Basque language

Basque language
Language spoken by an estimated 1,000,000 Basque people living in the Basque Country of north-central Spain and southwestern France.

About 200,000 Basques live in other parts of the world. The only remnant of the languages spoken in western Europe before incursions by Indo-European-speaking peoples, Basque has no known linguistic relatives; linguists call it a language isolate. Its grammar is markedly distinct from that of all other western European languages. Basque is sparsely attested before the 16th century, when the first book in the language was printed (1545), though it has maintained a continuous literary tradition since then.

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      language isolate, the only remnant of the languages spoken in southwestern Europe before the region was Romanized. The Basque language is currently used in a narrow area of approximately 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 square miles) in Spain and France. The number of Basque-speaking persons outside that territory, in Europe and in the Americas, however, is far from insignificant. In Spain the Basque-speaking region comprises the province of Guipúzcoa, parts of Vizcaya and Navarra, and a corner of Álava, and in France the western region of the département of Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Although few statistics are available, the number of speakers, who are largely bilingual, might be judiciously estimated at 1,000,000. Most of them live in the highly industrialized Spanish part of the Basque country. The Basques have derived their name, Euskaldunak, from Euskara, the native word for their language. According to the classification of the 19th-century philologist Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte (Bonaparte, Louis-Lucien), there are eight modern dialects of Basque. Dialectal division is not strong enough to mask the common origin or to preclude mutual understanding. Basque attained official status for a short period (1936–37) during the Spanish Civil War, under Basque autonomous government. In 1978, Basque and Castilian Spanish became the official languages of the autonomous Basque Country, which includes Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, and Álava provinces of Spain.

Origins and classification
      Basque remains an isolated language with no known linguistic relatives. The hypothesis of the German philologist Hugo Schuchardt (1842–1927), which once had wide currency, posited an intimate genetic connection between Basque and Iberian (see below) and the Hamito-Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) language group. This theory was superseded by attempts to establish a more or less close link between Basque and Caucasian (Caucasian languages), the language group indigenous to the Caucasus region. A lack of common linguistic characteristics between the Basque and Hamito-Semitic languages makes Schuchardt's hypothesis extremely dubious. There are, however, some common features that favour the relationship between Basque and Caucasian. Still, proof of a genetic relationship beyond reasonable doubt appears remote. Perhaps the most promising theory involves the comparison of Basque with the long-extinct Iberian, the language of the ancient inscriptions of eastern Spain and of the Mediterranean coast of France. But, despite amazing phonological coincidences, Basque has so far contributed next to nothing to the understanding of the now-readable Iberian texts. Therefore, it is possible that the similarity may have resulted from close contact between Basques and Iberians and not from a genetic linguistic relationship.

History of the language
      At the beginning of the Christian Era, dialects of Euskarian (Basque) stock were probably spoken north and south of the Pyrenees and as far east as the Valle de Arán in northeastern Spain. It is likely that only the disruption of Roman administration in these regions saved the Basque dialects from being completely overcome by Latin. It is also likely that the Basque tongue, which had a firm foothold in the country that then began to be called Vasconia, experienced a substantial expansion toward the southwest, which carried it to the Rioja Alta (High Rioja) region in Old Castile and near Burgos. The more eastern Basque dialects, separated from the main area by Romance-speaking populations, were doomed. During the Middle Ages, Basque, the language of a population more peasant than urban, could not possibly hold the field as a written language against Latin and its successors, Navarrese Romance and, to a certain extent, Occitan (the langue d'Oc, also called Provençal) in the kingdom of Navarre. Since the 10th century, Basque has slowly but steadily lost ground to Castilian Spanish; in the north, however, where French is a more modern rival, the Basque-speaking area is practically the same as it was in the 16th century. In the last two centuries, above all in industrial centres, Basque has had to fight for survival in the heart of the Basque-speaking country, as well as on the frontier of the Basque-speaking area.

      Latin inscriptions from the Roman period, found mostly in southwestern France, record a handful of proper names of unmistakable Basque etymology. From AD 1000 on, records consisting chiefly of proper names but also of Basque phrases and sentences grew more numerous and reliable. The first printed Basque book, dating from 1545, began an uninterrupted written tradition. Scholarly Basque literature, with its prevailing religious interests, has been neither abundant nor varied until recent times. Intense efforts are now being made to introduce Basque as a vehicle of private primary education. In addition, a model of a unified, standard written language also seems to be gaining increasing acceptance.

      The sound pattern of Basque is, on the whole, similar to that of Spanish. The number of distinctive sounds is relatively low compared with other languages. Combinations of sound (e.g., consonant clusters) are subject to severe constraints. It can confidently be asserted that certain types of consonant clusters, such as tr, pl, dr, and bl, were all but unknown about two millennia ago. The common sound system underlying the systems of the present Basque dialects has five (pure) vowels and two series of stopped consonants—one voiced (without complete stoppage in many contexts), represented by b, d, g, and the other voiceless, represented by p, t, k. Nasal sounds include m, n, and palatal ñ, similar to the sound indicated by ny in “canyon.” In this respect, as in others, Basque orthography coincides with the Spanish norm. There are two varieties of l, the common lateral l and a palatal variety, ll, as in Spanish, that sounds similar to the lli in “million” (as l + y). The Basque r, made by a single tap of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, contrasts with a rolled or trilled r, written rr. Two phonological features are worthy of special attention. Sibilants (sibilant) (both fricatives and affricates) made with the area of the tongue directly before the dorsum (the back of the tongue) are distinct from the apical sibilants, produced with the tip of the tongue. The letter z in Basque symbolizes the predorsal fricative, and tz, the predorsal affricate sound; s and ts represent the apical fricative (similar to Castillian Spanish s) and affricate, respectively. (A fricative is a sound, such as English f or s, produced with friction and, hence, without complete stoppage in the vocal tract; an affricate is a sound, such as ch in “church” or j in “jam,” that begins as a stop and ends as a fricative, with incomplete stoppage.) In addition to these hissing sibilants, Basque also includes the hushing ones, written as x and tx; they are like the English sh and ch. The x and tx sounds, along with the palatal sounds written as ll and ñ, often have an expressive value (diminutive, endearing) in comparison with their nonpalatal counterparts; e.g., hezur means “bone” and hexur “little bone” (fish bone, for example); sagu is “mouse” and xagu “little mouse.”

      The phonology of some Basque dialects may be more complex than that presented in the preceding paragraph. In the easternmost Souletin region, for example, the dialect has acquired, by internal development or by contact with other languages, a sixth oral vowel—rounded e or i—and nasal vowels, voiced sibilants, and voiceless aspirated stops. The aspiration accompanying stop consonants consists of a small puff of air. There is also, word-initially and between vowels, an aspirated h, once common but now peculiar to the northern dialects. It has also been retained in the proposed standard form of Basque.

      The mention of two features is unavoidable in describing Basque syntax. Basque is, in the first place, a language of the so-called ergative type. That is, it has a case denoting the agent of an action. Hence, what in English would stand for the subject of a transitive verb is expressed in Basque by means of a suffix -k; for example, in the sentence “the foot serves the hand, and the hand serves the foot,” oinak zerbitzatzen du eskua, eta eskuak oina, the first word, meaning “the foot,” is composed of three elements, oin “foot,” -a, “the,” and -k, which marks the Basque equivalent of the subject of the verb. The fourth word, meaning “the hand,” does not have the -k ending. In the second clause, eta eskuak oina, the word for hand, eskuak, now has the ergative -k ending to indicate that the hand is the agent of the clause “the hand serves the foot.” The subject of an intransitive verb, which is not distinguished from the object of a transitive verb, has no overt mark—e.g., in “if the belly does not eat, the belly itself will fail,” sabelak jaten ez ba du, sabela bera ihartuko da, the first term, sabelak “the belly,” has the -k marker because it is the agent of a transitive verb “eat”; but, in the second clause, sabela is the subject of the intransitive verb “fail” and, therefore, has no overt grammatical mark.

      The second characteristic feature of Basque concerns the finite verb, which acts as a summary of all the noun phrases in the sentence. It has markers for all three persons—the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd—and may contain as many as three personal references (for subject, direct object, and indirect object). Da, for example, means “is,” du means “he has it,” and dio means “he has it for him” in the sentence oinari ez dio eskuak kolperik emaiten “the hand does not give a blow [kolpe] to the foot [oin-a-ri].” In certain situations the interlocutor also can be referred to within the verb. Further, most Basque verbs have only a compound conjugation—e.g., erori da “he has fallen,” literally, “he is fallen,” and jaten du “he eats [is eating] it.”

      Although some ancient prefixes are still apparent in modern Basque, they are no longer productive, so that Basque can be characterized as an overall suffixing language; that is, it appends suffixes to words. There is one declension with suffixes or postpositions to indicate number and case—e.g., etxe-a “the house,” but etxe berri-a “the new house,” and etxe berri-a-ri “to [for] the new house.” Suffixes, under certain restrictions, may be heaped upon one another. Theoretically, genitival endings indicating possession may be added to one another without limit. This is similar to the case in English of “the button of the coat of the son of the Major of York”; in Basque, however, the phrase “of the” is indicated by an ending, -(r)en, added to the noun. Noun suffixes also can be attached to verb forms in order to express subordination of the clauses in which the verb forms appear—e.g., da “is,” den “which is,” dena “that (-a) which is,” denean “when there is,” literally, “in that which is.” Prefixes also are used for that purpose; e.g., ez du jaten “he does not eat” with the particle ba “if” becomes “if [the belly] does not eat,” jaten ez ba du.

      Basque has preserved a peculiar and distinctive appearance, despite the overwhelming pressure to which it has been subjected over a period of at least 2,000 years. Nevertheless, its borrowings from the neighbouring languages, especially of words and idioms, can hardly be underrated. Loanwords from the Romance languages are numerous. Some of them bear the unmistakable stamp of their archaic Latin (Latin language) ancestry—e.g., bake “peace” from Latin pax, pacis, bike “pitch” from Latin pix, picis, and errege “king” from Latin rex, regis. Contrary to a widely held opinion, Indo-European loanwords of non-Latin origin are extremely scarce. derivation, the formation of new words by the use of suffixes, is accomplished partly through the use of borrowed suffixes. This practice, as well as the compounding of nouns to form new words, as in bizkar-hezur “backbone,” has been very much alive throughout the history of the language. On the other hand, Basque itself has contributed but little vocabulary to the Spanish, Occitan, French, and English languages. But family and place names of Basque coinage are frequently encountered in Spain and in Latin America, where they can be found in such proper names as Aramburu, Bolívar, Echeverría, and Guevara.

Luis Michelena

Additional Reading
Rene Lafon, “La lengua vasca,” Enciclopedia lingüística hispánica, vol. 1 (1960), perhaps the best short introduction to Basque, both descriptive and historical; Hugo Schuchardt, Primitiae linguae Vasconum, 2nd ed. (1968), detailed commentary of an Old Basque text; P. Lafitte, Grammaire basque, 2nd ed. (1962), a standard normative grammar; J. Coromines, Estudis de toponímia catalana, 2 vol. (1965–70), presents new data on the survival of Basque dialects in the Middle Ages; J.M. Lacarra, Vasconia medieval (1957), authoritative review by an historian of the linguistic situation in and around the Basque country; Luis Michelena, Fonética histórica vasca (1961), essay on the reconstruction of the phonological system of Proto-Basque; Luis Michelena (ed.), Textos arcaicos vascos (1964), an annotated collection of documents from antiquity to 1700; Rene Lafon, Le Système du verbe basque au XVIe siècle, 2 vol. (1943), the best account of form and function of the Basque verb; A. Tovar, La lengua vasca, 2nd ed. (1954; abridged Eng. trans., The Basque Language, 1957), and The Ancient Languages of Spain and Portugal (1961), a discussion of the problem of the position of Basque among these now-extinct languages.Luis Michelena

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Universalium. 2010.

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