Basque language (Euskara)
Euskara is a language spoken by around 850,000 people on both sides of the western Pyrenees in Spain and France. In Spain, it is spoken in the Basque Autonomous Community –made up of Araba (Álava), Bizkaia (Vizcaya) and Gipuzkoa (Guipúzcoa)—and Navarre, and in France, in the provinces of Lapurdi (Labourd), Behe-Nafarroa (Lower Navarre) and Zuberoa (Soule). Those seven provinces are called Euskal Herrria or Vasconia (both meaning the Basque Country or Basqueland).
Genetically, Euskara is a language isolate because it does not belong to any language family. Nor are its origins very clear. The first written texts in Euskara date from the sixteenth century, although Basque songs, expressions and words appear in texts in other languages dating from the tenth century on. However, the first book in Euskara was Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, published in 1545 by Bernard Dechepare. Then in 1571, Joannes Leiçarraga brought out his translation of the New Testament in Euskara. Recently, another sixteenth-century text has been discovered which contains tales and verses by Juan Pérez de Lazarraga. Since this time, there has been an uninterrupted literary tradition in the Basque language in the several variants of Euskara and, since 1968, when Euskaltzaindia (the Academy of the Basque Language) established the foundations for Euskara Batua (Unified or Standard Basque), Basque literary production has been reinforced even further. Indeed, Euskara Batua is mostly used today in the public administration, educational system, media and literature in general.
Euskara is a morphologically agglutinative language that uses the ergative and a neutral word order. It has five vowels and five diphthongs, and twenty-one consonants. Its accent, however, is difficult to describe because it varies greatly according to dialectical features and where it is spoken.
There are many variants of Euskara, the euskalkiak (dialects). That diversity, moreover, appears within a reduced space of square kilometres. Nowadays, both Euskara Batua and the euskalkiak are used, although the latter are mostly maintained for oral communication.
The biggest mystery surrounding the language is not its origins, but its survival to the present day. Apparently, the Basques did not confront the Romans, but instead established alliances with them. Moreover, the differences between Euskara and Latin were so great that Latin did not appropriate the Basque language, pushing it into oblivion.
Since then Euskara has experienced many ups and downs. Nowadays, according to the UN, Euskara is in a weak position in Euskadi (the Basque Autonomous Community) and especially Navarre; and at great risk in French Basqueland. It would appear to be making progress in Euskadi, where its survival is assured. In Navarre, however, there is no social agreement on the language and people remain highly divided on the issue. Worse still, at present, is the situation in French Basqueland, where it continues to lose speakers and runs the risk of being lost.
Writer and professor at the University of the Basque Country
This is the introduction to the “A Brief History of the Basque Language” book; you can find the complete book here:
Zabaltza, Xabier e Igartua, Iván, Euskararen historia laburra / Breve historia de la lengua vasca / A Brief History of the Basque Language, Donostia - San Sebastián: Etxepare Basque Institute 2012