It's likely that
even those of you who didn't study Latin at school are familiar with
Julius Caesar's statement “All Gaul is divided into three parts” with
which he begins his Gallic War. Indeed, if Caesar hadn't said
something even more unforgettable (“I came, I saw, I conquered”),
school children would have remembered those seven words as the most famous
ever uttered in ancient Rome.
In Caesar's time
the three tribes of Gaul were known as the Belgae, the Aquitani and the
Celtae, each with their own language. Unlike many surrounding languages,
the language of the Aquitani was not Indo-European but is thought to have
been similar to that of the neighbouring Vascones. This latter people
lived on both slopes of the western Pyrenees, and their name has given us
the word for the most extraordinary language in modern Europe — Basque.
Today I want to
briefly canvass what fascinates me about the Basque language, and to do
that I first must offer a note on the term “Indo-European”.
One of the
preoccupations of 19th century language scholars was attempting to
reconstruct the relationships between the better-known European and Asian
languages. One thing they soon realised was that the languages of most of
Europe and those of Asia as far east as the Bay of Bengal all belonged to
the same group. This language group came to be called Indo-European.
believe that the speakers of the ancestral Indo-European grandmother
tongue originated in about 5000 to 6000 BC somewhere north of the Danube
basin, where they led a semi-nomadic existence. By 3000 BC some dialectal
varieties of the Indo-European language were already established.
Ultimately there developed nine main language subgroups — Albanian,
Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indian and Italic.
Among the scores of ancient and modern languages descending from that same
Indo-European proto-language we can thus list those as diverse and just
about mutually unintelligible as Greek, Latin, German, Russian, Persian,
Sanskrit and English.
And what of poor
Old is right. Long
before the Romans or even the much earlier Celts had spread over their
lands, the Basques occupied the southern corner of the Bay of Biscay, as
they do today. Exactly how old the Basques are is not known, but the
culture dates back at least to Palaeolithic times, which makes their
language the most ancient language of Europe in terms of continuous
occupation of the territory where it spoken. As old as those hills that
isolated it from the Indo-European tidal wave which washed traces of all
other prehistoric tongues from the mouth and ear of mankind.
The oldest texts in
Basque date from the sixteenth century, though there are inscriptions
dating back to Roman times.
with the word “Basque”, so with “Biscay” and “Gascony” — all
are derivatives of the Latin “Vascones”. The Basque word for their own
language is “Euskara”.)
Because of its age,
Basque is truly an orphan language, entirely unrelated structurally or
historically to any language now spoken anywhere on the planet, or indeed
to any known ever to have existed. Mind you, many attempts, none
conclusive, have been made to find connections between Basque and other
languages — the Caucasian language family (around the Caspian and Black
seas), for example, and even various North African languages. There was a
time, in fact, when some scholars cherished the belief that Basque was the
language spoken by all humanity before the Tower of Babel was destroyed.
Such ideas are typical of myths that persist about Basque, such as the
false notion that no outsider can possibly learn it.
In the late
twentieth century, of course, we over here in Australia have heard nothing
about the Basque language. Instead we have developed negative views about
the Basque people, with zealous nationalism getting all its press coverage
in terms of acts of terrorism by ETA on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.
(Their less numerous French brothers keep a much lower profile.) ETA
stands for “Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna”, meaning “Basque Homeland and
While we cannot
condone such violence, it is understandable why they want to preserve
their unique culture after centuries of domination by Celts, Romans,
Catholic Church, French, Castilians and, in particular, Franco's fascist
Spain. In the latter period, local schools were forbidden to teach the
language, as were the media and churches prohibited from using it. Public
places bore Spanish signs only, no Basque names were permitted in baptism,
books in the Basque language were ceremoniously burned and Basque
inscriptions on tombstones removed.
memories linger long, and the desire to preserve the national identity,
including the language, is at root no different from its recent resurgence
elsewhere. In this context, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Innuit, Kurd and
Australian Aboriginal culture come readily to one’s mind.
Happily, by the
early 1960s official policy had changed. Gradually Basque reappeared in
church services, schools and on radio. In 1980, the first Basque
Parliament was elected, with Euskara recognised as one of its official
languages. Simultaneously, Basque literature has burgeoned, particularly
poetry. There is now a Basque public TV channel.
the world isn't careful, the days of Basque as a viable language are
numbered. Yes, despite an increasing and devoted interest in it by
Internet enthusiasts from as far away as Norway, England, Germany and
Canada, Basque is an endangered species. Today Basque speakers total less
than 600,000 in Spain and 100,000 in France. Not all are equally
proficient, however. While many understand the language, few of them make
much of an attempt to speak it, let alone write it. Hence the following
bat ez da galtzen ez dakitenek ikasten ez dutelako, dakitenek hitzegiten
ez dutelako baizik.
language does not disappear because those who don't know it don't learn
it, but because those who know it don't speak it.)
I'll leave you with
a few intriguing pieces of Basque trivia.
The Basques may well have been
those “Saracens” who defeated Roland, Charlemagne's chief
paladin, in the celebrated rearguard action at the Pass of
Roncesvalles in Navarra in 778 AD. The battle was depicted in the
twelfth century epic poem La Chanson de Roland.
The Basque word “Jinkoa” (=
God) is believed to be the origin of both the phrase “by jingo”,
and the word “jingoism”.
Converted to Christianity around
600 AD, the Basque people have brought forth many priests, and at
least one saint. None is more illustrious than St. Ignatius Loyola
(1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, i.e. the Jesuits,
and canonised in 1622. He was born in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa.