Those Basque Names and Surnames…

As you all well know, in the Spanish Basque Country, Navarra and Basque French Country (complicated, uh!) there are three languages spoken, Spanish, French and Basque (and the latter, with 7 dialects!!). And that most signs are written in both languages (Basque and Spanish or Basque and French). Now I´ll deal with Basque people´s names, since they are also a particularity that make of us a rarity in the Iberian Peninsula…

Traditional names in the Basque Country were very common in the past: Jesús, María, José, Antonio, Francisco, Ángel, Ángeles, Piedad, …Yes, many people are called Jesus in Spain (without any religious connotation!!) And what´s more, they are called in many cases Jesús María (for a man) or María Jesús (for a woman). Or José María (man) or María José (woman). The custom was to put the name of the saint of the day to the newborn, or a biblical name. By the way, those called José are called Pepe (coming from P.P., short for Pater Putativo, a father that really isn´t), those called Jesus Maria are called Txusma or Jesusmari…Spanish names have a lot of “diminutive” alias.

In the 80´s there was a strong current in favour of  Basque names, based on Basque mythology or on nature. Hence, we got many “Aitor” (father of the Basques), “Amaia” (the mother), Garikoitz, Aritz (oak), Harri (stone), Eder (pretty), Garazi (special), Gorka (translation for George), Ibai (river), Odei (cloud), Ainara (swallow),  Oihane (scream), Irati (a virgin and also a forest),…These names have nothing to do with Spanish ones and are a clear sign of the origin (and sometimes, of the political views) of the parents. Also, many names are based on Virgin´s names, for instance, Arantza (from the Virgin of Arantzazu) or Begoña.

Basque surnames are also different. In many cases, they show the place of origin of the person. Etxebarria (or Echevarria) means “New House”, Madariaga (Place with Pear Trees), Ibarra (Valley), Urrunaga (Far Away Place), Arizmendi (Oak Mountain), etc. There are very long Basque surnames, with long meanings (Agirregomezkorta, Atxalandabaso, Aguinagalde, Uriberrementeria, Bedialauneta, Ocerinjauregui,…). An interesting place to visit and see the extraordinary long names in the tombs is the Markina cemetery, beautiful area and beautiful cemetery.

Last, in the Basque Country, as in Spain, we always use two surnames, the father´s first and then the mother´s. For example, a girl named Ainhoa, with a mother Ana García and a father David Zubizarreta, is named Ainhoa Zubizarreta García. Women don´t lose their maiden´s name when they marry. Now you can put the mother´s name first (as they do in Portugal, where they say that you always know who is the mother, but not so sure about the father…it makes sense!).

Yes, I know, what the heck has this to do with Basque tourism…but I thought you may find the above interesting!!



12 thoughts on “Those Basque Names and Surnames…

  1. misony

    Hi Mugalari,
    I love this piece, names and words fascinate me.
    I have a correction, however; I believe ‘Ainara’ means ‘swallow’ (as in ‘golondrina’) and not ‘sparrow’ (as in gorrión).
    Sparrow are nice enough, but swallows are swift and graceful and more fitting of a girl’s name!

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  4. Antoine

    Was wondering if you could answer a question for me. My last name is Etcheveste, and my family, as far as anyone can tell, have been Basque through out the ages. So my question is why don’t I have the traditional spelling of Etxebeste? I know my mother and father were the first to leave the Basque Country, so what gives?

    1. Mugalari Post author

      Hi Antoine, you have the French Basque spelling. As you may know, there´s a Royal Academy of the Basque Language, Euskaltzaindia, that regulates the standards of spelling in Basque. But in France people still spell the old way, adapting the Basque sounds to the French language. That´s probably the reason why your surname is spelled like that. Was your family of French Basque origin?

  5. Antoine

    My father was born in Biddarray (sp?)(France); however, his parents were born in Spain. As before that, records aren’t that clear -nor memories. Both of parents came from small, small towns (my mom from Erraztu) where I have the feeling records aren’t as accurate as they should be. However, you bring an interesting point,if Etcheveste is the basque sound that was adapted to the French language, the way I have always heard French people, of Basque origin, pronounce is (Et-che-best). What is always missing is the (te) sound at the end as in (et-che-best-te). Yet, the name has te ending. So, why would there be a te, (spanish sounding te) in our pronunication of the name if was the adapting to the French? Could it mean that we have been pronouncing our name the wrong way? Or was it the original spelling different? I don’t know if I am making myself clear.

  6. Mugalari Post author

    Yes, Bidarray (or Bidarrai) is in the French Basque Country, your father may have changed the spelling to adapt it to the French way. I just think that every speaker adapts the sounding to its own language, you may pronounce the final “e” the English way (as in Nike), while in Spanish (that has a very simple and unique pronunciation) we finish in our “e” sound, as in FrEnch. No, you´ve not pronounced it the wrong way, you´ve just adapted it to your present language. Now I hope I make myself clear…

  7. Antoine

    Thanks,for the explanation. Whew, for a minute I thought I was saying it wrong. Actually, my brother says it (et-che-vest-tea(as in the beverage), more italian sounding for we grew up in an italian neighborhood)One more question for you. I grew speaking Basque, and unfortuantely, have lost a lot of it. However, I have tried to listen to Basque speakers on the internet and find myself having a hard time understanding what is being said. I go to our local Basque Cultural Center and listen to my mom’s friends (who are older-60+) and understand much more; is this due to the standardization of Basque?

  8. Mugalari Post author

    You have to take into account that there are 7 dialects and the batua (unified) Basque. Some speakers find it hard to understand other dialects, and now there´s a current towards the oblivion of batua (artificially created) and returning to the dialects. Yes, it may be so, in your case.

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