Challenges Facing European Minority Languages

John Monaghan compares the Irish and Basque languages

One of the main advantages of me going to the Basque country perversely, was that it provided me with an opportunity to improve my Spanish. I have just gained an A-level in Spanish and value its growing global status alongside English. Therefore, before I travelled there, the Basque language seemed an anachchronism to me, something like Irish, a dying language with which I have no problem, but one which I have absolutely no desire to learn.

However, the Basque language has an important place in the political and social make-up of this often troubled region straddling the borders of northern Spain and southern France. The Franco regime 1936-75 did much to suppress the language and to destroy anything considered un-Spanish. Speaking Basque was outlawed, punishable by a jail sentence, and parents were forbidden to give their children Basque names when registering their births. Consequently, a generation of Basques were schooled exclusively in Spanish. Basque government statistics from the latest sociolinguistic survey in 2001 confirms this. Within the Basque autonomous community fewer than 30% aged 35+ can speak Euskari.

Despite this, there has been a remarkable revival in the use of the language since the advent of limited autonomy with a new Spanish constitution. Large numbers of students are educated through the medium of Euskari, which is also compulsory as a launguage subject in all other schools. Some people have even re-registered their names in Basque, to confirm their family names. Today, 33% of Basques are bilingual and a further 11% claim to understand Basque without using it in their everyday lives. Tellingly, among 16-24 year olds 48% are now billingual.

To get a wider perspective on the challenges facing the Basque language and its role in the region’s history,  I conducted two interviews.

Nestor Atxikallende is 37 years old, and works as a translator for the Basque government. He is also fluent in English and French. Born and bred in Gernika, Nestor is a native Basque speaker who learnt Spanish when he was four.

'We are not a nation, we do not have a state, so it is very difficult. The Spanish government has agreed that it will pay the translation of some things into Catalan, Galician and Basque, but not everything. So the three languages . . . are only recognised within Spain. They are not recognised by the EU. The Basque country is divided between France and Spain. In the Spanish part it is completely official in three out of the four Spanish Basque provinces. The fourth province, Navarra, is divided into three geographical strips. It is completely official in the north, in the region closest to Gipuzkoa, which is full of Basque speakers, semi-official in the middle, and unofficial in the south, the part closest to the rest of Spain. They haven’t used the language there for years.'

Gozton Lobera, Director General for the Promotion of Basque within the Council of Bizkaia and PNV  politician, (Basque Nationalist Party), slammed this political reasoning, which has prevented further possible growth for the language.

'To me it’s an insult as a European who doesn’t feel Spanish in any way, from top to bottom. As a Basque and as a European I feel offended when I see that they have recognised Maltese as an official language. They use the fact that it’s not official throughout the whole Spanish state in order not to recognise its official status. For me it’s a step in the process of recuperation, the recognition of the possibility of using Basque in the EU.'

During a visit to Euskaren Etxea in Bilbao, a building which aims to show the history and evolution of the Basque language, I am informed by my tour guide that there is a theory that Basque may well have been the first language spoken by humans. Gozton Lobera could not confirm this, but did offer the following:  
'The last lines of investigation have uncovered two facts that seem to be unanswerable. Firstly, that Basque has always been here. Secondly, that Basque is not an Indo-European language. It’s not linked to any other language.'

Nowadays, the range of Basque-language media has greatly increased. However, Nestor Atxikallende suggests this vital tool in the language’s recovery and development is still hindered by political squabbling.
'There is only one daily newspaper which publishes in Basque, Berria. Another paper, Egunkaria, was shut down two years ago by the Spanish government because they said it was linked to ETA. But they haven’t produced any evidence yet.'

'There are only two Basque language TV stations, ETB-1 and ETB-2. I think that one of the French TV stations does a short programme in Basque, but there is no official Basque station there. The ETB channels can be seen in the French part and Navarra, but it depends on the signal. The government in Navarra has raised some objections in regard to the signal, meaning it cannot transmit throughout all of the province of Navarra. That is a political problem. There are two Basque language radio stations in Spain, one in France and one in Navarra and in addition lots of local radio stations throughout the Basque country.'

Mr Lobera and his department in Bizkaia are also firm defenders of other minority languages across Europe: 'We take part in EBLUL, . . the European body for minority languages. Next year we’re celebrating the International Day for Minority Languages in Scotland, because Scottish Gaelic is in retreat. In the Highlands there are currently only 50,000 speakers and within two generations it may be lost if nobody revives it. We have an international network which permits us to move about quite well.’’

Regarding the language revival post-Franco, Nestor made an interesting observation. 'In Gernika especially, the language used between friends or family is nearly always Spanish. But something has grabbed my attention recently; whereas in the past it was rare to hear Basque spoken, now, it is the reverse, with it becoming rarer to hear Spanish spoken.'

The Franco era was one of persecution and suffering for many of the Basque population. Gernika was bombed in 1936 and once Franco had won the Civil War, things simply got worse for Basque culture and in particular, the language.

Mr Lobera suggested that Franco was not the only factor in the language’s decline: 'In responding to this question I run the risk of speaking too generally, of making claims which are often wrong. Evidently, Franco did everything possible so that Basque wasn’t spoken. That is obvious. In the schools, which were all Spanish-speaking, they put a ring on whomever spoke Basque. If a different child then spoke Basque, the ring had to be passed to them. Whoever was wearing the ring at the end of the week was hit. But it’s also true that this happened before Franco. He continued with something that was happening before.  'For me, the big retreat of Basque came about with the migratory trends at the end of the 19th century and then until half way through the twentieth century. I would say therefore that Franco was not the only person responsible for the decline of Basque.'

Nestor supported this view: ' (Franco) did succeed to an extent. The problem was that the language wasn’t used at all levels within society and that situation still persists today. You have levels at which a language operates in society and I don’t think Franco finished with the family level. During the last part of the dictatorship there were newspapers which published in Basque, and the language was taught in schools. So no, he didn’t destroy the language completely but the fact that, say,  job applications were only done in Spanish hindered Basque's growth. If you wanted to apply for a job everything had to be done in Spanish.'

Whilst the Basque language thrives on the Spanish side of the border, in the French Basque region it is a different story, according to Nestor:

'The French state doesn’t give a damn about the language. You cannot be taught in Basque unless you go to a private school. Whilst private schools here (in the Spanish Basque country) get a lot of money from the government, the Basque schools in the French part get very, very little funding. The French government doesn’t give a damn either about Catalan which is spoken in a part of French Cataluña. They don’t appreciate the languages that they have - Catalan, Basque or Breton. These languages are losing speakers all the time. It is going backwards.'

'The French state recognises absolutely nothing to do with the language because Article 2 of the French Constitution states that the official language of the Republic is French and nothing else,' added Mr.Lobera.

In some societies, languages have come to be used as a political tool. I think of my own society of Northern Ireland, where a section of the population would see speaking Irish as an assertion of political identity. My long-standing impression that Basque was the language used the most by radical seperatists is quickly dispelled by both interviewees. For the Basques, language appears to be the common currency, regardless of political opinion.

'You can speak Basque and consider yourself both Basque and Spanish. The language is part of our language and our culture. However some have used the language as a political weapon. They have used it against those who consider themselves both Basque and Spanish. The nationalists feel it is necessary to defend the language but some who consider themselves both Basque and Spanish feel that the language has been used against them. For me there is no link. For me the language has nothing to do with politics. There are a lot of politicians who are Basque separatists but who cannot speak Basque. The language is a value that you have to defend regardless of political position,’’ Nestor said.

Mr.Lobera thought it important to distinguish between the Irish and Basque experiences.

‘What happens here is not like what happens in Ireland. From what I know of Ireland, having been there twice, to Belfast and Dublin, what I perceive is that there’s not the same feeling towards the language as there is here. I think that when the language is used as a political tool, we lose the language. To all those who say that us nationalists use Basque for political means I have always said one thing. Nobody is prevented from learning the language. You can speak Basque if you want and say that it’s not necessary to relate the language with politics. You can speak Basque and be Spanish.’

Mr Lobera was optimistic for the future of the language. ‘I am very pragmatic both as a Basque and as a representative of the PNV with a public responsibility. As a Basque what I have to do is teach my children the language. If my children’s generation speak Basque then I believe that the future of the language is assured.’

I had come away from the two interviews with a greater understanding of the role of Euskari in the history, culture, social and political identity of the Basque people. Unlike Irish, Euskari seems to have gained in importance from the years of suppression and resistance. Perhaps it is precisely because the Basques are a nation in search of a state that the language is more important to hold on to and to use. Yet many Basques who think of themselves as Spanish can also speak the language. It is not limited by the ownership of any one political faction. For Basques it is almost too important for petty politics.

So I’ll sign off with the only Basque word that I picked up during my stay:

Agur (goodbye).

By John Monaghan