into local varieties of Spanish, including Castilian, but very few of these have survived. One which has survived is Castilian izquierdo `left (hand)’, which is borrowed from the synonymous Basque ezker, or more precisely from an unrecorded Basque derivative *ezkerdo.
It has often been suggested that Castilian Spanish originated as a form of Latin spoken by Basques, but the evidence for this idea does not stand up. See Chapter 6 of my book The History of Basque, which explains all this in great detail.
Q8. Is Basque exceedingly difficult to learn?
A8. Not at all. Today thousands of people speak Basque as a second language; among these are native speakers of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, German, Japanese, and other languages. In fact, Basque is a rather easy language to pick up, while mastering it is no more difficult than mastering any other language. The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is regular, there is no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly any irregular verbs.
Q9. Is it true that all the verbs in Basque are passive?
A9. No, this is nonsense. This crazy idea arose in the 19th century among European linguists who were looking at Basque for the first time. Basque has what we now call ergative morphology, which means that subjects and objects of sentences are marked in a somewhat different way from the way they are marked in most other European languages. (This is explained on the page containing a brief description of Basque.) Those linguists had never seen an ergative language before (though there are hundreds of them on other parts of the planet), and they were trying desperately to make Basque look more like the languages they were familiar with. As a result, they came up with this “passive” theory of Basque, which we now know to be ridiculously wrong.
Q10. Is it true that Basque lacks words for abstractions or for modern technology?
A10. Certainly not. Like other languages, Basque has plenty of words for abstract concepts of all kinds, and it has word-forming devices for creating new abstract words at will. Until recently, Basque did indeed lack a vocabulary for talking about things like physics, engineering, and linguistics, simply because nobody had ever wanted to talk about these things in Basque. Today people do want to talk about these things in Basque, and so thousands of new words have been introduced into the language to make this possible. Modern Basque can be used to speak or write about anything at all. I myself have written technical articles on linguistics in Basque; at least one doctoral thesis on medical science has been written in Basque; I recently saw an article in Basque in an international scholarly journal of chemistry.
Q11. Is Basque an official language anywhere?
A11. Yes. In 1979 the three Spanish Basque Provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Alava were united under the Basque Autonomous Government, and Basque is co-official with Spanish within this territory: it is used for government documents and publications, and knowledge of it is required for certain jobs. For complex historical reasons, the fourth Basque province in the south, Navarra, declined to join the Autonomous Region, but today Navarra constitutes its own autonomous region, and Basque has a measure of official standing within its borders. Basque has no official standing in the French Basque Country: like the other regional languages of France, it has been victimized for centuries by the French language laws, which are deeply hostile to languages other than French.
Q12. Is Basque gaining or losing ground today?
A12. This is a complicated question. On the one hand, the number of Basque-speakers has actually increased significantly within the last generation, and there are now, for perhaps the first time in the history of Basque, thousands of people who speak it as a second language. And in many ways the circumstances of the language are better than ever before: the Basque Government promotes the teaching and use of Basque, the language is required for certain jobs, and there is a great deal of education, publishing, and broadcasting in Basque, including a daily newspaper, a television station, and a number of radio stations. On the other hand, Basque faces the same enormous pressures as all other minority languages: knowledge of the national language (Spanish or French) is absolutely required, and the great bulk of education, publishing, and broadcasting are in the national language. Even the most remote Basque farmhouse is bombarded with radio and TV broadcasts in the national language, and its inhabitants must still conduct much of their daily business in that language. Especially in the Spanish Basque Country, a further difficulty is the presence of a huge number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who came to find work; these immigrants rarely learn Basque and deeply resent efforts to make Basque the primary medium in such spheres as local politics and primary education.
Q13. What literature exists in Basque?
A13. Some songs and poems which were composed in the Middle Ages were later written down and survive today. But publication in Basque only began in 1545, with a collection of poems written by the French Basque Bernard Etxepare (whose surname can be spelled in about six other ways). Publication in Basque has been continuous since the late 16th century, though most of the early works were religious in nature. From the early 19th century we find a steadily increasing number of plays, poems, and novels, and today Basque literature is flourishing. Recently Bernardo Atxaga’s prize-winning novel Obabakoak became the first Basque novel ever to be translated into English, to general acclaim.
Q14. What does written Basque look like?
A14. Here’s a sample, taken from the magazine Argia.
Eusko Jaurlaritzako Hezkuntza Sailak aste honetan aurkeztuko duen eskola mapari buruz hainbat kezka zabaldu da. Sare publiko ordezkariei ez zaiela inolako informaziorik eman haizatu du EILAS sindikatuak. ARGIAk jakin duenez, sare pribatuan geratu diren ikastolek osatu duten Partaide kooperatibak eta Eneko Oregik berriki izandako bilera modu txarrean amaitu zen. Eskola Maparen barruan diseinatu beharreko banaketaren gainean ez zaiela inolako zehaztasunik eskaini leporatzen diote Hezkuntza Sailari. Bestalde, sare publikoaren aldeko hautua egin zuten ikastolen artean ere, arazo bera bizi dela jakin dugu.
Q15. How can I learn Basque?
A15. Click on Learning Euskara
Q16. How do the Basques refer to themselves, their country, and their language?
A16. The Basques call their language euskara (dialect variants euskera and eskuara). The word euskaldun (literally, `one who has Basque’) means `Basque-speaker’; the plural is euskaldunak, and this is what the Basques commonly call themselves. Where necessary, a native speaker is euskaldun zahar (literally, `old Basque’), while a person who has learned Basque as a second language is euskaldun berri (`new Basque’). The neologism euskotar means `(ethnic) Basque’, and can be applied to any Basque, whether or not he speaks the language; the word basko, borrowed from Spanish, has also been used in this sense. The Basques have traditionally called their country Euskal Herria, which means `the Basque Country’; this designation includes the territory of the traditional seven provinces, north and south. The neologism Euskadi means `the Basque state’; this is the name of the territory administered by the Basque Autonomous Government, but it is sometimes applied more widely to the entire Basque Country as a demonstration of political feeling.
Q17. Are the Basques genetically different from other Europeans?
A17. Apparently, yes. It has long been known that the Basques have the highest proportion of rhesus-negative blood in Europe (25%), and one of the highest percentages of type-O blood (55%). Recently, however, the geneticist Luiga Luca Cavalli-Sforza has completed a gene map of the peoples of Europe, and he finds the Basques to be strikingly different from their neighbors. The genetic boundary between Basques and non-Basques is very sharp on the Spanish side. On the French side, the boundary is more diffuse: it shades off gradually toward the Garonne in the north. These findings are entirely in agreement with what we know of the history of the language.
Q18. Does this mean the Basques are directly descended from the earliest known human inhabitants of Europe, the Cro-Magnon people who occupied western Europe around 35,000 years ago?
A18. Nobody knows. This is possible, but we have no real evidence either way. The only evidence we have is negative: the archeologists can find no evidence for any sudden change in population in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of the Celts and later the Romans in the first millennium BC.
Q19. Are there any famous Basques?
A19. A fair number. Here are some: the explorer Elkano (who completed the first circumnavigation of the globe after Magellan was killed in the Philippines), the philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno, the novelists Pío Baroja, Robert Laxalt and Bernardo Atxaga, the composers J. C. Arriaga (who died very young), Jesús Guridi and Maurice Ravel (whose mother was Basque), the violinist Pablo Sarasate, the sculptor Eduardo Txillida, the cyclist Miguel Indurain, the golfer José María Olazabal, the tennis-players Jean Borotra and Nathalie Tauziat, the politician Dolores Ibarruri, the historian Esteban de Garibay, the religious leaders Ignatius of Loyola (who founded the Jesuits) and Valentín Berriochoa, the general Tomás Zumalacárregui, all the kings of the medieval Kingdom of Navarre, and any number of Spanish soccer-players and French rugby-players. Of course, there are many other people of Basque descent who were not born in the Basque Country, such as the Spanish writer Madariaga and the Frenchman Louis Daguerre (who invented photography).
Q20. Why has there been all this trouble in the Basque Country?
A20. That’s a long story. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Basque provinces, north and south, were largely self-governing, and they had a vigorous tradition of local democracy. Over time, of course, Basque autonomy came under increasing pressure from Paris and Madrid. In the north, Basque rights were abruptly swept away by the French Revolution. In the south, autonomy lasted longer, but in the 19th century it came under attack from centralist governments in Madrid, leading to major civil wars on two occasions and to the enforced removal of the traditional Basque rights.
From the late 19th century, the Spanish Basques, fearing for their language and their culture, began pressing for reforms and for greater autonomy. This strictly peaceful campaign was interrupted by the installation of a right-wing dictatorship in Spain in the 1930s, but regained its momentum after the restoration of democracy. But then a military coup in 1936 led to the Spanish Civil War and to the establishment of a brutal Fascist dictatorship in Spain under General Franco. The Basques, who had fought against the Fascists during the war, suffered terribly during the war and under the subsequent Fascist oppression: quite apart from the death and destruction caused by the war itself (including the deliberate destruction of two Basque cities by Hitler’s air force), the Basques found themselves singled out for particular vengeance by Franco. Basque soldiers and politicians who had not managed to flee into exile were imprisoned, condemned to forced labor, tortured, and often shot; all outward signs of Basque identity were prohibited, and the very speaking of Basque was declared illegal.
Permitted no legal voice, the Basques gradually began to organize clandestinely to discuss what might be done. A student discussion group founded in 1953 and originally called EKIN changed its name in 1959 to ETA and began to contemplate more active resistance. At first ETA was in no way violent, but every attempt at a political gesture was met by savagery from the Spanish police and courts: arbitrary arrests, routine beatings and torture, and long jail sentences. Eventually ETA took the plunge into violence of its own and began assassinating known torturers and murderers among the Spanish authorities. The police reacted with ever greater violence of their own: uniformed police tortured and murdered Basques with complete impunity, death squads composed of off-duty policemen carried out further murders, and there were armed attacks on whole communities described by foreign observers as “police riots”.
Faced with such violence, ETA gradually became ever less choosy in its targets, and began gunning for any police or soldiers they could get at. In a technically expert operation which would prove to have far-reaching consequences, ETA managed to assassinate Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the anointed heir of the aging Franco. As a result, when Franco finally died in 1975, a democratic government took control in Madrid; elections were held, and the Basque Autonomous Government was set up in 1979, with wide-ranging powers.
This outcome satisfied most people in the Basque Country, and most of the members of ETA quietly left the organization to resume normal lives. But a modest number of hard-core members remained, and continued a program of increasing violence all over Spain, in the hope of obtaining complete independence for the Basque Country. Army officers became favorite targets, and bombs were placed in popular tourist resorts with the intention of damaging the valuable tourist industry; even the new Basque police force came under attack. The new governments in both Madrid and the Basque Country made vigorous efforts to put a stop to this violence, but so far they have enjoyed only partial success. And that’s where things stand today.
Q21. Are there any Basque words in English?
A21. Not many, but there are one or two. One is silhouette, which has a very interesting history. The English word is taken from French, in which it derives from the surname of a certain Etienne de Silhouette, a French politician of the 18th century. This is a French spelling of the Basque surname Zilhueta, a French Basque variant of the surname Zulueta or Zuloeta; this in turn derives from zulo `hole’ (zilo in part of the north) plus the very frequent suffix -eta `abundance of’. This surname was doubtless given originally to someone who lived where there were many holes in the ground, or perhaps more likely caves. In Shakespeare’s day, there was an English word bilbo for a sword of outstanding quality; this derives from the name of the Basque city of Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque), since the Basque Country was known at the time for its excellent iron and steel goods. The American English word chaparral derives via Spanish from Basque txaparra `scrub’. But the idea that English By jingo! derives from Basque Jinko `God’ is probably wrong.
euskaldun. Noun. A Basque-speaker. The word is formed from euskara ‘Basque language’ and -dun ‘who has’; it literally means ‘one who has (i.e., speaks) Basque’. This is an unusual case of a people naming themselves after their language. In spite of some misunderstanding by outsiders, euskaldun still today means only `Basque-speaker’, and never ‘ethnic Basque’ (compare euskotar). When necessary, a distinction is made between euskaldun zahar ‘old Basque’ for a native speaker and euskaldun berri ‘new Basque’ for a person who has learned Basque as a second language (there are now thousands of these). Northern varieties have a variant called ‘eskualdun’. — Larry Trask
Juan Sebastián Elcano (1486, Getaria, Gipuzkoa, Spain — 4 August 1526, Pacific Ocean) was a Basque Spanish explorer who completed the first circumnavigation of the world. As Ferdinand Magellan’s second in command, Elcano took over after Magellan’s death in the Philippines.