Is the Basque Language an Endangered Language?
A language is a repository of the riches of highly specialised cultural experiences.When a language is lost, all of us lose the knowledge contained in that language’s words and grammar, knowledge that can never be recovered if the language has not been studied or recorded.
Not all of this knowledge is of immediate practical benefit, of course, but all of it is vital in teaching us different ways of thinking about life, of approaching our day-to-day existence on planet earth (Daniel L Everett, From Threatened Languages to Threatened Lives, Online Article, 2007).
According to the Unesco Red Book on Endangered Languages, there are 13 languages that were once spoken in Europe that are now extinct; 9 languages that are almost extinct; 26 languages that are seriously endangered, and 38 that are in danger.This last list includes the Basque language (Unesco Red Book on Endangered Languages, Online document, 1999).
Due to an increasing concern amongst linguists regarding ethnolinguistic groups, in-depth research, and a number of studies, have been undertaken to explain the extinction of languages, the reasons why certain languages become endangered, and how to ensure that languages are not lost in the future.
The results of these studies signify several representing factors that explain why languages become endangered. One aspect is due to the fact that often a people group, or language group, moves towards another language because of increased earning and power opportunities (Daniel L.
Everett, Online Article, 2007), something that is putting several European languages under threat (Unesco Red Book on Endangered Languages, Online document, 1999). And another is when there are so few people speaking the language that it becomes impossible to continue with its usage (SIL International, Endangered Language Groups, Online Article, 2007). Or, as was the case with the Basque language, it can be partly due to the prohibition of its usage. But these are not the only dictating factors; existing social, political, economic and religious factors, all play their part.
This paper will be looking at Euskera, which is the name of the Basque language; a language that dates as far back as the 7th century, and which is considered to be under threat. An Historical Overlook of Euskera. Since the beginning of mankind, new languages have been continually emerging, while others disappear forever; and while the loss of a language may not seem to be of great importance, according to professional linguists ‘each loss is a great tragedy’ (Daniel L Everett, From Threatened Languages to Threatened Lives, Online Article, 2007).
Euskera, the Basque language, is spoken by approximately 890,000 people in Northern Spain, and 80,000, mostly elderly people in the South-West of the Pyrenees in the South of France (Unesco Red Book on Endangered Languages, Online document, 1999). However, although the Basque Community shares the same language, it is comprised of three Basque areas, which are governed by different political and administrative bodies: Iparraldea, which belongs to France; Navarra, which belongs to the Spanish State, and the BAC (Basque Autonomous Community), which governs only this particular area of the Basque Community.
Once far larger in terms of geographical boundaries, research has shown that Euskera was once spoken in Aragon and West Catalonia, as far back as the 7th century (Tover, 1959). Then in the 9th and 10th centuries, through mass migration, it reached south of Alava (University of Deusto, Bilbao, Online Document, 2007). Although records show that geographical language loss can be traced as far back as the Roman period (University of Deusto, Online Document, 2007), it was really when Prince Bonaparte drew his map recording where the Basque dialect was spoken that evidence of massive language loss could be seen. By 1863, ‘…..
Basque had been lost in west Biscay, most of Alava, south of Pamplona…….. and the Baiona area of northern Basque Country’ (University of Deusto, 2007). The decline was partly due to decisions made concerning the supremacy of Spanish during the Bourbon period of the 18th Century, and the way the language was stigmatized as inferior, only being considered as suitable for farmers and peasants (University of Deusto, 2007). Spanish was used exclusively in education and instruction, and children who attempted speaking Basque were punished, resulting in illiteracy amongst the children of Basque speakers (University of Deusto, 2007).
Industrialization also played its part during the 19th century. The need for workers resulted in mass immigration, and saw the arrival of so many monolingual Spanish speakers that their numbers far outweighed those of the Basque speakers. The fact that the Spanish speakers moved into several areas where the language had already been lost, and the fact that the Franco government prohibited the use of Euskera, both helped to ensured that the language would become endangered (University of Deusto, 2007). Spanish and French Attitudes Concerning the Basque Language.
The use of Basque by Basque-speakers is only partial during the day. With the exception of a few areas in the Basque Country, it is almost impossible to live speaking only Basque. However, living speaking only French or Spanish is possible and frequent. The Basque-speaker must use French or Spanish at least in part, not only because of the legal imperative but also because of the social relegation of Basque (Euskal Herria Journal, The Basque Language at Home, Online Article, 2007). It was during the Franco dictatorship period, through cultural and language oppression, that the majority of loss occurred.
And it was only when democracy was restored that the Basque movement, whose aim was to restore their language and culture, came into being. Both the Spanish and French governments have, historically, been instrumental in the loss of the Basque language by enforcing the exclusive use of their nation’s respective languages. The results of the prohibition concerning the usage of Euskera, is believed to have resulted in half of the Basque population being more comfortable when speaking Euskera, and the other half more comfortable speaking either French or Spanish (Daniel L.Everett, Online Article, 2007).
However in recent years, or at least in Spain, there have been efforts to ensure the future of the Basque language; these are mainly through educational choices. In Southern Basque Country, which is under Spanish administration, there are three types of education available to students, and which are chosen according to language choice. 1. Education in Spanish only. 2. Education in both Spanish and Basque. 3. Education in Basque only. In 1991-1992, the figures given for students attending all public, private and religious schools were as follows: The Spanish-only education system totalled 58.
3% of students; Spanish and Basque totalled 19. 5% students; and the Basque-only, totalled some 22. 2% of students (Euskal Herria Journal, Online Article, 2007). In France, however, there have been no attempts at such integration, where the only recognised language is French, and where there is little support for the Basque State. In Northern Basque Country, just 1. 4% of children who attend compulsory full-time education, are able to learn Basque; but that is through Ikastolas, which are nationalist, private schools (Euskal Herria Journal, Online Article, 2007).
Protecting Euskera. The language and culture oppression that the Basque’s suffered during the dictatorship of Franco was probably instrumental in the massive resurge of people’s interest in their cultural and language identity. Emphasising language as the symbol that gave a group its uniqueness, and; against the political and social situation of the time, Basque was perceived as the central element in a process of cultural renovation. Distinguishing from previous rural cultural manifestations, urban youngsters wanted to show their urban voice and they wanted to do it in Basque.
They proved that Basque did not have to be linked only to the rural environment, that Basque was not just “the farmers’ language,” but rather that it could occupy an important place in the manifestation of modern urban Basque culture’ (University of Deusto, 2007). With recent memories of the Franco Regime, Spain was just coming to terms with her own political, social and culture freedom, and Spanish world views and opinions would have probably been far different from than that of neighbouring France.
The introduction of new laws concerning minority languages paved the way for not only Euskera, but also other ethnic tongues. The Basque language was officially recognized in Spain after the Spanish Constitution (1978), and declared in 1979 at the Basque Parliament (BAC) in the Statue of Autonomy. Education was quickly recognised as one of the major ways of protecting and spreading Euskera, and human, legal and financial resources were all, and still are being, used to this effect (Euskal Herria Journal, Online Article, 2007).
More than forty years have passed since the start of the program to promote the Basque language, and it is evident that efforts are having positive results. There are reported increases in the amount of bilingual speakers, ‘especially within the younger generations, and due mostly to the introduction of Basque in the education system’ (University of Deusto, 2007), and successful results in adult literacy programs. Achieving such results, when faced with the difficulties of re-introducing a minority language, stand as evidence of the Basque’s determination concerning the continuation of their heritage, language and culture.
Conclusion An endangered language is a language headed for extinction. It is a language without monolingual speakers, people who speak only that language (Your Dictionary, Online Article, 2007). If taking the above criteria and applying it to the title of this paper, ‘Is the Basque Language an Endangered Language? ’ the answer would undeniably have to be yes. This is mainly due to the fact that the Basque language is almost without monolingual speakers – but whether the Basque language is headed for extinction, or not, is debatable.
At present the Basque language is growing, rather than reducing, due to the effort that has been made be the Basque community, and that does not show any sign of changing. In today’s climate the conservation of heritage, cultures and languages are recognised as vitally important for man, and more effort is being made to ensure their protection – although this still needs to increase. However, globalization is a modern reality and our world is shrinking.
Europe is enlarging her boarders, frontiers are opening, and people are crossing in to other countries in the hope of finding better situations. As was stated earlier in this paper, immigration is one of the causes of language loss, which in some respects is a natural outcome of a changing world. References Daniel L. Everett, From Threatened Languages to Threatened Lives, Online Article, 2007. http://www. yourdictionary. com/elr/everett. html Euskal Herria Journal, The Basque Language at Home, Online Article, 2007 http://www. ehj-navarre.
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