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.