Today, December 3, is the international day of Basque, Euskararen Nazioarteko Eguna, and I think the words of US poet, writer, and musician David Romtvedt, in a recent interview for EuskalKultura.com, are particularly appropriate: “Long ago, a friend told me I would never really understand a community until I learned a little bit of their language, the language of a smaller population group. Boy, was my friend right! I have been working away learning Basque and see how much more I’ve learned. Doors into places I never knew existed opened in front of me!”
David sums it up so well. Learning another language opens up new worlds and invites you in to new communities; it is about community and belonging much, much more than exclusion. As the wonderful Basque poet Kirmen Uribe says in “Hizkuntza bat” (A Language), one of the poems in his bilingual (Basque-English) compilation Meanwhile Take My Hand:
Hizkuntzak ez daki A language gets no word
egiaren ala gezurraren berri. of truth or falsehood.
Hori gizakion kontua da. That is the business of us humans.
Hizkuntza batek ez du hormarik eraikitzen, A language builds no walls,
kolorez pintatzen ditu. it paints them in colors.
Hizkuntzak ez du inor hiltzen, A language kills no one,
batu egiten gaitu. it brings us together.
baina, hori bai, hizkuntza bat, But one thing to know about a language,
hizkuntza bat hil egiten da. a language does die.
The renowned linguist Koldo Mitxelena famously said that the great mystery of Basque wasn’t its origin–something that, to be sure, has puzzled and intrigued many people for a long time–but rather how it had managed to survive down to the present day. And this is worth bearing in mind, I think. Basque has survived without any official protection or promotion (until relatively recently), without a modern nation-state to defend it, and surrounded by two much bigger and more influential languages and cultures: French and Spanish. So I think, as Mitxelena noted, the fact that Basque has indeed survived is the truly remarkable feature of the language today.
And anyone, in however small a way, who takes some time out to study it and maybe even use a few words and phrases now and again is contributing to this survival.
For a summary of all the events being held today to celebrate Basque, click here.
The CBS has published a number of books on the Basque language. One of its latest publications, Pello Salaburu’s Writing Words: The Unique Case of the Standardization of Basque, charts how a standard form of the language was developed and implemented and accepted by Basque society as a whole. This work is complemented by Koldo Zuazo’s The Dialects of Basque, which examines the rich variety that still exists in the language.
For two classic studies about the history of Basque, see Koldo Mitxelena: Selected Writings of a Basque Scholar, compiled and with and introduction by Pello Salaburu, and another of our latest publications, Mythology and Ideology of the Basque Language, by Antonio Tovar.
Meanwhile, Basque Sociolinguistics: Language, Society, and Culture (available free to download here), by Estibaliz Amorrortu, and The Challenges of a Bilingual Society in the Basque Country, edited by Pello Salaburu and Xabier Alberdi, examine social and cultural aspects of the language.
And for surveys of the obstacles Basque has faced in its struggle to survive, check out the Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language by Juan Madariaga Orbea and Language Rights and Cultural Diversity, edited by Xabier Irujo and Viola Miglio.