Basque, a fascinating and mysterious language

Article: Koldo Carrillo / Pictures: Koldo Carrillo and mondraberri.eus

Basque is the language of the Basque people and occupies a special place among the languages of the world, as its origin is still a mystery and no relation to any other language has been found so far. It is the main hallmark of the Basque culture and passed down from one generation to the next. Basque speakers strongly identify with their language and raising awareness of it has been key in increasing its number of speakers and increasing its presence in public institutions.  Among the different initiatives promoting Basque, one in particular, Korrika (running), stands out. This consists of a march around every single village and town in the Basque Country, where thousands of Basques gather to support and spread the Basque language.

basque1

Figure 1 Korrika around the streets in the Basque Country

Basque’s mysterious origin

Countless attempts to find a connection between Basque and other languages around the world have been made since the last century. Nevertheless, none of the following hypotheses has come to provide an accurate and outright conclusion about the origins of the Basque language.

One of the main theories from the last century claims that Basque is the sole trace left of the languages spoken in the Iberian Peninsula. Some other philologists, on the other hand, argue that Basque is of Caucasian origins, and, what’s more, that it is related to Georgian due to syntactic, morphologic and grammatical similarities.

Some African languages have also been associated with Basque. Among the supporters of this theory are Schuchardt and  Mukarovsky.  The former examined the possible link of Basque with languages belonging to the Hamitic family from the north of Africa, whereas the latter claimed it originated from the Berber languages, given their phonological similarities.

A new theory asserting Basque originated from the Pre-Indo-European languages was formulated between 1920 and 1950, based on the study of European toponymics and after having found out that some of them had Basque roots. The said theory supports the existence of a shared root among Pre-Indo-European languages and claims that Basque is the only surviving one from a set of languages from the Mediterranean basin.

According to another theory supported by Joxemiel Barandiaran and Koldo Mitxelena, amongst others, the Basque people don’t come from anywhere, or as they say, Gu ez gara inongo (we don’t come from anywhere). Their theory claims that the Basque people have been around for roughly 5000 years. It is commonly accepted that new words are created and introduced into a language when it becomes necessary. Let’s take aizkora (axe) as an example: its root contains the word – (h) aitz, (stone). This is what made them wonder whether the tool itself was made of stone when the word was created.

basque2

Figure 2 Dolmen or trikuharri, a megalithic monument of Basque people

The complexity of Basque

There is great debate about whether Basque is an easy or difficult language. The British Foreign Office stated that Basque was the most difficult language to learn in the world. However, The Economist magazine places Basque behind languages such as German, Spanish or Mandarin. Criteria used in these studies is varied and as American lexicographer and polyglot Mikel Morris says, “for a Japanese person, learning Basque is easier than learning Spanish”.  This makes it clear that difficulties in learning a language rely on our mother tongue and its similarities with the language we are attempting to learn.

Yet, there are some inescapable nuances when learning this mysterious language. Due to its isolation, there are no syntactical similarities with English, French or Spanish, and the grammar is quite tricky. As if this was not enough, linguistic differences across Basque dialects are huge, with differing pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.  A complex language for such a small region!

basque3

Figure 3 Typical Basque Country landscape

Did you like this article? Keep learning interesting facts about other languages on bab.la and learn languages with native speakers from all over the world with Langademy!

Koldo Carrillo is a journalist and photographer from the Basque Country who is passionate about the Basque language and culture.

You might also like: