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Number of Speakers: 580,000 or more
Key Dialects: Guipuzcoan (Guipuzcoano, Gipuzkoan), Alto Navarro Septentrional (High Navarrese, Upper Navarran), Alto Navarro Meridional, Biscayan (Vizcaino), Avalan.
Geographical Center: Spain
Basque or Euskara as is called in the Basque region, is spoken by 580,000 people in Spain. There are 2,000,000 residents of the 3 provinces of Basque territory; 25% were born outside the territory, 40% in the territory were born to Basque parents. 4,400,000 in Spain have a Basque surname; 19% live in Basque country. The total population in all countries is 580,000 or more. The language is also spoken by immigrants in Australia, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Philippines, and the USA.
Basque is the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe. It is one of three members of the Basque family. The other two languages of the group are the Basque dialects of Basque, Navarro-Labourdin, and Basque, Souletin that are spoken in regions of western France.
In the 1950’s the Basque linguist Luis Michelena elaborated a previous dialectal categorization system into nine dialects: Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan, High Navarrese, Aezkoan, Salazarese, Roncalese (appears to be extinct or on the brink of extinction), Lapurdian, Low Navarrese, and Zuberoan. Since the 60s the Basques have been gradually developing a standard form of the language called Unified Basque largely based on the central dialect of Gipuzcoan but with influence from Lapurdian and Low Navaresse. Considerable lexical differences however remain between French Basques and Spanish Basques. Most Basques speak and write with the syntax of their local variety with a few minor adjustments. Pronunciation likewise has received no standardization and almost all speakers use their native pronunciation.
The modern standard Basque orthography was promulgated by Euskatzaindia, the Royal Basque Language Academy, in 1964. The alphabet consists of twenty-two letters. The letters c, q, v, w, y, are not considered part of the alphabet but are used sometimes in writing foreign names and words.
Basque is a highly agglutinative language. There are about sixteen postpositional affixes attached to the last element of nominal constituents. There are a number of morphological cases marked with affixes (the numbers of cases vary according to the analysis): ergative, absolutive, dative, instrumental, comitative, genitive, locative, ablative, allative, and so on. Singular is the unmarked form of the noun stem and plural is morphologically marked. There is no gender marking on the nominal head. The nominal modifiers are also marked for case and number and agree with the noun they modify. The canonical structure of the noun phrase is as follows: modifier-Det1-noun-adjective-Det2-number-case, where Det1 stands for numerals, some quantifiers, and some indefinite determiners, and Det2 stands for definite and indefinite articles, demonstratives, some quantifiers and the partitive marker.
The verb is formed periphrastically with the aid of auxiliary verbs ‘edun’/’have’ and ‘izan’/’be’. A number of tense, mood, and case agreement markers are addet to the verb stem. For these periphrastic verbs aspectual information is conveyed not by the auxiliary but by the participle. A few verbs still retain a synthetic conjugation incorporating along with their roots the morphemes usually encoded in the auxiliary.
The rich morphology of Basque allows for a relatively free word order. The default word order is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) and the language follows the typological characteristics of other SOV languages: relative clauses precede their head, functional relations are expressed by suffixes, and so on. However, although the order of elements within independent phrases is quite strict, the order of phrases on the other head is quite free. There is only one restriction in that the position before the main verb is reserved for focused elements. The phrases that agree with the verb need not be overtly manifest in the sentence: ergative, dative and absolutive noun phrases or pronouns can be absent and understood. Only phrases that are not informationally relevant can be absent. In particular, if an argument is in the focus or topic projection of the sentence, it cannot be absent, even if it is understood or unambiguously represented in the verbal morphology.
Negation in Basque is formed by placing the negation word ‘ez’/’not’ in a position immediately preceding the inflected auxiliary if there is one or the inflected verb if there is no auxiliary. Yes/no questions do not present a distinctive word order from declarative sentences. They must however have an interrogative intonation, raising at the end. Causative sentences are formed with the causative verb ‘arazi’ attached to the caused verb. Impersonal sentences in euskara are constructed by simply eliminating the ergative subject argument of a transitive sentence. The resulting sentence contains only the absolutive object phrase.
Unless very long, a subordinate clause usually precedes the main clause. Complementizers are suffixes attached to the finite verb or auxiliary. A relative clause precedes its nominal head and there are no relative pronouns.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
With the creation of the Basque Autonomous Region in 1979, Basque has been a co-official language, with Spanish, in the three provinces of the autonomous region: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba. In the autonomous province of Navarre, Basque also has a degree of official standing. In the French Basque country, the language has no official status. Apart from young children, probably all Basque-speakers under the age of seventy are now bilingual in Spanish or French. In recent years efforts are made for the expansion of the language in the Basque region and as a result the number of second language Basque speakers has increased.
The oldest traces of Euskara in history are a set of proper names found in Roman inscriptions in the Aquitanie. They consist mostly of person and divinity names, which are easily recognizable given modern Basque. In the Middle Ages, the geographical area where Euskara was the main language covered all the Basque Provinces in their entirety, except for the western tip of Biscay and the southernmost tip of Navarre and Alava. For some centuries, this area expanded beyond the Basque Country to the south, into parts of the Rioja region and north of Burgos. It is also likely that in the high valleys of the Pyrenees, east of today's Basque Country, varieties of the language were alive well into the Middle Ages.
Since the Middle Ages, the area where Euskara is the main language of communication has shrank relentlessly. By the 18th century it lost large parts of the province of Alava, and during the 19th century large areas of Navarre lost the language as well. In contrast to the southern area, were the language has disappeared increasingly in the last three centuries, the northern borders of the Euskara speaking area have remained stable, probably in relation to the fact that the neighbouring language was not French but rather Gascon, a very distinct variety of Occitan. Nowadays, Euskara's territory has been reduced to Biscay -except the western tip and the city of Bilbao-, Guipuscoa, the valley of Aramaio in the north of Alava, the northwestern area of Navarre and all the Northern Basque Country (the Basque area within French borders), except for the urban areas of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz.
The Basque language had to compete with two powerful neighboring languages: Castilian and French. Furthermore, Basque was a forbidden language during the dictatorship that followed the Civil War. It is not surprising therefore that the number of people that spoke the language as a first language have decrease dramatically. An important movement to open up Basque schools called "ikastolas" started at the end of Franco’s dicatorship.. After a long and systematic effort on the part of many people, a parallel school network was set up to satisfy the needs of teaching in Basque. Today Basque schools are in the process of becoming part of the Basque state school, but in the French Basque Country, and some parts of Navarre, Basque schools are the only ones which provide teaching in Basque.
We also have to mention the effort carried out for the recovery of the Basque language among adults. Therefore, every year a large number of people, whose mother tongue is other than Basque, learn to speak Basque. That way, the old myth that Basque is an impossible language to learn, is gone for ever.
Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.
Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Hualde, José, Ignacio & Jon Ortiz de Urbina. 1993. Generative Studies in Basque Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.
Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.
Saltarelli, Mario. 1988. BasqueLondon: Croom Helm.
Trask, R. L. 1997. The History of Basque. London: Routledge.
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