¡Euskara es una patria! Language as homeland

The Basque people continue to use their language to define themselves.
The Basque people continue to use their language to define themselves.

When I visited the Basque country this July, I was amazed at how this minority language had survived centuries as a minority language. At a historical moment when people declare with gloom the end to most languages on earth, Basque is spoken by fewer than a million people, and this number is growing.

I spoke to a Basque teacher for adults in the Basque country. He told me that the Basques have always fought to keep their language alive in the face of competing languages. The language survives, he believes, because of the way that Basques conceive of their language. While many peoples consider their territory, religion, or bloodline as the foundation of their home, the Basques consider their language itself as their homeland or, in Spanish, their patria.

One can see the concept of language as homeland in the etymology of the term that Basque-speakers use to describe its homeland: Euskal Herria. The second word, Herria refers to a group of people, so it can be variously translated as “nation; country, land; people, population,” or “town, village, settlement.” The first word, Euskal, is the adjective derived from the name of the language, Euskara. Hence, the phrase for Basque Country can be translated as “territory of Basque-speaking people” or “country of the Basque language.”

Significantly, Basque has always lived alongside many different languages. The term “Basque” we find first in the turn-of-the-era Greek historian, Strabo, which was borrowed into Latin. We know, therefore, that these people have connected formally with Greek- and Latin-speakers for over 2000 years. The Basque language was spoken there then, and we can see the extent the language was spoken by the place names recorded by these classical historians.

During the struggle between Christians and Muslims in the second millennium of the Common Era, Muslims, Jews, and Basques lived alongside each other. In an edict from 1349, for example, a law forbade people conduct commerce in the town of Huesca in the Arabic, Hebrew, or Basque languages. Thus we can see that speakers of these three languages, plus Spanish, were coming into regular contact with each other. The language of the Basques thus differentiated them from their geographical neighbors and their co-religionists.

While the Basque people identified most strongly with their language, outside powers sought to break their language and force assimilation. The previous example showed how the Kingdom of Aragon tried to forbid this language from being spoken in the marketplace.

More recently, the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) sought to annihilate Basque culture, and ultimately killed over 22,000 Basques. Later, Franco suppressed Basque by sponsoring burning Basque books and by outlawing Basque names. Upon Franco’s death, the struggle for Basque independence even produced the ETA separatist group, which fought against the “Franquistos” for an independent Basque land. ETA no longer functions, but the struggle to keep the language going fights on.

In spite of all this, the Basque language fascinates me if, for no other reason than it flourished during the periods of peaceful coexistence with other languages, and during direct assault by a stronger power.

The Basque people held onto their language because it was their language that defined them throughout. They could never be displaced from their “homeland” when their homeland was the language that they spoke. Their homeland existed in their interactions with their fellow Basque-speakers. As long as they continued that, they were home, whether surrounded by Romans, Arabs, or Franquistos. Language was their homeland, wherever they were.

Where else do we see peoples who identify so closely with a language that the language above all else defines them as a people?

8 thoughts on “¡Euskara es una patria! Language as homeland

  1. Rachel

    I’ve encountered a couple of times “What is a Gael?” “A Gael is someone who speaks Gaelic.” “And what is the Gael-tachd?” “It’s the area where people speak Gaelic.” This goes some way to explaining why I’ve been called a “Gael” while my parents are not.

    The Celtic Congress defines a Celtic nation as a place where a Celtic language is spoken – it’s this sort of thing which prevents places like Galicia and Cumbria from joining. According to them, it’s not music or clothes or habits that make you a Celt, it’s the way you speak. People with Celtic heritage like to define themselves as “Celts” or part of the “Celtic diaspora”, but they don’t belong to a “Gaelic diaspora” unless they speak the language. I used to be one of those people who identified as a Celt without speaking the language, but language-speakers are very sceptical of anyone who claims Celt-ness of any sort without speaking the language. I’ve heard it said a lot “You’re not real Welsh if you don’t speak Welsh”, which of course annoys a lot of southerners who don’t but still identify themselves as Welsh.

    “Perhaps it’s in you to be a Gael, but you just need to wake the language up.” I don’t know if that’s a universal statement from Gaels or if its been influenced by Aboriginal language activists, who refer to languages with no speakers as “sleeping languages” rather than “dead languages”.

    Two languages of South Australia are called “Pitjantjatjara” (“says the word ‘pitjantja'”) and “Yankunytjatjara” (“says the word ‘yankunytja'”). Therefore the land where these people live today – the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land – is literally “the land of the people who say ‘pitjantja’ and ‘yankunytja'”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the Celtic experience is different from the Basque one in some ways. So few Irish people speak Irish, but feel fully Irish. It seems their tie is to the land more than to the language. When I learned more about the Basques and how they lived alongside other languages so long also sounded different from Celts.

      Thank you for your insights. It’s fascinating to hear about the other groups and how language fits as part of their identify.

      The most fascinating piece to me is how the number of speakers of aboriginal and Irish languages is in sharp decline, but Basque is rising.


  2. Pingback: How do you teach adults a foreign language? – Loving Language

  3. Pingback: Keeping Basque speakers—and making more – Loving Language

      1. Hi again.
        I am so surprised to find that you have an interest in Euskera!
        I wrote my thesis on the euskera-only learning schools (ikastolas) that emerged when the dictatorship ended in ’75. Coincided as being my “year abroad” as part of my degree in Spanish and Politics, so I was fortunate to speak to those directly involved.
        Very interested to read more of your articles!

        Liked by 1 person

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