On August 20, 1915, Koldo Mitxelena (Luis Michelena) was born in Errenteria, Gipuzkoa. His work is still unquestionably the central reference point for anyone interested in all aspects of the Basque language and his intellectual influence survives down to this day. Yet his own personal story is not that of the archetypal ivory-towered academic; throughout his fascinating life he knew war, imprisonment, and repression first-hand.

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Reproduction of a portrait of Koldo Mitxelena (an oil painting by A. Valverde). By Juan San Martib, derivative work by Xabier Armendaritz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mitxelena was born into a humble artisan family in the small Gipuzkoan town on the cusp of experiencing a dramatic social, economic and demographic change with the coming of industrialization in the early twentieth century. The young Mitxelena was raised in a Basque-speaking and Basque nationalist household. As a child he was bedridden for three years due to a tumor in his leg, and this forced confinement sparked an early interest in reading. On leaving school, he joined in the family artisan work, while at the same time taking an active interest in both the flowering of Basque literary movements and Basque nationalist politics in the 1930s; but when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 he immediately volunteered to fight Franco’s military rebels.

He was subsequently captured and sentenced to death in 1937, although the sentence was overturned and commuted to a thirty-year prison sentence instead. In Burgos prison he met several incarcerated Spanish intellectuals, professors, and students, and this contact led him to coming across his true vocation for the study of language. He was eventually released in 1943. He returned to Errenteria at the age of twenty-seven and in poor health. He accepted the offer of an accounting job in Madrid, from where he began engaging in clandestine activities against the Franco dictatorship. Yet this resulted in his arrest once more in 1946, for which he served a two-year sentence and was released in 1948.

Now thirty-two years old, he enrolled as part-time student of humanities at the University of Madrid, living modestly and funding his studies as best he could in the circumstances. In 1949, moreover, he married Matilde Martínez de Ilarduya and they would go on to have two children. Mitxelena carried on with his studies through the 1950s at the University of Salamanca, teaching courses in Basque language and literature, and eventually achieving a doctorate in 1959 with a dissertation on the topic of Basque historical phonetics (a text that is still relevant to this day).

Thereafter Mitxelena, perhaps making up for lost time, embarked on a prodigious research and publishing academic career. He continued in Salamanca, although was prevented from applying for many positions because of his prison record, but through much lobbying on the part of friends and colleagues,  a chair of Indo-European Linguistics was eventually created for him in the late 1960s. During this time, as well as attracting a number of Basque students around him who would ultimately go on to lead the study of Basque langue and linguistics, he also gained more international renown, teaching at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris for example.

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Mitxelena, back row, far left, at the 1968 Arantzazu Congress. Photo by Juan San Martin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If that was all not enough, Mitxelena was one of the driving forces behind the move toward designing and implementing Euskara Batua, Unified or Standard Basque. He played a prominent role in the key Arantzazu Congress, held in 1968, which first set down the principles by which this unified version of the language–now the standard used in education, the media, and a variety of other fields–was first agreed on by Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language.

Following Franco’s death in 1975 and the restructuring of the Spanish university system, Mitxelena was asked to come back to the Basque Country in the late 1970s and help in the design and implementation of a Basque language program at the nascent University of the Basque Country. And there he continued to teach for a few more years until his retirement. Shortly afterward, he died in 1987.

Today there is a chair named in his honor at the University of Chicago and the main library and cultural center in Donostia bears the name Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea.

In the words of Pello Salaburu, who compiled the the work Koldo Mitxelena: Selected Writings of a Basque Scholar cited below:

Thanks to Koldo Mitxelena, to his total dedication and vast intellectual contributions, Basque language studies eventually took a giant step forward and moved into their rightful place as a professional field of academic research. Mitxelena’s proposals were also crucial for the development of euskara batua, or unified literary Basque, which was to become the much-needed standard for this ancient language. These two contributions—his rigorous analysis and intellectual authorship of the standardization of the language—were vital not only for our knowledge and understanding of Basque, but also for bringing it to the forefront in education and the mass media in the Basque Country today . . . The debt that Basque linguistics owes him is unpayable. It is not just the fact that he was able to turn Basque philology into a science. That would have been merit enough. But on top of that, Koldo Mitxelena was graced with tremendous common sense, and this is what made it possible, following his death, for the Basque language to prosper. Thanks to him, it had the minimum resources necessary to survive and flourish in a modern, changing society. Koldo Mitxelena showed us all the road to knowledge, erudition, and critical thinking.

Check out the Center’s publication of some of Mitxelena’s key texts in Koldo Mitxelena: Selected Writings of a Basque Scholar, with chapters on (among many other things), the history and antiquity of Basque, its contact with Romanization, and Basque literature as well as his thoughts on the structure, phonetics, and orthography of the language.

See, too, Pello Salaburu’s survey of the how Basque came to be standardized, a process in which Mitxelena was front and center, in Writing Words: The Unique Case of the Standardization of Basque.