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The Puzzling Basque Language

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Basque people live in a small area straddling the border between France and Spain in the West. Armenia is a former Soviet republic nestled between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Almost 4,000 kilometres separates the two locales yet their unique languages share some commonalities. Why?

Basque men wearing the traditional berets of their culture.

Basque men wearing the traditional berets of their culture.

Language Evolution

Most languages share common roots with other languages, but how language started in the first place baffles the experts. It’s said that language as we understand it first showed up among our homo sapiens ancestors between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago. That wide time gap suggests the lack of precision with which the spoken word evolution is understood.

Modern languages can be traced to several roots. English, for example, has its origins in Germanic tongues overlaid with French following the Norman Conquest of 1066. However, the German and French spoken a thousand years ago is unrecognizable today because languages evolve. Add to that, the fact that English borrows (steal is such an ugly word) words from Latin, Greek, and almost every other language spoken, and you’ve got a mish-mash sourced from scores of places.

But, English, German, French, Polish, Celtic, and all the other tongues of Europe are part of the Indo-European family of languages. The Ancient History Encyclopedia notes that “It is highly probable that the earliest speakers of this language (Indo-European) originally lived around Ukraine and neighbouring regions in the Caucasus and Southern Russia, then spread to most of the rest of Europe and later down into India.”

But, Basque cannot be traced to this source or any other. Its roots are so obscure as to be undetectable and, until recently, it has not been corrupted by the influence of other languages.

The Basque region.

The Basque region.

A Language Isolate

Basque country is surrounded by speakers of Romance languages, French and Spanish, yet Basque resembles the speech of neither of its neighbours. Linguists call this a “language isolate,” one that has no known relatives anywhere in the world.

Ethnologue, a world languages resource, lists 75 language isolates. Some are extinct or about to go extinct, and usually, those that are still surviving are in remote areas such as Papua-New Guinea or Amazonia.

Basque is the only language isolate in Europe.

Omniglot.com gives us an example of the written Basque language (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights):

“Gizon-emakume guztiak aske jaiotzen dira, duintasun eta eskubide berberak dituztela; eta ezaguera eta kontzientzia dutenez gero, elkarren artean senide legez jokatu beharra dute.”

And, here is a translation:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Theories About Basque’s Origins

Let’s dispense with one theory right off the top; the Basque language was not brought to Earth by aliens who, having planted it, left us the puzzle over where it came from.

There is no doubt that Basque culture is ancient. The area in which they live is mountainous, and topography of this sort tends to create isolation from other cultures.

Now, DNA is shedding some light on the origins of the Basques and their language, which they call Euskera. A team of scientists from Uppsala University, Sweden has analyzed the genomes of some human skeletons found in northern Spain that date back to as far as 5,500 years ago.

These people were farmers and their genomes have some similarities to modern-day Basques. It’s supposed they mixed with a pocket hunter/gatherer tribes that lived in the Pyrenees Mountains and had been in the area since the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.

An article from the BBC suggests that “After the initial farmer-hunter mixture was set, the ancestors of the Basques became isolated from surrounding groups - perhaps due to a combination of geography and culture.” Segregated from outside influence these people developed their own unique tongue.

But again, the experts can only offer speculation rather than a definitive story of how this strange language came to be.

Starting in 1959, the group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Eta) carried on a sometimes violent campaign for Basque independence. Eta abandonned its fight in 2017.

Starting in 1959, the group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Eta) carried on a sometimes violent campaign for Basque independence. Eta abandonned its fight in 2017.

Links to Armenian

Research by linguistic experts has rooted out similarities between Armenian and Basque. The word for separate is “zat” in Basque and “zati” in Armenian. “Char” means evil in both Basque and Armenian. Or, “zharaunsi” and “zharangel,” meaning to inherit.

The British linguist Edward Spencer Dodgson published a work in 1884 in which he listed 50 words that were identical to the two languages. Four decades later, the German language expert Joseph Karst published his research in which he had found 300 similarities in grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics between Basque and Armenian.

An expert on Basque culture, Bernardo Estornes Lasa, discovered folklore and legends in the village of Isaba about how their community was founded by Armenians.

But, the above is seen by experts as circumstantial and coincidental. The BBC’s Justin Calderon went on a search for enlightenment at the Royal Academy of the Basque Language in Bilbao, Spain. He reports that “… every scholar I spoke with officially rejected any link between Basques and peoples from the Caucasus (including Armenians or Georgians).”

So, the mystery remains; the origins of the Basque people and their language are as murky as before. One thing is certain; they didn’t come from outer space. Or did they?

Bonus Factoids

There are about 2.5 million Basques living in Spain, but only about 700,000 speak the Basque language. The age group with the highest percentage of Basque speakers is those aged 16 to 24. The modern version of the language, referred to as Batua, contains many Spanish and French words.

There are at least five dialects spoken among the Basques, some of which are unintelligible to other Basques.

During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, the Basque language was declared illegal.

Sources

  • “Ancient Genomes Link Early Farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to Modern-Day Basques.” Torsten Günther et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, September 8, 2015.
  • “Ancient DNA Cracks Puzzle of Basque Origins.” BBC, September 7, 2015.
  • “Did the Aliens Plant the Basque Language?” RWS.com (linguistics), November 15, 2012.
  • “Armenians and Basques – Similarities Between the Basque and Armenian Languages.”
  • Art-A-Tsolum, August 8, 2018.
  • “The Surprising Story of the Basque Language.” Justin Calderon, BBC Travel, June 4, 2019.
  • “Indo-European Languages.” Cristian Violatti, Ancient History Encyclopedia, May 5, 2014.
  • “Basque (Euskara).” Simon Ager, Omniglot.com, undated.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on July 10, 2019:

It is interesting to find out how languages develope and where they originate from. I had always assumed that the Basque language was a combination of French and Spanish.

Hari Prasad S from Bangalore on July 09, 2019:

Quite informative. Thanks.

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