Basque language

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Basque (Euskara)
Spoken in: Spain and France
Region: Basque Country
Total speakers: 1,033,900
(First language: 700,000)
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Language isolate
Official status
Official language of: Basque Country (Spain and France)
Regulated by: Euskaltzaindia
Language codes
ISO 639-1 eu
ISO 639-2 baq (B) / eus (T)
See also: LanguageList of languages

Basque (native name: Euskara) is the language spoken by the Basque people who inhabit the Pyrenees in north Spain and the adjoining area of south-western France. More specifically, the Basques occupy a Spanish autonomous community known as the Basque Country (Euskadi), which has significant cultural and political autonomy. Basques also make up sizable parts of the population in what is known as the Northern Basque Country in France and the autonomous community of Navarre in Spain. The Standard Basque name for the language is euskara; other dialectal forms are euskera, eskuara and üskara. Although geographically surrounded by Indo-European languages, Basque is believed to be a language isolate (not to be confused with an isolating language).


History and classification

The ancestors of Basques are among the oldest inhabitants of Europe, and their origins are still unknown, as are the origins of their language itself. Many scholars have tried to link Basque to Etruscan, African languages, Caucasian languages and so on, but most scholars see Basque as a language isolate. A connection with the Iberian language gave some hope, but it is unclear whether similarities are due to genetic relations or mere vicinity. It was spoken long before the Romans brought Latin to the Iberian Peninsula, and the scarce Roman presence in the Basque area furthered the distinction. Basque however acquired Latin vocabulary before the diversification of Romance languages.

The Georgian connection

The Caucasian hypothesis is popular in Georgia as a link between Basques and Georgians; but there is little evidence for this sort of speculation. (See "Caucasian Iberia"). One of the few practical consequences is that the former mayor of Bilbao José María Gorordo made the city and the Georgian capital Tbilisi twin cities, and Euskal Telebista (Basque Television) co-produced a version of Don Quixote with the Georgian Television.

Geographic distribution

The region in which Basque is spoken is smaller than what is known as the Basque Country, or Euskal Herria in Basque. Basque toponyms show that Basque was spoken further along the Pyrenees than today. For example, the name of the Aran Valley (now a Gascon-speaking part of Catalonia) suggests Basque haran, meaning "valley". However, the growing influence of Latin began to drive Basque out from less mountainous areas of this region.

The Reconquista temporarily counteracted this tendency, when the Christian lords called on northern peoples — Basques, Asturians and Franks — to colonize the new conquests. Later the Basque language came to be used mainly by peasants, while people in the cities preferred Castilian, Gascon, Navarrese Romance, French or Latin for high education.

Basque experienced a rapid decline in Navarre during the 1800's. However, after Basque nationalism took the language as an identity sign, and with the establishment of autonomous governments, it has made a comeback. Basque-language schools have taken the language to areas like Encartaciones or the Navarrese Ribera where it may have never been natively spoken in historic times.

Dialects and Official Status

Official status

Historically, Latin or Romance have been the official languages. However, Basque was explicitly recognized in some areas, as the local charter of the Basque-colonized Ojacastro valley (now in Rioja) allowed the inhabitants to use Basque in legal processes in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Today Basque holds co-official language status in the Basque regions of Spain: the full autonomous community of the Basque Country and some parts of Navarre. Basque has no official standing in the Northern Basque Country of France and French citizens are barred from officially using Basque in a French court of law. Paradoxically, the use of Basque by Spanish nationals in French courts is allowed (with translation), as Basque is officially recognised on the other side of the frontier.

The positions of the various existing governments, in areas where Basque usage is common, differ with regard to the promotion of Basque. The language has official status in those territories which are within the Basque Autonomous Community where it is spoken and promoted heavily, but only partially in Navarre, which is divided by the law in three distinct language areas (this law is strongly rejected by the Basque-speaking people of Navarre).


There are six main Basque dialects, comprising Biscayan, Guipuzcoan, and High Navarrese (in Spain), and Low Navarrese, Labourdin, and Souletin (in France). The dialect boundaries are not however congruent with political boundaries. One of the first scientific studies of Basque dialects, in particular the auxiliary verb forms, was made by Louis-Lucien Bonaparte (a nephew of Napoleon).

Derived languages

There is now a unified version of Euskara called Batua ("unified" in Basque), which is the language taught in schools. Batua is based largely on the Gipuzkoa regional dialect.

In the 1500's, Basque sailors mixed many Basque words with a European Atlantic pidgin in their contacts with Iceland.

Several travelling professional groups of Castile used Basque words in their secret jargons: examples are the gacería, the mingaña and the Galician fala dos arxinas.


Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. The subject of an intransitive verb is in the absolutive case (which is unmarked), and the same case is used for the direct object of a transitive verb. The subject of the transitive verb (that is, the agent) is marked differently, with the ergative case (shown by the suffix -k). This also triggers main and auxiliary verbal agreement.

The auxiliary verb which accompanies most main verbs agrees not only with the subject, but with the direct object and the indirect object, if present. Among European languages, this polypersonal system (multiple verb agreement) is only found in Basque and some Caucasian languages. The ergative-absolutive alignment is also unique among European languages, and rather rare worldwide.

Consider the phrase:

Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit.
"Martin buys the newspapers for me."

Martin-ek is the agent (transitive subject), so it is marked with the ergative case ending -k (with an epenthetic -e-). Egunkariak has an -ak ending which marks plural object (plural absolutive, direct object case). The verb is erosten dizkit, in which erosten is a kind of gerund ("buying") and the auxiliary dizkit indicates:

  • di- marks a verb with both a direct object and an indirect one, in the present tense;
  • -zki- is the number of the direct object (in this case the newspapers; if it were singular there would be no suffix); and
  • -t is the indirect object mark: "for me".
  • in this instance an unmarked or "null case" equates to the "nork", which in most European languages would be the subject.

  • you buy the newspapers for me would translate as ;

Zuek egunkariak erosten dizkidazue

The auxiliary verb is composed as di-zki-da-zue

( equivalent terms in European languages )

di- = direct object

-zki- = marks plural of direct object

-da- = indirect object ( to/for me ) {-t becomes -da- when intercalated.}

-zue = subject ( you pl. )

A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It's been estimated that at two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms (Agirre et al, 1992).


Basque has a distinction between laminal and apical articulation for the alveolar fricatives and affricates. In the laminal consonants the friction occurs across the blade of the tongue, while in apical ones, it occurs at the tip (apex).

The laminal alveolar fricative is the familiar English [s], made with the tongue tip pointing toward the lower teeth; its affricate counterpart is [ts]. These are written with an orthographic z (z, tz). The apical fricative is written s and is pronounced like the normal s in Castillian Spanish; that is, the tongue tip points toward the upper teeth. The corresponding affricate is ts. In the westernmost parts of the Basque country, only the apical s and the alveolar affricate tz are used.

Basque also features postalveolar sibilants (/ʃ/, written x, and /tʃ/, written tx), sounding like English sh and ch.

There are two palatal stops, voiced and unvoiced, as well as a palatal nasal and a palatal lateral (the palatal stops are not present in all dialects). These and the postalveolar sounds are typical of diminutives, which are used frequently in child language and motherese (mainly to show affection rather than size). For example, tanta "drop" vs. ttantta /ɟanɟa/ "droplet". A few common words, such as txakur /tʃakur/ "dog", use palatal sounds even though in current usage they have lost the diminutive sense; the corresponding non-palatal forms now acquiring an augmentative or pejorative sense: zakur "big dog". Many dialects of Basque exhibit a derived palatalization effect in which coronal onset consonants are changed into the palatal counterpart after the high front vowel /i/. For example, the /n/ in egin "to act" becomes palatal when the suffix -a is added: /egina/ = [egiɲa] "the action".

The sound represented by j has a variety of realizations according to the regional dialect: [j, ʝ, ɟ, ʒ, ʃ, x] (the last one is typical of the Spanish Basque Country).

The vowel system is the same as Spanish for most speakers. It consists of five pure vowels, /i e a o u/. Speakers of the Souletin dialect also have a sixth, front rounded vowel (represented in writing by ü but pronounced /ø/, much like a German ö), as well as a set of contrasting nasalized vowels.

Stress and pitch

Basque features great dialectal variation in stress, from a weak pitch-accent in the central dialects to a marked stress in some outer dialects, with varying patterns of stress placement. Stress is in general not distinctive; there are, however, a few instances where stress is phonemic, serving to distinguish between a few pairs of stress-marked words and between some grammatical forms (mainly plurals from other forms). E.g., basóà ("the forest", absolutive case) vs. básoà ("the glass", absolutive case; a borrowing from Spanish vaso); basóàk ("the forest", ergative case) vs. básoàk ("the glass", ergative case) vs. básoak ("the forests" or "the glasses", absolutive case). Given its great deal of variation among dialects, stress is not marked in the standard orthography and Euskaltzaindia (the Royal Academy of the Basque Language) only provides general recommendations for a standard placement of stress, basically to place a high-pitched weak stress (weaker than that of Spanish, let alone that of English) on the second syllable of a syntagma, and a low-pitched even-weaker stress on its last syllable, except in plural forms where stress is moved to the first syllable. This scheme provides Basque with a distinct musicality which sets its sound apart from the prosodical patterns of Spanish (which tends to stress the second-to-last syllable). Euskaldunberris ("new Basque-speakers", i.e. second-language Basque-speakers) with Spanish as their first language tend to carry the prosodical patterns of Spanish into their pronunciation of Basque, giving rise to a much despised decaffeinated pronunciation; e.g., pronouncing nire ama ("my mom") as nire áma (- - ´ -), instead of as niré amà (- ´ - `).


By contact with neighbouring peoples, Basque has copied words from Latin, Spanish, French, Gascon, among others, but accepted relatively few compared to other Indo-European languages. Some claim that many of its words come from Latin, but phonetic evolution has made many of them appear nowadays as if they were native words, e.g. lore ("flower", from florem), errota ("mill", from rotam, "[mill] wheel"), gela ("room", from cellam).

Writing system

Basque is written using the Latin alphabet. The universal special letter is ñ; sometimes ç and ü are also used. Basque does not use c, q, v, w, y except for loan words; they are not considered part of the alphabet.

Aa Bb Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Ññ Oo Pp Rr Ss Tt Uu Xx Yy Zz

dd, ll, rr, ts, tt, tx, tz are not treated as digraphs.

In Sabino Arana's orthography, ll and rr were replaced with ĺ and ŕ, respectively.


Basic phrases

  • Bai = Yes
  • Ez = No
  • Kaixo!, Agur! = Hello
  • Agur!, Adio! = Goodbye!
  • Ikusi arte = See you!
  • Eskerrik asko! = Thank you!
  • Egun on = Good morning (literally: Good day)
  • Egun on, bai = Standard reply to Egun on
  • Arratsalde on = Good evening
  • Gabon = Good night
  • Mesedez = Please
  • Barkatu = Excuse (me)
  • Aizu! = Listen! (To get someone's attention, not very polite, to be used with friends)
  • Kafe hutsa nahi nuke = Can I have a coffee?
  • Kafe ebakia nahi nuke = Can I have a macchiato?
  • Kafesnea nahi nuke = Can I have a café latte?
  • Garagardoa nahi nuke = Can I have a beer?
  • Komunak = Toilets
  • Komuna, non dago? = Where are the toilets?
  • Non dago tren-geltokia? = Where is the train station?
  • Non dago autobus-geltokia? = Where is the bus station?
  • Ba al da hotelik hemen inguruan? = Where is the (nearest, only) hotel?
  • Zorionak = Happy holidays (During Christmas and new year's), congratulations

Advanced phrases

  • Eup!= The real way to greet someone on the street, also apa or aupa.
  • Kaixo aspaldiko! = Like Kaixo, but adds "Long time, no see"-meaning.
  • Ez horregatik = You're welcome
  • Ez dut ulertzen = I don't understand
  • Ez dakit euskaraz= I don't speak Basque
  • Ba al dakizu ingelesez?= Do you speak English?
  • Neska polita / Neska ederra= (You´re a) beautiful girl
  • Zein da zure izena? = What is your name?
  • Pozten nau zu ezagutzeak = Nice to meet you
  • Ongi etorri! = Welcome!
  • Egun on denoi = Good morning everyone!
  • Berdin / Hala zuri ere = The same to you (E.g. after Kaixo or Egun on)
  • Jakina!/Noski! = Sure! OK!
  • Nongoa zara? = Where are you from?
  • Non dago...? = Where is...?
  • Badakizu euskaraz? = Do you speak Basque?
  • Bai ote? = Really? Maybe?
  • Bizi gara!! = We are alive!!
  • Bagarela!! = So we are!! (Answer to the above)
  • Topa! = Cheers!
  • Hementxe! = Over / right here!
  • Geldi!= Stop
  • Lasai= Take it easy
  • Ez dut nahi= I don't want

See also

External links




  • HUALDE, José Ignacio & DE URBINA, Jon Ortiz (eds.): A Grammar of Basque. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003. ISBN 3-11-017683-1.
  • TRASK, R. Larry: History of Basque. New York/London: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0415131162.
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