During the closing act of the July 2015 San Fermin festival in Iruñea-Pamplona some sections of the crowd gathered to hear the traditional closing speech by the mayor, Joseba Asiron, jeered and booed him when he began speaking in Basque. To many observers, they appeared not to be booing the content of the speech, which was merely a generic institutional farewell to the festival in one of the two co-officially recognized languages in the Navarrese capital, but rather, in the absence of any other clear explanation, they seemed to be objecting to his use of the Basque language. For example, when Asiron switched to Spanish, the jeering stopped. To see a video of the incident, click here. (By way of an interesting contrast, see how the opening ceremony of the 2015 Baiona festival was celebrated heartily by the gathered public, in three languages, French, Basque, and Gascon, here).

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It is interesting to see, then, that, in 2015, speaking the Basque language can still provoke such passions. Why? What are the roots of this hostility? In his Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language, Juan Madariaga Orbea offers a fascinating historical trail of attitudes that seek to both extol and decry the Basque language (and Basque culture in general). “How is it,” asks Madariaga, “that the language of a small country, with few inhabitants and consequently few speakers, an inferior literature, and who were excluded from public administration and education, has had and continues to have so much presence and has aroused so much interest and passion, and provoked such constant commentary, either to praise or to ridicule it?”

The complex answer to this question is unraveled in his ambitious work, which includes extracts of original texts by 69 writers between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them translated into English for the first time, as well as references to well-known names such as Cervantes, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Victor Hugo. Anyone with an interest in the Basque language and culture, or more generally in how Self/Other constructs are defined and redefined through history, or how culture has for centuries been used as a political weapon, will find Madariaga’s study helpful and informative.

Related CBS Publications

Language Rights and Cultural Diversity, edited by Xabier Irujo and Viola Miglio.

Basque Sociolinguistics: Language, Society, and Culture, by Estibaliz Amorrortu.

The Dialects of Basque, by Koldo Zuazo.