Facebook might be the greatest way on Earth to waste your time since television was invented. At least –and my dad is living proof of what I’m about to say– you can work on your Excel spreadsheets for a job you last held three years ago while not missing a beat from the “latest” John Wayne movie on EITB. He might as well turn the radio on such is the attention he places on the screen, but I guess westerns don’t air on Cadena Ser between 4 and 6 pm. On the other hand, Facebook requires your undivided attention and two hands to type up comments and tag your friends in each of the 200 photos you took last night at the concert.
From time to time, however, you can also come across interesting articles on all kinds of issues. I’m specially interested in anything related to Basque language and culture, so I was elated when I saw a note posted by my friend Leonat, a reflection from historian Iñaki Egaña on Basque language, its struggles and triumphs. I liked it so much that I wanted to share it with you. I couldn’t find the English version anywhere, so I got in touch with Iñaki, who gave his permission for me to translate his piece and publish it on the blog. I hope you enjoy it.
To read the Spanish version, click here.
By Iñaki Egaña
Those who don’t speak or know Basque, just like any other language in this world that fades away, lose an excellent opportunity to access the heart of humanity. Languages are active remains of our past, but also unbeatable sources to track our children’s evolution, as well as our own. Basque, our Basque, flows like a river, gushing out. Jumping, with havens and rapids, wandering through bends, taking over tributaries, dying every day and reviving without realizing it. It hits us like the Cantabrian rain, like the wind from the Bardena desert. Life itself.
The recovery of our language has been possible thanks to one of the most significant popular efforts of the 20th century in Europe. Few similar experiences have been tended with as much love, perseverance, and as much tenacity as the Basque experience. Few. Those who live in Basque-speaking areas can’t even imagine the effort made in Spanish-speaking cities, where pioneers from a few decades ago were treated almost like aliens.
I’ve always known that in order to recover the Basque language we have done a little bit of everything, but always with large doses of tenderness. Because inside our language we discovered ways and forms that took us back to the beginning of time, that described how each of our farm animals rested, which highlighted love’s glow in brown or green eyes, and which guided us among the starts to the backyard of the Milky Way. It might seem a little bit cheesy, but Basque and affection have walked hand in hand like two lovers, lovers who are a bit crazy, that’s for sure.
Because one has to be very motivated, with certain doses of that madness praised by Erasmus, in order to build collectively, with hundreds, thousands of known names and last names, of course, the Basque language’s castle. Given up for dead and resurrected –fortunately not in the Christian way with hundreds of major events– emerging from stardust and reproduced by the spores of these plants that join us through generations.
Thousands of boys and girls who started at ikastolas [Basque language schools] have carried those magic words, words that reverberate in our mountain crooks and underneath the cement in our cities. They have brought them closer to their homes, where many adults didn’t even know of Etxepare and Axular for the first time in the warmth of their homes, they heard the musicality of a language feverishly linked to the most outlandish mysteries in all five continents. Origin doesn’t matter, destination does.
Adults, not children, who have discovered through their offsprings the beauty of the words, the richness of the composition, the tone of the declination; who have been able to use pinpilinpauxa for butterfly, itsaso for sea, labana for knife, even zulo for hole, so they could call themselves euskaldunak, Basque speakers, as Orixe would say. And to do so unabashedly.
Boys and girls who have unknowingly grown up making history with capital letters, looking for Argitxo among the pages of a bluish autumn day, chasing lamias, uncomfortable due to the racket, in a greyish and polluted stream. Playing hide-and-seek and rope jumping, singing songs by Pirritx eta Porrotx from the end of the hall, looking for their mother’s lap when they feel sleepy at the end of the day. And doing it in Basque, like a kid from Mombasa will do in Swahili and a girl from Sheridan in English.
Boys and girls who sprouted like canes, who rose to never before reached heights, who flooded college and spread out through the classrooms proclaiming that the future, with will and wickers, is able to leave the shabby shades of polluted streams and open the doors to the fields. They learned in Basque about Kant and Spinoza, about Hubble and Einstein, Pasteur and Curie, Watson and Crick and, filled with embarrassment, said “maite zaitut [I love you]” for the first time.
The two big tests Basque had to overcome in order to survive were its own prestige and the empires that gripped it, preventing and even banning its evolution. Very few issues are as definite as these ones. So much so we need not to imbue ourselves with ink from the past. The present uneasily reminds us how little we advance.
The thing is, there is an eternal question that has hardly changed with the passing of time. We used bowls to collect rain and boil it over the fire in order to heat up the entrance to our homes. Today, a complex system I don’t understand warms up our food in a flash, in a stove that works by induction. It seems like magic. We travel at speeds faster than sound and we are almost to the point of being able to clone ourselves. Experts say we are one of the last generations with an expiration date.
The prestige thing is not a joke. It’s been rubbed on our noses time and time again. A bit over half a century ago, the town of Zarautz in the province of Gipuzkoa appeared full of threatening graffiti. It was summer and its authors could have well been tourists from Madrid or Paco’s men: [a reference to the Spanish police]: “The sacred unity of Spain demands the death of the Basques”, “All the languages in the world are Christian, except Basque and Jewish”, and “Speak Basque, you hick”.
The message was not subliminal at all. Direct. Earth’s outcasts are the ones who speak Basque. Intelligence speaks Spanish and French. We have heard it thousands of times; we have been hammered to exhaustion with the same old mantra about Basque language that Father Mariana placed at the tip of his pen: “Rude and barbarian language, which has no elegance.”
We don’t care. I don’t care. It makes us strong.
Before Patxi Lopez [former president of the Basque Country] did, Adolfo Suarez, member of the Falange turned democrat, and president during the Spanish transition, insisted on it to French magazine Paris Match: “How is it going to be possible to study high school in Basque if it is impossible for that language to deal with nuclear chemistry?” It is not nuclear chemistry that our students learn at the university, it is nuclear physics. In Basque.
Second-rate progressive politicians, lying modernists. I wrote it down on a flash card a few months ago and I mention it now. I was reading old newspapers from a few decades ago, when I stumbled upon the Royal French Academy, L’Academie, which took a unanimous stand against teaching Basque in schools. I searched for the subscriber’s names, wise authors of nothing, and I was surprised when I saw François Mauriac, known as the friend of the Basques. Et tu, Brute?
That’s right. The world advances less than we think.
In any case, his loss. Their loss. And to solve their ignorance, at least for this purpose, take Lizardi’s beautiful words about our language: “Beautiful is our fertile language, beautiful indeed, covered with fern: I hope that you will soon extract, poet, from the wildflower, honey, from the forest, Basque essence.”
(Thanks to Mark Bieter for looking it over.)