Basque is one of the oldest living languages and is still spoken today by about 750,000 people, primarily in the Basque autonomous region that straddles both Spain and France. The Basque language is called Euskara by native speakers, and there are seven different dialects, although Euskara Batua is the standardized one most widely in use. While Basque has borrowed a significant amount of Spanish words, the language remains distinct grammatically.
In Spain, Basque is spoken by about 30% of the people in the Basque autonomous region, but due to suppression of the language under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, it’s used primarily in rural villages. Today Basque is a co-official language of the Basque provinces alongside Spanish .
It’s not only the Basque language that makes the region stand out as unique among its Spanish neighbors. It’s also the Basque culture that embraces their own traditional festivals, folklore, and even a Basque national sport called pelote. The Basque passion for cuisine is world renowned, and it’s boasted that the region has more Michelin stars per square kilometer than any other country.
The origins of the Basque language are something of a mystery. What is certain is that the Basque people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe and their language appears to have developed in relative isolation from the waves of migration that influenced so many European languages. The Basque language is considered the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe. While the Basque autonomous region is geographically surrounded by romance languages, the Basque language remained isolated from influence.
Several centuries ago, Basque was more widely spoken and encompassed more area from the Pyrenees to the French province of Aquitaine. The language continued to lose influence to both Spanish and French until the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, who banned the language and forced the Basque people to speak Spanish. The Basque language began to make a revival in the 1960s in both schools and publications and, at that point, it became necessary to develop the standardized version, euskara batua.
The Basque language enjoys official status within the Basque Autonomous Community, where it is widely spoken in schools. Spanish has undoubtedly exerted a great deal of influence on the language and the Basque people, but beyond the borrowing of some Spanish vocabulary words, the Basque community and language remain fiercely independent .
The Basque language is spoken across a region that includes four Spanish provinces and three French provinces. The core of the Basque-speaking population resides in Gipuzkoa, Biscay, some parts of Álava, and the north of Navarre. While Spanish is the official language of the country, the Spanish Constitution allows autonomous communities like Basque to determine a co-official language. Basque does not, however, have any official status in France and French citizens are barred from speaking it in a court of law.
Most non-native speakers will recognize Basque as different from Spanish because of its distinct consonants, whose pronunciation is closer to those of Slavic consonants. The vowels in Basque can sound similar to those in Spanish , but beyond a volume of borrowed words, the Basque language remains uniquely its own. In fact, the Basque people are so serious about the integrity of their language that they have a word for all other languages that aren’t Basque—erdera.
If you’re traveling to the Basque areas of France or Spain, be aware that the most commonly spoken language will still be Spanish or French. However, it’s always appreciated to study and learn a few Basque words so you can fully experience the culture, language, and cuisine of this unique region.
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