of the Basque people, related to no other language on earth. It is called Euskara
, and the Basque Country
is called Euskal Herria
. The people call themselves Euskaldunak
, which means 'Basque-speakers', '(those) having Basque' .
Their traditional homeland consists of seven provinces. The three most populous form the autonomous Basque Country of Spain: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Araba. A fourth, Nafarroa, is a separate autonomous community in Spain. The provinces of Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea, and Zuberoa lie in France. The Basques call their whole country Euskal Herri, and the alternative name Euskadi is a neologism which can be synonymous but can also refer to only those three of the seven provinces that are the autonomous country, like Spanish País Vasco. (The official name for that community is Euskal Autonomia Erkidegoa.) The Basques are quite a small minority in the two southern regions Araba and Nafarroa.
Basque place names correspond to Spanish, French, or English ones as follows:
There are a number of dialects to some extent following provincial lines: so there is a Bizkaiera dialect, a Gipuzkera, a Lapurtera, and so on. Since the return of freedom to Spain there has been an official form called Euskara Batua 'Unified Basque', promoted by a royal academy called the Euskaltzaindia. But variation is common.
These names can also be seen as Euzkera, Euzkadi and so on. The spellings with Z are fanciful inventions by the nineteenth-century nationalist Sabino Arana, who also invented quite a few other modern Basque terms on poor etymologies, and designed the flag, the ikurrina. He was trying to derive the ethnonym from the word for 'sun', eguzki. His linguistics was poor but his contribution was immensely influential.
The vowels are much the same as in Spanish. There are various accent systems depending on dialect; I use one in which stress
is generally on the second-last syllable. The written acute
accent is not used, regardless of the stress. In the Zuberoa dialect there is a front vowel Ü.
The consonant G has the same hard sound in GI as in GA. The letter X is English SH as in ship, and TX is English CH in chip. J has various sounds depending on the region: the Y-sound (of German ja), or the Spanish Kh-sound, or the English J-sound, or various others. H is silent in the dialects in Spain. The French dialects pronounce it and also have aspirated stops KH PH TH.
As with Spanish, there are two R-sounds. Between vowels, -R- is a weaker flap and -RR- is a stronger roll. But unlike Spanish, final -R is rolled. It cannot occur initially: so Latin rege- 'king' was borrowed as errege.
The sounds B D G are hard as in English at the beginning of a word, but as in Spanish softened between vowels, except in some parts of France. I've had to change my writeup, since I originally said they were always hard, as I thought that's how I was taught by my native Basque teacher: and I don't think she was from the French part. The always-hard pronunciation might be on the increase.
Probably the hardest distinction for outsiders to master is S and Z and their corresponding affricates TS and TZ. Roughly, S is the slightly duller S-sound of English and Spanish, and Z is the sharper S-sound of French or Russian. Technically, the S is apical and the Z is laminal. I find it quite difficult to make this fine distinction. The Bizkaia dialect no longer has both. So TS and TZ are a duller and a sharper TS-sound.
As well as these and X TX there are also pure palatal stops TT DD, not used in normal words, but in 'expressive' alterations of them (e.g. diminutive or affectionate).
There is no getting over the fact that Basque is in some respects difficult
, and in others startling
. Where to begin? Noun cases. These look formidable but are merely unfamiliar; the real difficulty comes with the verbal auxiliaries.
gizon = man
gizona = the man
gizonak = the man (active subject)
gizonaren = of the man
gizonari = to the man
gizonarekin = with the man
gizonarentzat = for the man (this is the benefactive case)
gizonarengatik = because of the man
We should shift to a different noun now, because cases used with places are somewhat different in form.
mendi = mountain
mendian = at the mountain
menditik = from the mountain
mendira = to the mountain (allative case)
mendiraino = up to the mountain (terminative case)
mendirantz = towards the mountain (directional case)
mendirako = for the mountain (purposive case)
mendiko = of (from) the mountain
And up to half a dozen more that I've just given up on trying to explain. In the plural the -ar- element in the first lot disappears:
emakumearengatik = for the woman
emakumeengatik = for the women
And the second lot add -eta-:
herritik = from the country
herrietatik = from the countries
follows the noun, and the definite suffix -a
and case endings go on the adjective; or to be more exact on the final word of the noun phrase
, since determiner
s ('this', 'that') can follow too:
= the house
= the new house (= the surname Echeverría)
etxe berri hau
= this new house
etxe berri bat
= one/a new house
Some qualifiers precede, such as personal possessives and larger numerals:
hiru etxeak = three houses
nire etxea = my house
The article -a is usually glossed as definite 'the' but actually it goes on the noun phrase whenever there is no other following qualifier, such as hau or bat.
In a sentence with 'to be' they are both definite:
etxea berria da = the house is new
Verbs agree with their subject
etxeak berriak dira
= the houses are new
The verb 'to be' goes like this in the present tense:
ni naiz = I am
hi haiz = thou art
zu zara = you are (singular)
hau da = s/he/it is (here)
hori da = s/he/it is (just there)
hura da = s/he/it is (over there)
gu gara = we are
zuek zarete = you are (plural)
hauek dira = they are (here)
horiek dira = they are (just there)
haiek dira = they are (over there)
The verb normally comes last in the sentence. Most verbs get marked only for tense, and the auxiliary 'be' or 'have' carries most of the baggage:
joan naiz = I go, I am going
joan zara = you go, you are going
joan dira = they go, they are going
joango dira = they will go (-go or -ko marking future)
joatzen dira = they have gone (-ten, -den, -tzen etc marking perfect)
gizona joan da = the man goes
emakumeak joan dira = the women go (-ak here is plural)
Negatives and interrogatives use a particle before the auxiliary:
gizona joan al da = does the man go?
gizona joan ez da = the man does not go (pronounced ez ta)
Basque is ergative. The subject of a transitive goes into the ergative case:
gizonak emakumea ikusi du = the man sees the woman
Furthermore, the auxiliary is now du, which agrees with both subject and object. The D- is now agreeing with the object. With different persons it goes like this:
gizonak ikusi nau = the man sees me
gizonak ikusi zaitu = the man sees you
gizonak ikusi du = the man sees her/him/it
gizonak ikusi ditu = the man sees them
Now, keeping the object 'them' constant, see how it varies with different subjects:
honek ikusi ditu = s/he (here) sees them
horrek ikusi ditu = s/he (just there) sees them
hark ikusi ditu = s/he (over there) sees them
nik ikusi ditut = I see them
zuk ikusi dituzu = you see them
guk ikusi ditugu = we see them
gizonek ikusi ditute = the men see them
We've hardly begun yet.
The auxiliaries all have past tenses. So intransitive 'to be' (naiz etc.) goes:
joan nintzen = I was going
joan hintzen = thou wast going
joan zinen = you were going
emakumea joan zen = the woman was going
joan ginen = we were going
emakumeak joan ziren = the women were going
And the transitive 'to have' (nau etc.) goes, varying first the object:
gizonak ikusi nindun = the man saw me
gizonak ikusi zintun = the man saw you
gizonak ikusi zuen = the man saw her/him/it
gizonak ikusi zuzten = the man saw them
Then varying the subject:
nik ikusi nituen = I see them
zuk ikusi zenituen = you see them
guk ikusi genituen = we see them
gizonek ikusi zituzten = the men see them (-ek is ergative plural)
I can no longer tell whether I've got those right. The auxiliary also inflects for indirect object: eman d-izk-ida-zu 'you have given them to me', eman n-izk-izu-n 'I gave them to you', etc. etc.
It also has potentials, subjunctives, protasis-conditionals, and apodosis-conditionals, all heavily marked in the auxiliary, with all the combinations of persons and actant marking.
There is an intimate second person pronoun hi which makes a gender distinction (there being no gender anywhere else in the language), and this is obligatorily marked on the verb whether or not the addressee is in the sentence: see under allocutive for detail on this strange system.
Other useful words are bai = yes, ez = no, ez dakit = I don't know, eta = and, kaixo = hello, eskerrik asko = thank you, mesedez = please. See Useful Basque phrases for more.
The Basque national game is pilota, a high-speed form of squash. It is never called jai alai (literally 'happy festival'), the name by which it's commonly known outside the Basque country. The farmhouse central to Basque social life is the baserri, and a farmer is therefore a baserritar. The people wear the txapela or beret. One of their symbols is the lauburu 'four-head', a kind of svastika. Their flag is the ikurrina. Now with political freedom more people are learning Basque, natives are called Euskaldun zaharrak 'old Basque-speakers' and those who learn it as a second language are Euskaldun berriak.
The numerals one to ten are bat bi hiru lau bost sei zazpi zortzi bederatzi hamar. Higher numbers are based on the word hogei 'twenty', as in French and Welsh: it has been suggested that this is a survival of a common pre-Indo-European cultural trait of the Atlantic coast.
The only known relation of Basque is Aquitanian, the language of the Aquitani of south-western Gaul in Roman times, preserved in a number of names. These are strikingly similar to Basque; and when the great linguist Luis Michelena (1915-1987) systematically worked out the prehistory of the language and its sounds, it was found that Aquitanian was more or less the direct ancestor of Basque. This means the people were originally more on the French side of the Pyrenees, and expanded into their later greatest extent in Spain.
Basque is so alien to every other European language that it has attracted plenty of amateur theorists and cranks, and has been tentatively connected with other enigmatic one-offs such as Etruscan and Sumerian. Most of this seems to be on little more than the invalid syllogism A is unlike B, B is unlike C, so A must be like C. There are traces of other ancient languages in the area, Aquitanian being ancestral, and Iberian which looks superficially similar but turns out not to be related; but they don't take us any further afield. One interesting modern theory held by a small minority of linguists is that at a very deep, remote level, Basque can be connected with a few other odd groups in the North Caucasus, the huge Sino-Tibetan family, and a small number of American languages including Navaho: this is the so-called Dene-Caucasian theory. But basically all these wider connexions are totally unsupported.
There is an excellent site on Basque,
run by the late lamented Larry Trask, a skilled and level-headed linguist. You will find no fanciful theories here, but good etymologies and facts. He's one of the world's experts on Basque and its history, and the most accessible to those who read in English. I have subsequently read his very informative book The History of Basque (1997), Routledge.
A good general site for information about Basque language, place names, and study is
-- this site, called Geonative, also has abundant information on minority-language place names all around the world.