Linguistic Nationalism Among the Basques

Dec 9, 2011 by

BY

On the 20th of October, 2011, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), an organization of Basque freedom fighters, announced a complete termination of their “campaigns of bombings and shootings” – in the group’s own words, a “definitive cessation.” This follows half a century of violent clashes against the Spanish government for the cause of Basque nationalism and establishment of a specific and free Basque state, completely separate and independent from Spain. What, then, causes this level of animosity and strong sense of national pride among the Basque people such that they would rise up continually against the Spanish government?

For the Basques, the answer to this question is inextricably intertwined with their language, Euskara. One might believe that Spain is a land of monolingualism, but in reality Spain is gifted – or plagued – depending on one’s perspective, with an amalgam of cultures and languages from each corner of its landmass: The Gallegos directly north of Portugal; the Andalusians near the Strait of Gibraltar; the Catalans of Barcelona; and of course the Basques bordering France and the Bay of Biscay. Each region contains its own customs, but is somehow “united” under the language of Castilian, or Castellano (what is referred to as Spanish by the majority of the world).

The Basque people inhabit the extreme north of Spain, bordering the Pyrenees Mountains to the east and Bay of Biscay to the north. In the past, the Basques inhabited a much larger range of Spain, but were forced back into the present hostile landscape known as Eskual Herri, or Basque Land. The history of the Basques is slightly more obscure, as they are an almost completely separate ethnic group and fully insular linguistic group. Euskara has no existing or known linguistic relatives, making it a perfect isolate, and is an incredibly difficult language to learn unless brought up in the language itself, as evidenced by the fact that French religious leader and polyglot of the 16th Century, Joseph Scaliger, had to stop learning Basque because of its difficulty – after teaching himself Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Persian. It is believed that Basque predates the Indo-European language surge, which would indicate it being the oldest surviving language in Europe. As of yet, there have been no successful inquiries into the history of the Basque language.

Because of their linguistic isolation from the other languages on the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the physical isolation of Euskal Herria, the Basque people have consistently felt a sense of separating and remoteness during the modern era. Basques were especially persecuted partly due to the diametrically opposed nature of Euskara and Castilian. Leaders of the Basque National Party (PNV) were especially partial to the thought that their language was a rallying point and one of the main causes behind their separate nature as a nation. Language is accepted to be one of many bases for cultural or national identity as well as a pseudo-answer to the question: “To which group do I belong?” Catalan nationalist leader Prat de la Riba used language as an overarching likeness between Catalans as a way of proponing a sense of nationalism for his people. As a connection to this primordial thought that language is a main cause for one’s national identity, the PNV was created by Sabino Arana on July 31, 1895 to fully promote Basque independence if not outright secession from Spain because of ethnic and linguistic reasons. Besides the obvious linguistic differences between Euskara and the remainder of the languages on the Iberian Peninsula, multiple officials of the PNV’s stance was that without Euskara there was no Euskadi. As we see in interviews in Alfonzo Perez-Agote’s book The Social Roots of Basque Nationalism – “For me, monolingualism sounds the same as independence. I’m not at all sure I’ll ever see it. As an agreed aim or objective,” and “The only possible [linguistic picture] for an abertzale [nationalist] is that throughout Euskadi, both north and south, Euskara is spoken and that it’s the only national language”.

This does differ slightly from the significantly more radical ETA, as we saw with the ending of their reign of violence. The ETA was founded July 31, 1959 by several previous members of the PNV who didn’t believe that the leadership of the PNV was being harsh enough against the Franco regime’s policies against the Basque – instead of parliamentary procedure, they were proponents of radical and revolutionary violence; they also wanted to unite the seven traditional provinces under one federation of Basque provinces, and remove the governmental structure France and Spain had over them. However, despite the more radical approach, they too agreed on the importance of language for the Basques. As Mark Kurlansky states in his book The Basque History of the World – “Euskara is the quintessence of Euskadi. So long as Euskara is alive, Euskadi will live”. Euskara for the ETA was their only source of togetherness, and if anyone who could speak Euskara became a Basque.

Seeing the ways in which these two Basque nationalist organizations incorporate the importance of Euskara into their claims and battles for Basque nationalism, it becomes clearly apparent that language to the Basques is similar to music to musicians. They are codependent; one requires the existence of the other in order to survive and thrive. Language, especially common language, is a point of reference for all peoples from which they can decide where they fit in the world. As long as the Basques keep speaking Euskara, the Basques will survive and remain fighting for their individual national rights.

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Works Referenced

BBC News. “Basque group ETA says armed campaign is over.” October 20, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15393014.

Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention. New York: Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Company, 2005.

Hofstede, Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Kurlansky, Mark. The Basque History of the World. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Mar-Molinero, Claire. “The Iberian Peninsula: Conflicting Linguistic Nationalisms.” In Language and Nationalism in Europe. Edited by Stephen Barbour and Cathie Carmichael. 83-104. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Payne, Stanley G. Basque Nationalism. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1975.

Pérez-Agote, Alfonzo. The Social Roots of Basque Nationalism. Translated by Cameron Watson and William A. Douglass. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2006.


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  • John Cowan

    It's true that Basque nationalism depends on the Basque language, but the treatment of Basque in Franco's time was not particularly worse than the treatment of Galician or even Catalan. I think you have to look elsewhere to see why the Basque Country had a revolutionary movement and the other did not. I think the likely causes are a combination of poverty and desperation on the one hand, and the ability to retreat into France on the other.

  • befuggled

    Let's hope that the ETA doesn't leave any splinter groups behind, like the IRA did after its ceasefire in Ireland.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Good points, John and befuggled!