Sunday, June 01, 2003

This here article from Slate is worth a read. I've given it a mild fisking.

Basque separatists speak one of the planet's most unusual languages.
By Brendan I. Koerner
Posted Friday, May 30, 2003, at 2:15 PM PT

The Basque separatist group ETA is being blamed for (is guilty of) a bombing that killed two policemen in the northern Spanish town of Sangüesa today. Basque nationalists often point to the group's distinct language (about twenty percent of them actually speak it, max twenty-five) as a primary reason for independence. How different is the Basque tongue from Spanish?

Aside from a few similar pronunciation characteristics, like trilled r's, the two are completely unrelated. (A lot of Basque vocabulary comes from Latin, either directly or through Spanish.) In fact, Basque—more formally (more nationalistically correctly--the word was invented by completely loco founder of Basque nationalism, Sabino de Arana, as racist as Hitler, about a hundred years ago) known as Euskara—is one of the planet's most unusual languages. Though linguists have tried to connect Euskara to everything from Pictish to the Dravidian languages, the current consensus is that it is not related to any other. It doesn't seem to (it doesn't, period) belong to the Indo-European language family and likely predates the development of those tongues. One theory, popular among Basque scholars, is that both the language and the ethnic group descend from the Iberian peninsula's earliest settlers, who may have arrived around 35,000 years ago. There is scant archaeological evidence, however, to support this assertion. (Fair enough. Real wacky Basques get into the fact that the percentage of A blood type and / or RH negative people in the Basque population is above average for Europe and this somehow shows the Basques are a different and pure race.)

What is certain is that an ancestral form of Basque, known as Aquitanian, was being spoken when the Romans arrived in Spain, around 200 B.C. Though the Basques came down from the Pyrenees to trade with the conquerors, they were never thoroughly subjugated (false; this is one of the most common myths spread in Spanish schools; it is true that the region was always a wild backwater, not christianized until around 900 or so), which may account for the perseverance of Euskara while the rest of the peninsula was influenced by Latin. In the Middle Ages, Basque was widely spoken in northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Between 1200 and 1332, the three Basque provinces of Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, and Araba allied themselves with the Castilian crown, but they were granted special privileges, including self-government. (Sort of true. In the thirteenth century Guipúzcoa and Alava voted to join Castile. Vizcaya joined Castile through marriage and inheritance in 1379. Navarra was conquered by Castile-Aragón in 1512. They didn't exactly have self-government except for Navarra, which was ruled by a viceroy and had independent legislative and judicial systems, but the three Basque provinces did have autonomous privileges that other parts of Spain didn't.)

The first wave of oppression followed the Carlist Wars of the 19th century, after the Basques supported the losing cause of the pretender Don Carlos. (Because the Basques were reactionary rural Catholics and so was Carlos. They lost a lot of their autonomy after the defeat of the Carlists, but "oppression" is a pretty loaded word.) Things got much worse under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who came to power after the Spanish Civil War and outlawed the speaking of Euskara. (Franco's dictatorship was unpleasant but not horrible, and speaking Basque at home and in private, and at church or among friends was never outlawed, nor could it be. By the Fifties published works in Basque were appearing again and a network of ikastolas, schools that teach both the Basque language and nationalistic politics, had been founded.) This repression led to the creation of ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna—"Basque Homeland and Liberty") in 1959. (The above is a pretty cheap-ass justification for turning loose a terrorist gang to kill as it pleases.) Though the Basque region was granted considerable autonomy after Franco's death, a small faction of separatists, (how about the T-word? Where's the T-word? The ETA are a bunch of Ts) who believe their culture is threatened, continues to fight for complete independence. There have been 839 people killed as a result of ETA attacks since 1968. (About 839 too many.)

There are about 600,000 fluent Euskara speakers in Basque Country today, with the vast majority on the Spanish side, and another 400,000 speak Euskara as a second language—there has been a tremendous Euskara revival in Basque schools over the past two decades. (Still, most students in the Basque country study in Spanish, and most people who aren't born into a Basque-speaking family stay with Spanish. About a quarter of the Basques, maximum, can communicate in Basque.) A sign of the Basques' pride in their tongue is their word for themselves, Euskaldunak—"possessors of the Basque language." (That won't save you from getting murdered by the ETA, though, as José María Korta found out.)

Next question? (Yeah, several, but I'll stick with the one big one I've got: where's the T-word and where's the sympathy for the dead victims of the stupid nationalistic bullheaded pride of a small minority of the people? Where's the statement that "ninety percent of Basques want ETA to stop killing right now" or that "in a referendum a large majority of Basques would vote to stay with Spain"?)

Explainer thanks the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada-Reno. (Why doesn't Explainer call up some more neutral historian, like Stanley G. Payne at the University of Wisconsin at Madison?)

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