FAQs About Basque and
by Larry Trask
Q1. Where is Basque spoken?
At the western end of the
, along the coast of the
Bay of Biscay
. The Basque-speaking region runs from the city of Bayonne in France west
to the city of Bilbao in Spain, a distance of about 100 miles (160
kilometers); it extends inland about 30 miles (50 kilometers), not quite
reaching the city of Pamplona.
Q2. Was Basque formerly spoken in a
Yes, certainly. In the Middle Ages it was spoken throughout the entire
territory of the Basque Country, the region which is historically,
ethnically, and culturally Basque. This includes the four Spanish
provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Alava, and Navarra, as well as the three
former French provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule (now
officially obliterated and incorporated into the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantique).
In the early Middle Ages Basque was also spoken in the Spanish province of
Burgos and in adjoining parts of the Rioja, and it was spoken in the
Pyrenees as far east as the valley of Arán, in territory which is
Catalan-speaking today. In Roman times the language was spoken throughout
), as far north as the
Q3. How many people speak Basque?
About 660,000, according to the 1991 census. Fewer than 80,000 of these
are on the French side of the frontier which runs through the Basque
Country, the rest on the Spanish side.
Q4. Where does Basque come from?
It doesn't really "come from" anywhere -- it's just been there
for a very long time.
has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, but for most of that
time writing was unknown and hence we have no records of the languages
spoken. In the second half of the first millennium BC, writing was
introduced into southern and eastern
by the Phoenicians and the Greeks, but it didn't reach the ancestral
Basques farther north. It was only the Roman conquest of
in the first century BC that brought writing to the Basques, and only from
that time do we have any written records of the Basques.
Like the Celtic and Germanic languages, the
Latin language of the Romans was an Indo-European language, descended from
an ancestral language originally spoken far to the east. As these
Indo-European languages spread slowly westward across
, they gradually displaced most of the earlier languages, which died out.
By the time the Romans arrived, an ancestral form of Basque, which we call
Aquitanian, was the only pre-Indo-European language still surviving
. The position in
was much more complicated, with several pre-Indo-European languages still
spoken, including Aquitanian and the famous Iberian, but all these
others were soon displaced by Latin. Uniquely among the pre-Indo-European
languages of western Europe, Basque has refused to die out and has
survived down to the present day, though, as Q2 makes clear, the language
has been gradually losing territory for a long time.
So: the ancestral form of Basque was
introduced into western Europe long, long ago -- at least thousands of
years ago, and maybe even tens of thousands of years ago. Nobody knows.
All the other modern languages of western Europe arrived much later.
Q5. Is Basque the oldest language in
The question is meaningless. Except for creoles, which arise from pidgins
and are a special case, all languages are equally "old",
in that all descend in an unbroken line from the earliest human speech.
What we can say about Basque is that its ancestor was spoken in
western Europe before (possibly long before) the ancestors of all the
other modern western European languages arrived there. That is, Spanish,
French, English, Irish, and all the others are descended from languages
which were introduced into western Europe (from farther east) at a time
when the ancestor of Basque was already there.
Q6. Is Basque related to any other
No. The ancient Aquitanian language was, of course, an ancestral form of
Basque, as we can easily see by examining the personal names and divine
names of the Aquitanian-speakers, which are all that is recorded of
Aquitanian. But the most strenuous efforts at finding other relatives for
Basque have been complete failures: obviously the relatives that Basque
once had have died out without trace. People have tried to connect Basque
with Berber, Egyptian, and other African languages, with Iberian, Pictish,
Etruscan, Minoan, Sumerian, the Finno-Ugric languages, the Caucasian
languages, the Semitic languages, with Burushaski (another language with
no known relatives, spoken in the Himalayas) -- in fact, with almost all
the languages of Africa and Asia, living and dead, and even with languages
of the Pacific and of North America. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Basque
absolutely cannot be shown to be related to any other language at all.
Some people will try to tell you differently, but, not to mince words,
they don't know what they're talking about, and the great majority of them
don't even know anything about Basque.
Q7. Has Basque influenced the
Very little. Perhaps the chief reason Basque has survived is that the
Romans had very little interest in the Basque Country and they largely
left the Basques alone. As a result, the region was not romanized until
very late. By the same token, Basque had little influence on the
neighboring languages -- though Basque itself has borrowed thousands of
words from Latin and its Romance descendants like Gascon and Castilian. In
the Middle Ages, though, when the
was powerful, a number of Basque words were borrowed into local varieties
of Spanish, including Castilian, but very few of these have survived. One
which has survived is Castilian izquierdo `left (hand)', which is
borrowed from the synonymous Basque ezker, or more precisely from
an unrecorded Basque derivative *ezkerdo.
It has often been suggested that Castilian
Spanish originated as a form of Latin spoken by Basques, but the evidence
for this idea does not stand up. See Chapter 6 of my book The History
of Basque, which explains all this in great detail.
Q8. Is Basque exceedingly difficult to
Not at all. Today thousands of people speak Basque as a second language;
among these are native speakers of Spanish, French, English, Dutch,
German, Japanese, and other languages. In fact, Basque is a rather easy
language to pick up, while mastering it is no more difficult than
mastering any other language. The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is
regular, there is no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or
verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly any irregular
Q9. Is it true that all the verbs in
Basque are passive?
No, this is nonsense. This crazy idea arose in the 19th century among
European linguists who were looking at Basque for the first time. Basque
has what we now call ergative morphology, which means that subjects
and objects of sentences are marked in a somewhat different way from the
way they are marked in most other European languages. (This is explained
on the page containing a brief description of Basque.) Those linguists had
never seen an ergative language before (though there are hundreds of them
on other parts of the planet), and they were trying desperately to make
Basque look more like the languages they were familiar with. As a result,
they came up with this "passive" theory of Basque, which we now
know to be ridiculously wrong.
Q10. Is it true that Basque lacks words
for abstractions or for modern technology?
Certainly not. Like other languages, Basque has plenty of words for
abstract concepts of all kinds, and it has word-forming devices for
creating new abstract words at will. Until recently, Basque did indeed
lack a vocabulary for talking about things like physics, engineering, and
linguistics, simply because nobody had ever wanted to talk about these
things in Basque. Today people do want to talk about these things
in Basque, and so thousands of new words have been introduced into the
language to make this possible. Modern Basque can be used to speak or
write about anything at all. I myself have written technical articles on
linguistics in Basque; at least one doctoral thesis on medical science has
been written in Basque; I recently saw an article in Basque in an
international scholarly journal of chemistry.
Q11. Is Basque an official language
Yes. In 1979 the three Spanish Basque Provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa,
and Alava were united under the Basque Autonomous Government, and Basque
is co-official with Spanish within this territory: it is used for
government documents and publications, and knowledge of it is required for
certain jobs. For complex historical reasons, the fourth Basque province
in the south, Navarra, declined to join the Autonomous Region, but today
Navarra constitutes its own autonomous region, and Basque has a measure of
official standing within its borders. Basque has no official standing in
the French Basque Country: like the other regional languages of
, it has been victimized for centuries by the French language laws, which
are deeply hostile to languages other than French.
Q12. Is Basque gaining or losing ground
This is a complicated question. On the one hand, the number of
Basque-speakers has actually increased significantly within the last
generation, and there are now, for perhaps the first time in the history
of Basque, thousands of people who speak it as a second language. And in
many ways the circumstances of the language are better than ever before:
the Basque Government promotes the teaching and use of Basque, the
language is required for certain jobs, and there is a great deal of
education, publishing, and broadcasting in Basque, including a daily
newspaper, a television station, and a number of radio stations. On the
other hand, Basque faces the same enormous pressures as all other minority
languages: knowledge of the national language (Spanish or French) is
absolutely required, and the great bulk of education, publishing, and
broadcasting are in the national language. Even the most remote Basque
farmhouse is bombarded with radio and TV broadcasts in the national
language, and its inhabitants must still conduct much of their daily
business in that language. Especially in the Spanish Basque Country, a
further difficulty is the presence of a huge number of Spanish-speaking
immigrants who came to find work; these immigrants rarely learn Basque and
deeply resent efforts to make Basque the primary medium in such spheres as
local politics and primary education.
Q13. What literature exists in Basque?
Some songs and poems which were composed in the Middle Ages were later
written down and survive today. But publication in Basque only began in
1545, with a collection of poems written by the French Basque Bernard
Etxepare (whose surname can be spelled in about six other ways).
Publication in Basque has been continuous since the late 16th century,
though most of the early works were religious in nature. From the early
19th century we find a steadily increasing number of plays, poems, and
novels, and today Basque literature is flourishing. Recently Bernardo
Atxaga's prize-winning novel Obabakoak became the first Basque
novel ever to be translated into English, to general acclaim.
Q14. What does written Basque look like?
Here's a sample, taken from the magazine Argia. For an explanation
of the first part of this, see my sketch of the language on another page.
Eusko Jaurlaritzako Hezkuntza Sailak aste
honetan aurkeztuko duen eskola mapari buruz hainbat kezka zabaldu da. Sare
publiko ordezkariei ez zaiela inolako informaziorik eman haizatu du EILAS
sindikatuak. ARGIAk jakin duenez, sare pribatuan geratu diren ikastolek
osatu duten Partaide kooperatibak eta Eneko Oregik berriki izandako bilera
modu txarrean amaitu zen. Eskola Maparen barruan diseinatu beharreko
banaketaren gainean ez zaiela inolako zehaztasunik eskaini leporatzen
diote Hezkuntza Sailari. Bestalde, sare publikoaren aldeko hautua egin zuten ikastolen artean ere,
arazo bera bizi dela jakin dugu.
Q15. How can I learn Basque?
There are lots of courses available in the Basque Country, if you can get
there. In the
offers instruction in the language; you can find a link to their home page
from my main Basque page. There are two good textbooks of Basque in
Alan King (1994), The Basque Language,
Alan King and Begotxu Olaizola Elordi
(1996), Colloquial Basque,
The first is much larger and contains more
grammar; it is also more expensive. The second is briefer, but it comes
with a pair of cassettes for practicing pronunciation.
Q16. How do the Basques refer to
themselves, their country, and their language?
The Basques call their language euskara (dialect variants euskera
and eskuara). The word euskaldun (literally, `one who has
Basque') means `Basque-speaker'; the plural is euskaldunak, and
this is what the Basques commonly call themselves. Where necessary, a
native speaker is euskaldun zahar (literally, `old Basque'), while
a person who has learned Basque as a second language is euskaldun berri
(`new Basque'). The neologism euskotar means `(ethnic) Basque', and
can be applied to any Basque, whether or not he speaks the language; the
word basko, borrowed from Spanish, has also been used in this
sense. The Basques have traditionally called their country Euskal
Herria, which means `the Basque Country'; this designation includes
the territory of the traditional seven provinces, north and south. The
neologism Euskadi means `the Basque state'; this is the name of the
territory administered by the Basque Autonomous Government, but it is
sometimes applied more widely to the entire Basque Country as a
demonstration of political feeling.
Q17. Are the Basques genetically
different from other Europeans?
Apparently, yes. It has long been known that the Basques have the highest
proportion of rhesus-negative blood in
(25%), and one of the highest percentages of type-O blood (55%). Recently,
however, the geneticist Luiga Luca Cavalli-Sforza has completed a gene map
of the peoples of
, and he finds the Basques to be strikingly different from their
neighbors. The genetic boundary between Basques and non-Basques is very
sharp on the Spanish side. On the French side, the boundary is more
diffuse: it shades off gradually toward the
in the north. These findings are entirely in agreement with what we know
of the history of the language.
Q18. Does this mean the Basques are
directly descended from the earliest known human inhabitants of
, the Cro-Magnon people who occupied western Europe around 35,000 years
Nobody knows. This is possible, but we have no real evidence either way.
The only evidence we have is negative: the archeologists can find no
evidence for any sudden change in population in the area for thousands of
years before the arrival of the Celts and later the Romans in the first
Q19. Are there any famous Basques?
A fair number. Here are some: the explorer Elkano (who completed the first
circumnavigation of the globe after Magellan was killed in the
Philippines), the philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno, the novelists
Pío Baroja, Robert Laxalt and Bernardo Atxaga, the composers J. C.
Arriaga (who died very young), Jesús Guridi and Maurice Ravel (whose
mother was Basque), the violinist Pablo Sarasate, the sculptor Eduardo
Txillida, the cyclist Miguel Indurain, the golfer José María Olazabal,
the tennis-players Jean Borotra and Nathalie Tauziat, the politician
Dolores Ibarruri, the historian Esteban de Garibay, the religious leaders
Ignatius of Loyola (who founded the Jesuits) and Valentín Berriochoa, the
general Tomás Zumalacárregui, all the kings of the medieval Kingdom of
Navarre, and any number of Spanish soccer-players and French
rugby-players. Of course, there are many other people of Basque descent
who were not born in the Basque Country, such as the Spanish writer
Madariaga and the Frenchman Louis Daguerre (who invented photography).
Q20. Why has there been all this trouble
in the Basque Country?
That's a long story. Throughout the Middle Ages, the
, north and south, were largely self-governing, and they had a vigorous
tradition of local democracy. Over time, of course, Basque autonomy came
under increasing pressure from
. In the north, Basque rights were abruptly swept away by the French
Revolution. In the south, autonomy lasted longer, but in the 19th century
it came under attack from centralist governments in
, leading to major civil wars on two occasions and to the enforced removal
of the traditional Basque rights.
From the late 19th century, the Spanish
Basques, fearing for their language and their culture, began pressing for
reforms and for greater autonomy. This strictly peaceful campaign was
interrupted by the installation of a right-wing dictatorship in
in the 1930s, but regained its momentum after the restoration of
democracy. But then a military coup in 1936 led to the Spanish Civil War
and to the establishment of a brutal Fascist dictatorship in
under General Franco. The Basques, who had fought against the Fascists
during the war, suffered terribly during the war and under the subsequent
Fascist oppression: quite apart from the death and destruction caused by
the war itself (including the deliberate destruction of two Basque cities
by Hitler's air force), the Basques found themselves singled out for
particular vengeance by Franco. Basque soldiers and politicians who had
not managed to flee into exile were imprisoned, condemned to forced labor,
tortured, and often shot; all outward signs of Basque identity were
prohibited, and the very speaking of Basque was declared illegal.
Permitted no legal voice, the Basques
gradually began to organize clandestinely to discuss what might be done. A
student discussion group founded in 1953 and originally called EKIN
changed its name in 1959 to ETA and began to contemplate more active
resistance. At first ETA was in no way violent, but every attempt at a
political gesture was met by savagery from the Spanish police and courts:
arbitrary arrests, routine beatings and torture, and long jail sentences.
Eventually ETA took the plunge into violence of its own and began
assassinating known torturers and murderers among the Spanish authorities.
The police reacted with ever greater violence of their own: uniformed
police tortured and murdered Basques with complete impunity, death squads
composed of off-duty policemen carried out further murders, and there were
armed attacks on whole communities described by foreign observers as
Faced with such violence, ETA gradually
became ever less choosy in its targets, and began gunning for any police
or soldiers they could get at. In a technically expert operation which
would prove to have far-reaching consequences, ETA managed to assassinate
Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the anointed heir of the aging Franco. As a
result, when Franco finally died in 1975, a democratic government took
; elections were held, and the Basque Autonomous Government was set up in
1979, with wide-ranging powers.
This outcome satisfied most people in the
Basque Country, and most of the members of ETA quietly left the
organization to resume normal lives. But a modest number of hard-core
members remained, and continued a program of increasing violence all over
, in the hope of obtaining complete independence for the Basque Country.
Army officers became favorite targets, and bombs were placed in popular
tourist resorts with the intention of damaging the valuable tourist
industry; even the new Basque police force came under attack. The new
governments in both
and the Basque Country made vigorous efforts to put a stop to this
violence, but so far they have enjoyed only partial success. And that's
where things stand today.
Q21. Are there any Basque words in
Not many, but there are one or two. One is silhouette, which has a
very interesting history. The English word is taken from French, in which
it derives from the surname of a certain Etienne de Silhouette, a French
politician of the 18th century. This is a French spelling of the Basque
surname Zilhueta, a French Basque variant of the surname Zulueta
or Zuloeta; this in turn derives from zulo `hole' (zilo
in part of the north) plus the very frequent suffix -eta `abundance
of'. This surname was doubtless given originally to someone who lived
where there were many holes in the ground, or perhaps more likely caves.
In Shakespeare's day, there was an English word bilbo for a sword
of outstanding quality; this derives from the name of the Basque city of
(Bilbo in Basque), since the Basque Country was known at the time
for its excellent iron and steel goods. The American English word chaparral
derives via Spanish from Basque txaparra `scrub'. But the idea that
English By jingo! derives from Basque Jinko `God' is
original url of this page
23 August 1996
Copyright © 1996
Note: I publish as "R. L. Trask".
A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology,
Towards a History of the Basque Language,
John Benjamins, 1995 [co-edited with J. I. Hualde and J. Lakarra]
Language: The Basics,
A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in
Linguistics, Routledge, 1993
A Textbook of SyntaxUniversity
Cognitive Science Research Report 204, 1991
Books in Press
Edward Arnold, to appear September 1996
The History of Basque,
Routledge, to appear October 1996
The Penguin Guide to Punctuation,
Penguin, to appear January 1997
Student's Dictionary of Language and
Linguistics, Edward Arnold, to
appear spring 1997
Books in Preparation
Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics,
A Dictionary of Historical and
The Beginning of Language: The Origin,
Evolution and Spread of Human Language,
The Basque Language Today,
Routledge [part of a series edited by me]
Student's Guide to Grammar,
Committee for Linguistics in Education
`Origin and relatives of the Basque
language: review of the evidence', in J. I. Hualde, J. Lakarra and R. L.
Trask (eds), Towards a History of the Basque Language, John
Benjamins, pp. 65-99, 1995
`On the history of the non-finite
verb-forms in Basque', in the same volume, pp. 207-234, 1995
`Basque and Dene-Caucasian: A critique from
the Basque side', Mother Tongue 1 (new series): 3-82, accompanied
by comments from twelve discussants (pp. 83-171) and a response by me (pp.
`Basque: The search for relatives', part I,
Dhumbadji! 2(1): 3-54, 1994-95; part II 2(2): 3-18, 1995
`Basque', in J. E. Asher (ed.), The
Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, vol. 1, pp. 313-314,
`The -n class of verbs in Basque', Transactions
of the Philological Society 88: 111-128, 1990
`Why the Basque transitive verb is not
passive', University of Sussex Cognitive Science Research Report 137, 1989
"vascorramánico', Verba: Anuario Galego de Filoloxía 15:
361-373, 1988 [with R. Wright]
`Accusativity in Basque: reply to Bossong',
Linguistics 25: 395-401, 1987 [with J. Abaitua]
`On the reconstruction of pre-Basque
phonology', in J. L. Melena (ed.), Symbolae Ludovico Mitxelena
Septuagenario Oblatae, vol. 2, pp. 885-891, 1985
`The Basque passive: a correct
description', Linguistics 23: 985-991, 1985
`-Ko atzizkia euskaraz' [`The suffix
-ko in Basque'], Euskera 30: 165-173, 1985
Euskal izen sintagmaren egituraz' [`On the
structure of the noun phrase in Basque'], in [no editor] Iker-2:
Piarres Lafitte-ri Omenaldia,
: Euskaltzaindia, pp. 599-611, 1983
`Basque verbal morphology', in [no editor] Iker-1:
Euskalarien Nazioarteko Jardunaldiak,
: Euskaltzaindia, pp. 285-304, 1981
`On the origins of ergativity', in F. Plank
(ed.), Ergativity: Towards a Theory of Grammatical Relations,
Academic Press, pp. 385-404, 1979
`Historical syntax and Basque verbal
morphology: two hypotheses', in W. A. Douglass, R. W. Etulain and W. H.
Jacobsen (eds), Anglo-American Contributions to Basque Studies: Essays
in Honor of Jon Bilbao, Reno: Desert Research Institute Publications
on the Social Sciences No. 13, pp. 203-217, 1977
Articles in Press
`Basque', in J. Garry (ed.), The
Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages, Henry Holt, to appear
`On finding relatives for Basque: what
vasconists would like to see', Acta Linguistica Hafniensia, to
`The typological position of Basque', Language
Sciences, to appear 1997
original url of this page
23 August 1996
Copyright © 1996