The stone-age Basque language remains mystery to scientists


By Sinikka Tarvainen

Jun 1, 2006, 12:52 GM

San Sebastian, Spain - No frontier marks the entrance to Spain's Basque region, but the traveller passing by quaint villages on green hillsides has a clear sense of entering a distinct territory.

It is not just the Basque flags here and there. It is, above all, the signs in a strange language unlike any other in the world.

A travel bureau, for instance, is marked 'bidaiak.' An ice-cream shop has a sign saying 'izozkiak.' A police station is marked 'ertzainza', and an office of the Basque regional government is called 'eusko jaurlaritza.'

Scientists remain puzzled by the Basque people of northern Spain and southern France, believed to be the oldest Europeans, whose language appears to date from the palaeolithic age and whose origin is a mystery.

When Indo-European invaders began arriving in Europe from steppes beyond the Black Sea millennia before our era, they crushed the original European languages.

Only a few non-Indo-European languages survive in Europe, including Basque, Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian. The latter three are related, but scientists have been unable to find a relative for the Basque language, known as Euskera.

'Some believe it originated with the Berbers in Northern Africa, others say it is Caucasian, while some think it developed in southern Europe,' explains Fito Rodriguez, president of an association of Basque authors.

One thing, however, seems certain: Euskera is very, very old. Several words meaning tools such as axes or hoes begin with the word 'aitz' (stone), indicating they could date from a time when they were made of stone.

Investigators have also found some physical peculiarities among the Basques, such as there being more of them with type O blood than in the general European population.

Why Euskera resisted the Indo-European and later Roman and other invasions and finally the onslaught of the Spanish language is also a mystery.

It is often attributed to the isolation of Basque mountain villages, but the Basque region was also an important international crossroads, as Rodriguez points out.

Researchers are also looking into traditional Basque culture to find clues into what Europe was like before the arrival of the war-like, patriarchal Indo-Europeans.

Certain traditions, such as the strong position of women and the worship of the goddess Mari, have led some scholars to conclude that old European societies were at least partly matriarchal and that life was remarkably peaceful.

Euskera was long regarded as a barbaric second-rate language, and a nationalist movement to defend it only took off in the 19th century.

At the same time, however, Euskera also lost ground because large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants began arriving to work in the industrialized region.

During the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, 'we were even punished for speaking Euskera at school,' peace activist Maixux Rekalde recalls.

A Basque Language Academy established in 1919 nevertheless managed to support the standardization and modernization of Euskera after 1968 in the only such process in 20th century Europe.

The vocabulary is still not completely finished. 'We continue inventing for instance technological words, borrowing elements from Spanish and English,' translator Joseba Ossa explained.

Modern literature in Euskera, free of nationalist or religious connotations, only began emerging in the 1960s.

Reclaiming Euskera is an important part of a nationalist movement best known for the violent campaign of the separatist group ETA, which has killed more than 800 people since 1968.

The movement is, however, much wider, ranging from radical politicians seeking rapid independence from Spain to moderates demanding more autonomy and cultural activists.

A third of the 2.1 million residents of the Basque region are estimated to speak Euskera, which is also spoken in neighbouring Navarre and three French Basque provinces, albeit to a lesser extent.

With more than half of Basque children now schooled mainly in Euskera, the language is expanding, explains Ramon Etxezarreta, Euskera specialist at the San Sebastian city council.

About 2,000 books are published annually in Euskera, some newspapers publish all or a part of their articles in it, and there is a Euskera-language television and radio station (

Some non-Basque Spaniards speak contemptuously of efforts to revive what they see as an obscure small language, but for the Basques, it is a question of identity.

'We neglected our language for a long time, but now we are proud of it,' Etxezarreta says. 'It is another symbol of our specificity.'