I am from Boise, Idaho, which hosts one of the largest Basque communities in the world outside of southwestern France and northeastern Spain. Many Basques came to Idaho in the early 1900s. Some began working as sheepherders (and still do. You can see a photo of their special type of campers, below. These still dot the land in the Sawtooth mountains near Stanley, Idaho). Others came because of the opportunities to own land. Some also worked in mining and logging.
There is a Basque cultural museum here and several restaurants that serve flavorful paprika pork dishes, lamb stews and baby squid, eel and salt cod. At one local restaurant, Epi’s, the proprietress will serve you beef tongue with paprika and then stand there, watching your face, to make sure you like it.
Basque (also known as Euskara) has about 750,000 speakers, nearly all of whom also speak Spanish or French. There are 5 dialects of it, which are so different that it makes it hard for Basque speakers to understand each other unless they live in the same city. (Compare this to Spanish; Peruvians, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans can understand each other well enough. That is, if they slow down a little).
As a linguist, Basque fascinates me because no one knows where it came from. The ‘Basque country’ is surrounded by places where Romance languages like French and Spanish are spoken, but yet Basque is classified as a language isolate. This is a fancy term that means that no one has proved that it descends from a common ancestor.
The Basque country is also geographically isolated. Even though Spanish and French have been spoken nearby for years and years, the Pyrenees form a massive divider between France and Spain – many cities at around 6,000 feet in altitude – and this geography may also account for the historical lack of ‘leakage’ (my term, non-scientific) of other languages into the Basque speaking region. Travel would have been difficult and limited during the time of that language’s development.
Anyway, it is impossible to link the Basque language with any neighboring languages in Europe.
What linguists do know is that it is the last remaining descendant of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe. These languages existed in prehistoric Europe and South Asia, and are not necessarily related to each other. Some include Sanskrit, Etruscan, and more than a handful of others than I have never ever heard of. Every theory on the origin of Basque is controversial; everyone has their own idea and no one else agrees.
Maybe aliens came down, planted this unique language, and left again.
Not very many people speak Basque. Not even very many Basques speak Basque. In 2006 out of a total population of 2,589,600 Basques in Spain, there were 665,800 adults who actually spoke Basque (25%). There is a group of passive Basque speakers (they can understand it but don’t speak it), who represent 15% of the Basque population. Over 50% of Basques do not speak Basque. However, there has been an increase since 2006 by 64k speakers. Also, the largest % of speakers are age 16-24. Why? This is maybe due to the younger people’s desire to retain their culture instead of assimilating with regional culture and dropping their language as proof of the regional identity. The population of Basque speakers may increase; that said it’s not the Basque it used to be. Basque is now peppered with terms from Spanish and French, since proximate languages do influence each other.
Linguistics aside, the Basque culture is an interesting one, and I’m going to give you some highlights here. They have their own music and dance, have their own sports (pilota – a crazy form of racquetball as far as I can tell) and are matrilineal. The culture also historically has given an ‘unusual’ status to women. Women could inherit and control property as well as officiate in churches. Basques are also known to have super-fun cultural celebrations complete with Basque food (a special chorizo, spicier than you are used to), dancing and drink that go into the wee hours of the morning.
There are several famous Basque people, who I suspect you have heard of. Two are:
- The religious leaders Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuits
- The Frenchman Louis Daguerre who invented photography (daguerreotype - the first commercially successful photographic process.)
(Well-known Basque cities include Guernica, Bilbao and Pamplona).
Do any of you know an Arguinchona, Guerrecabadia, Zubiri, Elizalde, Echeverría, Ecepare, Esquivel, Inchausti, Aroztegi, Arrigorriagakoa? If you do, they are probably Basque (or married a Basque). Ask them about their language and culture. If you are Basque, let us know your theory for where the language came from.
Image credit (above): The UCLA Language Materials Project (LMP)