How the Basque Language Has Survived

Another wonderful episode from the World in Words podcast is “How the Basque language has survived”.  There are many interesting points in the episode, making the whole thing worth listening.  Below, I’ve picked out one small section from the podcast that is interesting and inspiring.

Here’s the blurb from the World in Words’ webpage about the Basque language:

Spoken in a region that spans northern Spain and across the border into southern France, it is not part of the Indo-European language family. It’s not related to Spanish or French or German or Greek or any known language. The origins of the language are a bit of mystery. In fact, you can almost hear the history of the European continent in the language according to Basque language scholar Xabier Irujo.

And here’s a small excerpt, regarding the efforts in the Basque community in the mid-1900s to standardize their language for the purposes of preserving it under the oppressive Franco regime.  At the time, there was a dispute on which of the dialects (or which linguistic features from which dialects) to choose as the “standard”, especially whether or not to pronounce certain words with an “h” sound or not, which happened in one dialect (Batua) from the northern areas of Basque Country, but not in the others spoken by a majority of speakers:

Alan King: So this was coming on during the [19]60’s, and it finally came to a head at this famous meeting at Arantzazu.

Nina Porzucki (host): October 1968, all of the greatest Basque thinkers and linguists met at a monestary in Basque Country to vote on whether to make Batua the official standard.

Alan King: There was a motion on the table whether to adopt Batua as the official way of writing Basque from then on.  There were a lot of people who very angrily spoke against it, and it actually looked as though the motion was not going to be adopted.

Nina Porzucki (host): And then, in an infamous moment at the meeting, a linguist by the name of Pierre Lafitte stood up.

Alan King: Not a very imposing man, you know, physically imposing.  But a humble, frail man.

Nina Porzucki (host): And he gave a speech, as a Northerner.

Alan King: [paraphrasing Lefitte’s speech] “As a member of the northern Basque Country, seeing as things have come to a head, the correct way to move forward is to stop writing ‘h'”.

Patrick Cox (host): What? Stop writing “h”?

Nina Porzucki (host): Yeah.  He went on to explain that it was more important for the speakers from the south, where there were and are still many, many more people, that they continue to speak the language, and

Alan King: “…our northern Basque may perhaps die out, but you must keep it alive.  If you don’t see fit to spell with the ‘h’, then we should not stand in the way.”

Nina Porzucki (host): Imagine the room after that speech, Patrick.

Patrick Cox (host): Wait a minute, he fell on his own sword, right?

Nina Porzucki (host): He did.  He said, you know what, it’s more important that the language survive.  Our dialect will die, but… yeah.

Patrick Cox (host): So how did they react, what did they do?

Alan King: He sat down.  And apparently, that’s when they decided to say yes to the “h”.

Nina Porzucki (host): … What happened was that everyone realized that, “We all are trying to save this language, so if we spell something with an ‘h’ or without an ‘h’, that’s besides the point.”  The point is to continue Basque.


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