Standardization of Basque

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY MICHAEL JAMES LANCASTER (“Languages of the World”)

Until recently, Basque—the ancestral language of the people who inhabit the Basque Country of northeastern Spain and southwestern France—had neither a standardized form nor an official use in administrative capacities. In fact, unlike its neighboring Romance languages, Basque didn’t undergo a standardization process until the latter half of the twentieth century. Developed in the late 1960s by the Basque Academy, Euskara Batua, the standard form of the Basque language has become firmly rooted in Basque society in just a few decades. This post will explore the adoption of a standard Basque language, examining the initial challenges and attempts at standardization, successful standardization efforts of the 1960s, and subsequent implementation as the official language of the Basque region.

Although Basque writers and scholars had long noted the need for the development and implementation of a unified form of Basque, concerted standardization efforts didn’t begin until the 1900s with the formation of the Basque Academy. The Basque Academy was founded in 1918 under the sponsorship of the governments of the four Basque provinces within Spain, with one of its main purposes being the standardization of the Basque language. Because no Basque dialect was regarded as a written standard for the whole of the Basque country at this time—and there was no true “socially dominant” dialect (the urban middle classes of Basque country preferred French or Spanish as their mode of expression)—the Academy faced the challenge of choosing a Basque dialect on which to base the standard form.

Choosing such a base dialect was an immensely controversial task, and different members of the Academy had vastly different opinions as to which dialect should form the basis for standard Basque. R.M. de Azkue, the first president of the Basque Academy, favored the use of the northern Gipuzkoan dialect mixed with elements from other dialects, while other academicians preferred the Coastal Lapurdian dialect, a variety prominent in regions north of the Pyrenees. Others, such as Bizkaian writer B. Gaubeka, claimed the standard should be based on the Bizkaian dialect, as they felt this was Basque’s “oldest” and “richest” dialect. Further adding to the disagreement, some scholars were against the standardization effort altogether: writer Nikolas Ormaetxe worried that a unified Basque language would destroy the diversity of dialects of Basque speakers. Scholars like Ormaetxe stressed how a richness of Basque dialects allowed for the use of different dialects for different literary genres as in Ancient Greece.

Ultimately, little progress was made during the first phase of the Basque Academy (1918-1936), and all Academy activities were eventually suspended with the onset of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and World War II. It wasn’t until 1945 that Academy activities resumed. The Academy saw further disagreement in the 1950s as to a dialectical basis for standard Basque. Finally, however, a combination of writers and linguists proposed a unified written standard based on the Classical Lapurdian dialect—a form used in Basque literature during the 17th century (especially by Basque author Axular)—but modernized with elements from the Basque region’s central dialects. Linguist Koldo Mitxelen supported the idea of a modernized Lapurdian standard and was responsible for drafting a proposal for the unification of the Basque language.

With the presentation and adoption of Mitxelen’s proposal by the Basque Academy in 1968, the codification process quickly began. Mitxelen included guidelines for orthography, morphology, lexical variants and the adaptation of neologisms, but the Basque Academy had much to address in determining standard words, establishing a grammar, and eventually codifying pronunciation guidelines for the Euskara Batua standard.

The determination of Euskara Batua’s standard words was a particularly challenging task, as the Academy was forced to grapple with whether a word is or is not a Basque word. Given centuries of language contact, Basque incorporates many words of Latin and Romance origin. Basque linguistic purists called for the purification of the Basque language, insisting on the exclusion of borrowings and foreign words from the Euskara Batua official lexicon. For example, purists insisted that eliza, the Basque word for ‘church’, shouldn’t be included in the official lexicon, as it was borrowed from Latin ecclesia. On the other hand, some scholars favored the opposite approach, demanding a liberal incorporation of Spanish and French words in the lexicon. The Academy ultimately ruled that a word would be considered “Basque” if it has a “tradition in Basque usage,” regardless of its etymology or the availability of “purer” (less foreign) synonyms.

Though this has guided the Academy in its codification of Euskara Batua, scholars and linguists continue to debate the determination of what is a true Basque word. In 1991, linguists lamented the media’s heavy borrowings of French and Spanish words, with the Academy claiming that “those [words] that a Basque speaker would not be able to understand without knowing Spanish or French are not Basque words at all.”

The development of a standard grammar for Basque was another feat for the Basque Academy. A special commission was founded for this purpose, which published a 500 page volume on the structure of the noun phase, followed by further volumes addressing the verb and the structure of the simple sentence, compound sentence, and connectors. In developing a standard grammar, the Academy turned to the language’s classics, using works like Axular’s Gero to compose a genuinely “Basque” grammar.

Though initially developed as a written standard, Euskara Batua quickly gained spoken popularity, and in 1998 the Academy developed a codification of the proper pronunciation of standard Basque for formal contexts. The pronunciation of , for example, was especially a point of contention, as pronunciations with [j-] were used in the north, while [x-] was favored in the south. Here, the Academy deviated from Mitxelen’s recommendation against inventing forms not found in traditions of the Basque language by suggesting that be pronounced as a palatal. The controversy regarding the pronunciation represents one of many debates surrounding the codification of Basque pronunciation.

Though it has been criticized by some scholars, the development of a standard Basque language is generally regarded as a linguistic success. In the mid twentieth century, the future of Basque was in question: without any concerted effort to preserve the language, the “dying” language would likely soon be abandoned. Because of the determination and cultural consciousness of the Basque academy, however, the preservation of the Basque language (and culture) has been safeguarded. No longer do speakers of different varieties of Basque need to resort to Spanish or French to communicate—they can easily communicate in a standard language. No longer is Basque a language largely used in informal contexts—it is one that now permeates “all domains of social life,” including education, public administration, the press, and the media. No longer is Basque perceived as a “hodgepodge of dialects”—it is now respected and revered as a language that is deeply ingrained in the people and culture of the Basque region. It is for these reasons that linguists generally praise the standardization efforts of the Basque Academy for protecting a vulnerable, yet culturally essential, language.

Haddican, William. “Standardization and Language Change in Basque.” Penn Working
Papers in Linguistic. NYU Department of Linguistics. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.
Hualde, Jose, and Koldo Zuazo. “The Standardization of the Basque Language.” Language
Problems and Language Planning. Web. 7 Nov. 2011.
“The Protection of Cultural Diversity: Language Rights and Legal Pluralism.” Center for
Basque Studies. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

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