Originally Published April 26th, 2021

When people ask me where I live, the simple answer is “Spain.” The more complicated answer is “Basque Country.” So what is that? Basque Country is an area along the border of France and Spain where many people do not consider themselves French nor Spanish. They feel this way because their language and culture have been around since before France and Spain were on the scene.

Entire books have been written to define exactly what (and where) Basque Country is so let’s not attempt that here. This column will focus on one thing, their language, Euskara.

Euskara means simply, Basque. This leads some definitions of the region to become a bit circular. “Basque Country is the place where people speak Basque.” So why is such importance placed on the language? It’s because Euskara is an extremely unique and interesting language.

Let’s look at two quick examples. The word “house” in Spanish is “casa” but in Euskara, it’s “etxe.” The organization “Red Cross” in Spanish is “Cruz Roja” but in Euskara, it’s “Gurutze Gorria.” When you see them side-by-side, it’s rather apparent that Euskara is probably not just a Spanish dialect.

In fact, Euskara has no known language roots. For example, modern English and German both come from a common root language, Germanic. The French, Italian and Spanish languages all come from the Italic Romance family. Every single language spoken in Europe today can be traced back to its origin, except Euskara. It is a language isolate, an intriguing mystery.

Where I live, you will hear a mix of Spanish and Euskara on the streets and all signs are in both languages. Walking into a shop you will most likely be greeted in Spanish. This changes though as you move away into the surrounding towns and villages. Signs are exclusively in Euskara and shops will treat you like a local.

Depending on how you define “native” and “proficient” speakers, there are currently between 750,000 and 1,250,000 speakers of Euskara. A language this small always runs the risk of disappearing.

During the dictatorship of Franco, the language was outlawed with the teaching and speaking of Euskara being forbidden during different periods as it was associated with separatism and generally un-Spanish behavior.

Since democracy broke through in 1975 though, Euskara has been making a huge comeback across education, radio, television, and music. This puts some families in a rather strange situation. Some grandparents in Basque Country do not speak Euskara fluently even though their parents did and their children do. They are left in a historical gap caused by cultural repression.

I’m currently learning Euskara via osmosis with my two-year-old. So far I’m holding my own but it might not be long before he pulls away in the competition. My less-than- elastic brain might take a stumble on their noun inflection forms, a novel concept in Euskara.

Here I’ll use “house” again as a quick example. House = etxe. The house = etxea. To the house = etxera. In the house = etxean. From the house = etxetik. They just tack on different letters at the end of a noun to mean different things.

I’m giving it my best but don’t hold your breath for a Basque edition of these columns.