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Basque 

basque
Ongi etorri – Welcome

Basque, (Euskara, in Basque), is one of a handful of non-Indo-European languages with a home in Western Europe. Others include Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Sami, and Maltese.  It is a language isolate, i.e., it has no known relatives anywhere in the world. This has led to a number of hypotheses regarding its origin. The prevailing theory is that an early form of Basque was spoken in southwestern Europe before the arrival of Indo-Europeans, perhaps as early as 2,000 years ago. The Basques are believed to have occupied their current territory long before the Celts and the Romans invaded their lands. Their culture dates back to Palaeolithic times, which makes their language the most ancient language of Europe. The name Basque comes from Latin vascones ‘foresters’. Vasconia was the Roman name for the up-country of the western Pyrenees.

mapToday Basque is spoken by 659,000 people in the Basque Country (Euskadi), an autonomous community in the Pyrenees in North-Central Spain, South-Western France, and the autonomous community of Navarre in Spain (Ethnologue).

Status
Basque has the status of a statutory provincial language in Basque Country of Spain where most speakers of Basque also speak Castilian. It has no official status in the Basque Country of France where many people also speak French.

Dialects

Ethnologue identifies a number of Basque dialects:

  • Guipuzcoan
  • Alto Navarro Septentrional (High Navarrese, Upper Navarran)
  • Alto Navarro Meridional, Biscayan (Vizcaino)
  • Roncalese
  • Avalan
  • Souletin spoken in France

 

All dialects are mutually intelligible, except for Souletin. The most widely used standardized dialect is Batua (‘unified’ in Basque). It is taught in most schools and used in the media. It is usually referred to as Standard Basque. Although regional varieties are sometimes preferred for oral communication, there is a strong desire for the use of the Batua unified standard.

Structure

Sound system

The description below mostly reflects the sound features of Standard Basque and does not represent the sound features of all Basque dialects. The description is based on  Wikipedia.

Vowels
Basque has five vowels.

Close
i
u
Mid
e
o
Open
a

There are also five diphthongs /ai/, /ei/, /oi/, /ui/, /au/, /eu/. The Souletin dialect of Basque spoken in France has an additional front rounded vowel /y/ and a contrasting set of five nasalized vowels.

Consonants 
Basque makes a distinction between apical and laminal articulations for alveolar fricatives and affricates. In apical articulations, the contact is made by the tip of the tongue (apex). In laminal articulations, the contact is made by the blade of the tongue.

Stops voiceless
p
t
c
k
voiced
b
b
g
Fricatives voiceless
f

voiced
h
Affricates
ts̺
ts̻
Nasals
m
n
Laterals
l
ʎ
Tap
ɾ
Trill
r
  • /c, ɟ/ have no equivalents in English
  • /s̻, ts̻/ have no equivalents in English
  • /x/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ʎ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ɾ, ɾ/ have no equivalents in American English
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /tʃ/ = ch in chop

 

Grammar

Basque is a richly inflected language. It marks grammatical relations by adding suffixes to roots. Prefixes are relatively uncommon.

Nouns
Basque nouns are marked for the following categories:

  • definiteness/indefiniteness
  • There are four definite determiners: three demonstratives and a definite article in the form of a suffix. They are marked for number (singular or plural). All the other determiners are indefinite and are not marked for number. Buber gives the following illustration:
Singular
Plural
etxea the house etxeak the houses
etxe zuria the white house etxe zuriak the white houses
etxe bat one (a) house bi etxe two houses
etxe zuri bat one (a) white house bi etxe zuri two white houses
etxe hau this house etxe hauek these houses
etxe zuri hau this white house exte zuri hauek these white houses

 

  • Basque has over a dozen cases represented by suffixes.
Case
Ending
Function
absolutive
no ending
intransitive subjects, direct objects, complements of copulas
ergative
-k
transitive subjects
dative
-i
indirect objects
genitive
-en
possessor
instrumental
-z
instruments and other uses
comitative
-ekin
accompaniment (‘with’)
locative
-n
location, motion into
ablative
-tik
motion away from, out of
allative
-ra
destination of motion
terminative
-raino
motion up to, as far as
directional
-rantz
direction of motion
benefactive
-entzat
for (a person)
Destinative
-rako
for (a thing)

 

Pronouns and demonstratives
Basque personal pronouns are shown below:

ni
I
gu
we
hi
you singular, intimate; highly restricted use
zuek
you (plural)
zu
you singular, neutral
There is no 3rd person pronoun; if needed, demonstratives are used.

 

There are three demonstratives, just like in Spanish, representing three degrees of proximity.

hau
this
hori
that
hura
that over there

 

Verbs 
Basque verb morphology is quite complex, and only some of its features are listed below.

  • Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. In ergative-absolutive languages, the absolutive is the grammatical case used to mark both the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb. It contrasts with the ergative case, which marks the subject of transitive verbs. For example, the noun mutil ‘boy’ takes the absolutive singular ending –a both as subject of the intransitive clause Mutila etorri da ‘the boy came’ and as object of the transitive clause in Irakasleak mutila ikusi du ‘the teacher saw the boy’, in which the subject is marked with the ergative ending ak.
  • Most Basque verbs use auxiliaries which follow the main verb. Finite verbs generally agree in person and number with their subjects, and their direct and indirect objects (if any). Agreement is usually ergative, i.e., prefixes are used for absolutives, and suffixes are used for ergatives. Certain past-tense forms have ergatives marked by prefixes. Indirect objects are marked by suffixes.
  • Intransitive verbs are conjugated with the auxiliary verb izan ‘be’, which also functions as an independent verb. Transitive verbs are conjugated with the auxiliary edun ‘have’.
  • Besides the indicative mood, Basque verbs also have various imperative, subjunctive, potential, conditional and irrealis (contrary to fact) forms.

 

Word order
The basic word order in Basque is Subject-Object-Verb, with some variation. Modifiers precede the nouns they modify.

Vocabulary

Most of the basic vocabulary is inherently Basque. As a result of close contact with Latin, Iberian and other languages for over 2,000 years, Basque has borrowed many words from Latin, Spanish, French, Celtic, and Arabic, e.g., libiru ‘book’, boitura ‘car’, kantu ‘song’.

Below are a few basic Basque words and phrases.

Hello Kaixo
Good morning Egun on
Good evening Arratsalde on
Good night Gabon
Good bye Agur
Thank you Eskerrik asko
Please Mesedez
Excuse me Barkatu
Yes Bai
No Ez
Man Gizon
Woman Emakume

Below are Basque numerals 1-10.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
bat
bi
hiru
lau
bost
sei
zazpi
zortzi
bederatzi
hamar

Writing

The first book in Basque was published in 1545, although there are inscriptions in Basque dating back to Roman times. For centuries, there was no standard orthography, and Basque was written with the Latin alphabet supplemented with symbols to represent sounds not present in Romance languages. In 1964, the Royal Basque Language Academy introduced a new standardized orthography that is now universally used. This alphabet contains the following letters:

A a
B b
D d
E e
F f
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
Ñ ñ
O o
P p
R r
S s
T t
U u
X x
Z z

The letters c, q, v, w, y are not part of the Basque alphabet. They are used only for writing borrowed words and foreign names. The letter sequences dd, ll, rr, ts, tt, tx, tz represent single sounds.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Basque.

1. atala
Gizon-emakume guztiak aske jaiotzen dira, duintasun eta eskubide berberak dituztela; eta ezaguera eta kontzientzia dutenez gero, elkarren artean senide legez jokatu beharra dute.
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did You Know?

Basque words in English
English has several words of Basque origin.

anchovy from Basque anchu ‘dried fish,’ from anchuva ‘dry’
jai alai name of a game, from Basque jai ‘celebration’ + alai ‘merry’
bizarre from French bizarre ‘odd, strange’, possibly from Basque bizar ‘ beard’ (possibly due tof the strange impression made in France by bearded Spanish soldiers)

 

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Basque?
There is no data on the difficulty level of Basque for speakers of English.

5 Responses to Basque

  1. Graham Howe

    This is generally an excellent article – however, your assertion that Basque is the only non-Indo-European language is absolutely wrong. Finnish, the Sámi languages of Northern Sweden, Norway, and Finland and Maltese are all examples of non-Indo-European languages.

     
  2. Nerea Leturia

    I would never say Basque people speak Catalan, as a rule… We speak Basque and Castilian or French (it depends on the country we live), and Catalan would be kind of foreign language to us.

     
  3. Patricia

    Thank you for such a nice introduction to the Basque language.
    I can’t comment on how difficult it is to learn Basque for English speakers, but I can tell you that it is not easy for the Spanish ones!

     
    • Irene Thompson

      It should be as difficult for Spanish speakers as it is for English speakers since Basque is not related to either. The only caveat might be that Basque has a good number of Spanish loanwords.

       
      • Xabier

        It is difficult but so beautiful… 🙂

         

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