The origin of Basque: history and evolution of the Basque language

Euskera (also called Basque or Basque) is the language of Euskal Herria, a denomination used to define the European territory in which the Basque culture has developed.

Located on both sides of the Pyrenees, the territory of Euskal Herria is usually divided into two distinct areas, the northern part or Iparralde, corresponding to the French side, and the southern part or Hegoalde, located in the Spanish state. Likewise, the historical territory of “Vasconia” (equivalent to Euskal Herria) is usually also divided into seven regions or provinces: Alava, Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa and Navarre, on the Spanish side, and Basse Navarre, Labort and Sola, on the French side. Culturally and historically, its center or capital is fixed in the city of Pamplona.

Origin of the Basque language

Certainly, there has been much speculation about Basque, since it is a non-Indo-European language whose origin is unknown, although it is often claimed to be a very ancient language.

Among the existing theories on the origin of the Basque language, there are several hypotheses that relate Basque to Iberian, African, pre-Indo-European, Caucasian, Celtic and even Romance languages.

Many of these theories are based on the fact that Basque shares some characteristics with the aforementioned linguistic groups (such as, for example, the passivity of the verb, toponyms, phonological similarities, etc.).

Among all of them, the theory of Basque-Iberianism is very important because of the number of linguists who have supported it. This theory maintains, on the one hand, that Basque is the only trace left by the languages that were spoken in the Iberian Peninsula and, on the other hand, that Basque and the Iberian language were one and the same. Likewise, it affirms that the Basques were the descendants of the ancient Cantabrians, and that their language was the continuation of the one spoken in the whole of the Peninsula before the arrival of the Romans.

However, when we speak of the origin of a language, we need more than just finding certain analogies; and, in this sense, many of these theories can be disproved, insofar as they have not been able to demonstrate sufficient elements to make us consider that origin as true.

History and evolution of the Basque language: Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Another mystery is the fact that Basque has lasted for so many centuries without the support of a political power or an autonomous administration, because, while most ancient languages have disappeared, Basque is still alive.

The first written testimonies of Basque are found in Roman inscriptions dated between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D., where some Euskara anthroponyms and theonyms appear. However, although Basque and Latin coexisted for some time, the inland and mountainous regions of the northern peninsular were very little Romanized in comparison with the rest of Hispania.

During the crisis of the Roman Empire, various Germanic peoples penetrated the Iberian Peninsula (Suevi, Vandals, Alans, Visigoths). It was probably the resistance of the northern peoples to these invaders that most helped the preservation of their language.

During the medieval period, the previous trend of scarcity of written testimonies is still maintained. However, during this period the so-called Emilian glosses appeared, small handwritten annotations to a Latin codex in several languages, including Latin, Hispanic Romance and Basque. These glosses, dating from the late 10th and early 11th centuries, contain the earliest written testimony of what we know today as the Spanish language.

On the other hand, the kingdom of Pamplona, founded by the Basques around the capital of Navarre in the year 824, reached its maximum splendor under the reign of Sancho III el Mayor (1000-1035), a fact that motivated the expansion of the Basque language beyond the limits of Euskal Herria (such as to areas of Burgos and La Rioja). Nevertheless, Basque maintained its character as a spoken language, since Latin continued to be used for the administration of the kingdom and, later, Occitan and Navarrese Romance. Therefore, most of the Euskara texts of this period are toponyms, anthroponyms or single phrases.

Classical Basque

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, written literature in Basque, which until then had been predominantly oral and popular, developed.

Among the most important documents written in the Basque language, the manuscript of Juan Pérez de Lazarraga, discovered in 2003 and containing a poetic anthology and a pastoral novel, a sample of an incipient Basque Renaissance, stands out.

There are also collections of proverbs, dictionaries, war songs, and even a translation into Basque of the New Testament, published in 1571 and promoted by the Queen of Navarre, Joan of Albret (1555-1572), after her adherence to the Protestant Reformation.

However, at the same time, Castilian was gradually gaining ground in the Basque territories under the dominion of the Crown of Castile, which meant that Basque was increasingly relegated to a secondary role.

Modern Basque

In the contemporary era, the process of ‘Castilianization’ of the Basque territory became even more pressing, as Spanish became increasingly dominant in the public sphere. Euskera went from prevailing in the northern and middle zones to being preserved only in the north, while in Navarre the majority of the population communicated only in Castilian.

In addition, the centralization policies carried out by the Spanish State, especially during the Franco dictatorship, contributed even more to the decline of the Basque language.

The year 1968 is a key date in the history of the Basque language, since it was when the standardization of the Basque language took place after the celebration of the Congress of Aránzazu.

This gave rise to Euskera Batua, the variant of Basque used in administration, education, literature and the media, and created to promote the unity of the language and facilitate communication between speakers of different Basque dialects.

 Carlos Sánchez Luis