25 January 2010

Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s 1869 map of Basque dialects,
via, of course, wikipedia.

Basque is an ancient language which has no surviving family members — whatever classificatory tree it was a branch on withered & died a long time ago, & it’s all alone in these low green hills, crouching amidst a veritable horde of Indo-European tongues, everyone counting the same from Sanskrit all the way over to Galicia — and it doesn’t look or sound or operate quite like anyone else, or even any of the other minority languages in Spain, not like in Valencia where there are street signs bilingual in valenciano , or in Galicia (gallego), or in Barcelona (catalán).

This isn’t really my field — I’m just trying to give you an idea, because when I go home to the wide, placid wilderness of America I’m reminded of how strange this is for most of the people I grew up with, the notion of all of these little languages right on top of each other, all interrelated & almost-but-not-quite mutually intelligible & mostly different from village to village. And meanwhile, we grow up (I did, at least) in the States, on what’s essentially a 3,000 mile long island where everybody talks almost identically, even if in Boston they’ll pretend not to understand you if you ask for a milkshake. I’m remembering right now the polite incomprehension of everybody I tried to explain this feeling to over Christmas, & probably overexplaining now.

You know the definition of a language, right? (A language is a dialect with a navy.) So. There’s between six and nine Basque dialects — to start with, one for each of the three provinces of País Vasco, plus Navarre, plus those bits of ethnic Basque France — which is one of the reasons why I can never get anybody to pronounce village names alike. This is also because most placenames have changed, at least on the maps, since Franco died & the Basques got limited regional autonomy. Every place has a castellano name & a name in euskara, as well as various spellings: Bilbao is also Bilbo, San Sebastían is Donostía, Vitoria is hyphenated with Gastiez. The province I live in is Vizcaya or Bizkaia. The pueblo I teach in is called Galdakao now, but it used to be Galdálcano, and, depending on who you talk to, some people still pronounce that ghost of an n.

Incidentally, the EU has a commission on regional & minority languages, & one of the ironic effects of the attempt to preserve these languages has been to standardize them, give what used to be an extremely localized, oral patchwork of dialects (deprecated by government schools & oppressed to greater & lesser degrees) a standardized dictionary & spelling — that is, to preserve linguistic diversity by reducing linguistic diversity. Imagine for a moment the fights that break out over the phrase “six to nine” when I talk about Basque dialects, the quarrels that it elides, and then extend that over the entire continent.

As a non-native speaker of Spanish, though, conversational Basque sounds, if you’re not paying attention, a lot like Spanish (the vowel sounds, for instance, are the same).  The inflection, the rhythms of speech, aren’t, for the first couple of seconds, noticeably different from locally-accented Spanish, — but none of the words are even close to recognizable. The other day, I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge & a teacher came in and asked if anybody wanted coffee & I did a doubletake because I had no idea what he’d just said. It’s as if, imagine, someone came up to you and began speaking in what you thought sounded like English, the same conversational tone, but all you heard was nonsense. The reason this is at once both unsettling & familiar for me, too,  is because I’ve only been fluent in Spanish for a little while, and feeling like I can’t understand a word people are saying to me is something I remember viscerally.

Word stress & rhythm of speech is different from Spanish, actually (stress patterns are extremely different between dialects, too, which is why nobody pronounces village names alike), but given the number of Spanish speakers who speak Basque as a second language & Basque speakers who speak Spanish as a second language, living here I think it’s much harder for me to figure out which is influencing which.

One last thing. When referring to Basque, even in Spanish, you usually say euskara here (the lack of a capital is a habit I’m picking up from Spanish). Spanish itself is most commonly referred to as castellano, which isn’t so surprising in a region that calls a tortilla española tortilla de patatas instead. What is surprising is that that’s what I already called it, because I lived in Andalucía last year, and I think the reason’s the same. Andalucíans may learn castellano in school, because the dialect from Castille has always been the dialect with the navy — but they speak andaluz. And  while in the rest of the country andaluz is just a debatable name for a hick accent used in television shows to signify comic relief, it’s their own. Spanish isn’t Spanish in Andalucía — it’s castellano, just like in here in Basque Country. It emanates from Madrid via newspapers, literature, government proclamations, fluorescences of culture, reconquests, cervanteses, a royal academy. It has a navy.

Previous attempts to write about Basque Country:

Swordfish Bars

One Response to “Euskara”

  1. porcovasco Says:

    I’ve been reading your text about euskara as well as some other foreigner people’s and I’m really amazed. I’d never thought of anyone coming from abroad interested in our languaje… “What for? It has just a few speakers.”
    Fair text!

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