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The Basque Language - A Languages Of The World Primer

Dec 29, 2007
Officially known as Euskara, very few modern languages have as much mystery surrounding their history or origins as Basque. With no known relations, Basque is known in linguistic circles as an "isolate". Early inscriptions indicate that the language pre-dated the Roman invasion.

Why Basque managed to survive while Iberian and Tartessian died out only adds to the mystery surrounding it. Luckily from Basque's perspective, Roman attention tended to be more on the Mediterranean coastline than on the Atlantic sea-board. Whilst this Roman neglect may indeed have played a role, the mountainous terrain certainly helped. Indeed, there are indications from place names that Basque was widely spoken along much of the Pyrenees but the encroaching Latin languages pushed it out of the less mountainous regions and towards what is now known as the Basque Country (straddling the French and Spanish borders).

This trend was stalled and even reversed for a while during the Reconquest of Spain when the Basques were invited, along with other northern peoples, to colonise areas conquered from the Arabs. It was, however, only when Basque nationalism adopted the language as a symbol of national identity that the language managed to stabilise.

That said, Franco's linguistic policy of Castilian first (known as Spanish outside Spain) meant that there was little place for Basque, which was widely repressed. It was only after Franco's death in 1975 and the coming of democracy that the language began to make a modest comeback, aided somewhat by active promotion by the local regional governments.

Related languages
Lack of proof as to its origins has not, however, prevented academics from speculating wildly and endlessly. The most popular theories are that it is connected to Iberian or to Caucasian languages (South Caucasian such as Georgian or alternatively North Caucasian such as Checan or Circasian). A most recent theory has even tied it to the Berber group of languages. How credible any of these claims are remains to be seen but it does demonstrate the scale of the challenge facing linguists. Much work is clearly needed in this field before any of these claims can be taken seriously.

Status today
Basque is currently spoken in the Basque regions of France and Spain and in Navarre in Spain. It does not, however, have any official status in France and French linguistic policy historically has done little to encourage the use of anything but French. The language is thus not widely used north of the border, being particularly absent from political and cultural life. South of the border, its co-official status in the Basque autonomous region and in northern parts of Nevarre means that it is heavily promoted and widely used.

Although the populations of Basque speaking regions total over 2.5 million, there are only around 700,000 actual native speakers with an additional 300,000 people claiming it as a second language. As a result of the backing and promotion of the Basque regional government and the fact that it is intertwined with the cause of independence from Spain, Basque is unlikely to disappear any time soon and the current status quo should continue for the foreseeable future.
About the Author
Stranslations offers professional language translation services in English, French, Spanish, German and other major European languages.
The original version of this article can found at www.stranslations.com.
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