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About the Basque Language

Basque (Basque: Euskara, pronounced [eus̺kaɾa]) is the ancestral language of the Basque people, who inhabit the Basque Country, a region spanning an area in northeastern Spain and southwestern France. It is spoken by 25.7% of Basques in all territories (665,800 out of 2,589,600. Of these, 614,000 live in the Spanish part of the Basque country and the remaining 51,800 live in the French part.

In academic discussions of the distribution of Basque in Spain and France, it is customary to refer to three ancient provinces in France and four Spanish provinces. Native speakers are concentrated in a contiguous area including parts of the Spanish Autonomous Communities of the Basque Autonomous Community (Spanish: País Vasco; Euskara: Euskadi) and Navarre and in the western half of the French Département of Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The Autonomous Community of País Vasco/Euskadi is an administrative entity within the binational ethnographic Basque Country incorporating the traditional Spanish provinces of Biscay, Gipuzkoa, and Álava, which retain their existence as politico-administrative divisions.

These provinces and many areas of Navarre are heavily populated by ethnic Basques, but the Euskara language had, at least until the 1990s, all but disappeared from most of Álava, western parts of Biscay and central and southern areas of Navarre. In southwestern France, the ancient Basque-populated provinces were Labourd, Lower Navarre, and Soule. They and other regions were consolidated into a single département back in 1790 under the name Basses-Pyrénées, which name persisted until 1969.

A standardized form of the Basque language, called Batua, was developed by the Basque Language Academy in the late 1960s. Batua is mainly used in the Spanish Basque Country. In France the Basque language school Seaska and the association for a bilingual schooling Ikasbi meet a wide range of Basque language educational needs up to the Sixth Form, while often struggling to surmount financial and administrative constraints.

Apart from this standardized version, there are six main Basque dialects, corresponding to the above mentioned historic provinces populated by Basques: Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan, and Upper Navarrese in Spain and Lower Navarrese, Lapurdian, and Zuberoan (in France). However, the dialect boundaries are not congruent with political boundaries.

Names of the language

In Basque, the name of the language is officially Euskara (alongside various dialect forms). There are currently three etymological theories of the name Euskara that are taken seriously by linguists and vasconists which are discussed in detail on the Basque people page.

In French the language is normally called basque or, in recent times, euskara. There is a greater variety of Spanish names for the language. Today, it is most commonly referred to as el vasco, la lengua vasca or el euskera. Both terms, vasco and basque, are inherited from Latin ethnonym Vascones which in turn goes back to the Greek term ουασκωνους (ouaskōnous), an ethnonym used by Strabo.

The term Vascuence, derived from Latin vasconĭce, has acquired negative connotations over the centuries and is not well liked amongst Basque speakers generally. Its use is documented at least as far back as the 14th century when a law passed in Huesca in 1349 stated that Item nuyl corridor nonsia usado que faga mercadería ninguna que compre nin venda entre ningunas personas, faulando en algaravia nin en abraych nin en basquenç: et qui lo fara pague por coto XXX sol - essentially penalizing the use of Arabic, Hebrew or Vascuence (Basque) with a fine of 30 sols.

History & classification

Though geographically surrounded by Indo-European languages, Basque is classified as a language isolate. It is the last remaining pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe. Consequently, its prehistory may not be reconstructible by means of the comparative method except by applying it to differences between dialects within the language. Little is known of its origins but it is likely that an early form of the Basque language was present in Western Europe before the arrival of the Indo-European languages to the area.

Latin inscriptions in Aquitania preserve a number of words with cognates in reconstructed proto-Basque, for instance the personal names Nescato and Cison (neskato and gizon mean "young girl" and "man" respectively in modern Basque). This language is generally referred to as Aquitanian and is assumed to have been spoken in the area before the Roman conquests in the western Pyrenees. Roman neglect of this area allowed Aquitanian to survive while the Iberian and Tartessian languages became extinct. Through the long contact with Romance languages, Basque adopted a sizable number of Romance words. Initially the source was Latin, later Gascon (a branch of Occitan) in the northeast, Navarro-Aragonese in the southeast and Spanish in the southwest.

In June 2006, the head of the archaeological site of Iruña-Veleia Eliseo Gil claimed to have found an epigraphic set with a series of 270 Basque inscriptions and drawings from the third century.[4] Some of the words and phrases found were remarkably similar to modern Basque and so were hailed as the first written evidence of Basque. However, the whole finding soon came under serious question and the suspicion of an archaeological forgery has become widespread, after an independent team assessed the alleged evidence and concluded in 2008 that it was false. Yet Gil has stuck to his claims while not dismissing flat out the independent team's conclusion.

Geographic distribution

The region in which Basque is spoken today has contracted over centuries and is thus smaller than what is known as the Basque Country, or Euskal Herria in Basque. Toponyms show that the Basque language used to be spoken further eastward in the Pyrenees than today. An example is the Aran Valley (now a Gascon-speaking part of Catalonia), for haran is the Basque word for "valley". However, the growing influence of Latin began to drive Basque out from the less mountainous portions of the region.

The Reconquista temporarily counteracted this tendency when the Christian lords called on northern Iberian peoples — Basques, Asturians, and "Franks" — to colonize the new conquests. The Basque language became the main everyday language, while other languages like Spanish, Gascon, French, or Latin were preferred for the administration and high education.

Basque experienced a rapid decline in Alava and Navarre during the 1800s. However, the rise of Basque nationalism spurred increased interest in the language as a sign of ethnic identity, and with the establishment of autonomous governments, it has recently made a modest comeback. Basque-language schools have brought the language to areas such as Encartaciones and the Navarrese Ribera, where it may have disappeared as a native language in the Middle Ages.

Official status

Historically, Latin or Romance languages have been the official languages in this region. However, Basque was explicitly recognized in some areas. For instance, the local charter of the Basque-colonized Ojacastro valley (now in La Rioja) allowed the inhabitants to use Basque in legal processes in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Today Basque holds co-official language status in the Basque regions of Spain: the full autonomous community of the Basque Country and some parts of Navarre. Basque has no official standing in the Northern Basque Country of France and French citizens are barred from officially using Basque in a French court of law. However, the use of Basque by Spanish nationals in French courts is allowed (with translation), as Basque is officially recognized on the other side of the border.

The positions of the various existing governments differ with regard to the promotion of Basque in areas where Basque is commonly spoken. The language has official status in those territories that are within the Basque Autonomous Community, where it is spoken and promoted heavily, but only partially in Navarre. Here the "Ley del Vascuence" ("Law of Basque"), seen as contentious by many Basques, divides Navarre into three language areas: Basque-speaking, non-Basque-speaking, and mixed. The support for the language and the linguistic rights of citizens vary depending on which of the three areas you are in.

 

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