On October 10, 1799 the renowned Prussian philosopher, linguist, and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) set foot in the Basque Country for the first time. It was the beginning of an association with the Basque people, their land, their culture, and especially their language, which would demarcate much of his later thought on the relationship between language, culture, and identity.
Humboldt is a key figure in the academic study of language, in which he was among the first linguists to contend that languages are systems governed by specific rules, and is considered a forerunner of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (namely, that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview). These ideas fitted in with his own thoughts on the nascent discipline of anthropology, which for him could only be understood in comparative terms. What’s more, in his later capacity as an educational administrator, he also devised a holistic concept of education that sought to ground students in both the sciences and the arts through a comprehensive general education: a system that survives to this day in many aspects of Western education.
In the introduction to Humboldt’s Selected Basque Writings, Iñaki Zabaleta Gorrotxategi describes this first encounter between Humboldt and the Basques:
Humboldt’s first visit to the Basque Country lasted no more than one week: specifically, from October 10–18, 1799. This short stay was part of a longer “Spanish tour” that he took with his entire family, and that lasted more than seven months. It should be borne in mind that, by that time, the fundamental principles of his comparative anthropology had already been formulated, and that this is what led him to give tangible expression to his project by means of an extended trip through southern Europe. Humboldt’s initial plan was to visit Italy, but a variety of circumstances led him to design a new tour that mainly involved travel within Spain. It is important to note that Humboldt’s encounter with the Basques during this first trip was by no means accidental or undertaken as a result of some perceived external obligation. Instead, the visit had been carefully planned and eagerly anticipated by Humboldt. In fact, as part of his meticulous preparations for this trip in Paris, Humboldt developed a specific interest in the Basques, and especially in their language. This interest is reflected in a letter that he wrote to Schiller on April 26, 1799: “At the very least, one can safely say that it is the only country in Europe that has a genuinely original tongue. . . . And the grammar of this language is of supreme interest.” Some six months later, Humboldt set foot in the Basque Country for the first time and, despite the brevity of his visit, the land, and its people and their language, made a deep impression upon him. But the most important impact of his trip was that it led to Humboldt’s appreciation of the link between “human beings” and “human language” (that is, between nations and their respective languages) and to the beginnings of a reorientation of his anthropological research toward linguistic matters. On December 20, 1799, Humboldt wrote to the philologist Friedrich August Wolf from Madrid: “I think that, in the future, I am going to devote my energies even more exclusively to the study of language.”
Humboldt’s Basque experiences are documented in detail in his highly evocative Selected Basque Writings: The Basques and Announcement of a Publication. If you are interested in Basque history and culture, do check out this book. Humboldt’s fine eye for detail, coupled with a lively writing style, makes this work a wonderfully stimulating account of not just Basque culture a s whole, but also many individual Basques, on the cusp of a social transformation into the modern era: it is, arguably, one of the most important documentary accounts of Basques.