After the Basque class this summer, I had an opportunity to speak with the teacher, Txili Lauzirika. He is a native speaker of Euskara (Basque), with a passion for the language. A teacher and poet by profession, and a sociologist by training, he offered me important insights into the survival of Euskara up to the present, as well as its continued existence into the future.
Because his training was in sociology and not history, he presented me some counter-narratives to the ones we normally hear about Euskara. They offer hope to the future existence of this minority language if we follow some of the basic principles that he noticed.
Euskara was always an isolated language
Lauzirika emphasized that the language has been mixing with other languages for thousands of years. On the one hand, we can see that the territory of Euskal Herria, the land of Euskara speakers, has been shrinking over the past couple centuries. In the time of Napoleon III, the territory of the language was mapped, and so we can see that the area where the language is spoken is now smaller.
On the other hand, one cannot blame the introduction of a foreign language, Spanish, for this phenomenon, because speakers of multiple languages have lived side-by-side with Euskara-speakers for millennia. During the Roman period, Euskaldunak (Basque-speakers), came into regular contact with Romans, and the remnants of those interactions can be found in the language. For example, the Euskara word for “church” eliza, is thought to come from a form of the Latin word for the same, ecclesia. A traditional sword-dance, ezpata-dantza, comes from the Latin word for sword spatha (from which also derives English “spatula”), for which an equivalent does not exist in Spanish.
During the Arab period, the Euskaldunak interacted regularly with Arabic speakers. The traditional Basque musical instrument, the alboka comes from Arabic al-boq, also a musical instrument. (The Spanish albogon comes independently from the same root.) The word for “market,” azoka comes directly from Arabic, as-suq, and is still today more common than merkatua, derived from Spanish, mercado.
One author wrote, “It is this mountainous terrain which is largely responsible for the survival of the Basque language down to the present day: the Romans apparently saw no point in trying to romanize the mountains, and the later Franks, Visigoths, and Arabs were simply unable to subdue the Basques in their mountains.” If, however, Euskaldunak are going to the eliza with Romans and performing with a Roman ezpata, and later trading with the Arabs at the azoka and joining in their music on the alboka, we shouldn’t push their isolation too much. Plenty of interactions were taking place in peace. Romans were perfectly capable of subduing mountain people (note Switzerland).
We should note also that 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. This is further evidence that these languages were likely common trading languages in the azoka.
Lauzirika posited that the Euskaldunak believed in their language as their homeland. (I wrote about that concept previously here.) They could come into contact with people from elsewhere and who spoke different languages, and hold onto their own language for thousands of years.
Laws will ensure the continued existence of Euskara
The Basque government determined that people hired to work in the state must speak Euskara at a certain level. This law incentivizes everyone, of whatever nationality, to speak the language. Moreover, it favors speakers of the language for employment, making speaking the language economically advantageous.
At the same time, the goal of “speaking” is not clear, according to Lauzirika. The fact that someone can learn the obscure grammatical intricacies of this non-Indo-European language, and produce them on a test, does not imply that one can actually “speak.” As anyone who has taken a language class in school knows, taking a test is not speaking spontaneously in the real world.
Ironically, the immigrants to Spain show real success in speaking Euskara. In Euskal Herria one encounters many West African merchants, for example. While many of them arrive multilingual, speaking one or two native languages plus French, they also speak Spanish and Euskara. By walking the streets and talking to people, these immigrants learned to speak Euskara, though not necessarily with grammatical accuracy.
What helps the future of Euskara more? state-mandated exams or street-savvy education? Only the latter group, in fact, have proven that they can consistently hold their own in a real-life conversation.
Furthermore, Lauzarika wonders if the “official” designation of Euskara extends deeper than the surface of the society. He recounted the story of an Euskaldun from the French section of Euskal Herria, who came to Spain to work as a doctor. He spoke fluent Euskara but no Spanish. He was turned down for the job. A doctor from Madrid, however, would have likely been offered the job.
The economic incentives that have been set up, therefore, may not produce the precise outcomes desired. They produced people who can pass exams, but not necessarily who can speak.
Keep them speaking Euskara!
When Lauzarika explained to me the notion of “Language as homeland”, I understood better where he was coming from. The Basque “homeland” is Euskal Herria, the land of the Basque language—a living, breathing, spoken language.
You don’t have to isolate Euskaldunak from speakers of other languages for the language to survive. You just have to produce people who love speaking Euskara, who see Euskara, the language itself, as their home.
I saw a method that taught the language effectively, turning non-speakers into native-speakers: Euskara primary schools. Lauzarika himself came from Spanish monoglots, but who put him into a Basque school (or ikastola) at age 3. He grew up speaking the language all day at school with his teachers and classmates, and now teaches Euskara and composes Euskara poetry.
Speaking the language in everyday life will teach you the language. A classroom will not do it.