Euskara: Translating A Culture

by Linda White and Thomas McClanahan

To me, the most important element of Basque culture is language. There is an old Basque saying: "Euskera barik ez dago euskaldunik," which means: "Without Basque (language) there are no Basques." All other aspects of the Basque culture are essential, yet to me they are secondary to the language.

Joe Eiguren
Writer, Historian and Linguist

In many respects Beltran Paris's life was a microcosm of the Basque experience in the American West. In 1912, at the age of 23, Beltran crossed the United States by train after sailing to New York from Paris. A cardboard sign on his beret announced his destination -- "Gillette, Wyoming." Like many rural Basques he was functionally illiterate, with no formal schooling. Until joining the French army three years earlier, he had spoken only one Basque dialect and had never travelled more than a short distance from his birthplace in a small, border town in the French Basque country. He followed four cousins, all of whom were sheepherders in Wyoming. His original intent was to save 10,000 francs then return to his hometown to Basse Navarre, but after Beltran decided to make his home in the United States, and after he started to expand his business operations, he was compelled to learn English, a language which bore almost no structural resemblance to his native tongue.

In many respects, the challenges of learning a new language faced by Basques like Beltran mirror those faced by waves of non-Basque immigrants. However, there are important linguistic considerations, complicated by historical and political developments, which make the Basque experience in the American West noteworthy and which help to explain some unique aspects of the assimilation process in the Basque community. One primary consideration is the uniqueness of Euskara, the Basque language, which is unrelated to other language groups. Another distinguishing characteristic relates to the variety of dialects, which influenced settlement patterns and which continue to complicate contemporary language preservation efforts. A third factor has to do with the kind of economic opportunities available to early Basques in the western United States. And political developments dating back centuries, but finding emphatic expression in Generalissimo Francisco Franco's fascist regime in Spain, clearly have had a significant impact on Basque culture, particularly its linguistic heritage.

Euskara has been the foundation of Basque cultural identity since before the Roman Empire. It is a language family unto itself, unrelated to the Indo-European language group that includes the Romance, Slavic, and Germanic languages, including English. Some linguists have attempted to build bridges from Basque to Georgian, or Basque to Quechua, and even Basque to Finnish, but no one has put forth enough evidence to cause the linguistic community to agree on a clear relationship between Basque and any other language.

Because of the lengthy history of the Basques on the Iberian Peninsula, one of the strongest theories about the language is that it originated in situ. Basque would then be one of the oldest languages of the region and possibly the original Iberian tongue.

Anyone who has attempted to learn Basque as a second language is familiar with some of the more obvious difficulties that arise when dealing with a language that is as different from English as Japanese or Swahili. The word order is usually backward from English, subjects of transitive verbs carry an ergative marker to distinguish them from subjects of intransitive verbs, and the Basque verb is a world unto itself, containing complexities of meaning that English speakers need verbs, prepositions, subject pronouns, and direct and indirect object pronouns to express.

The inherent structural difficulties of the language are further complicated by a variety of Basque dialects, including Biscayan, Guipuzcoan, Labourdin, Zuberoan, Low Navarrese, and Batua. Navarrese and Alavese are examples of dialects that are spoken as little as one hundred years ago but are virtually lost today. The dialects with the largest numbers of speakers are Biscayan and Guipuzcoan, but the dialects on the French side of the border--Zuberoan, Labourdin, and Low Navarrese--still have their speakers. And virtually every village has its own variations of vocabulary and grammar.

In the United States, the abundance of distinct Basque dialects contributed to communication problems among early immigrants to the High Desert. Given the preponderance of serial migration, it also helped to define the geographic distribution of various Basque communities. Consider Beltran's experience:

All of the herders and camptenders ... were Basques.... But there were different kinds of Basques. Maybe half of the men were French Basques and the rest were Spanish. The French boys were coming all the time because there were a couple of French Basque camptenders from Aldudes....

There were some Spanish guys, Navarros,in the outfit too. They were from Navarra which is right on the French line. Some of them know Basque and theirs is pretty close to ours. But some of those Navarros didn't know any Basque at all and we called them Castellanos. The French Basques and the Navarros stayed together a lot. But then there were the Vizcainos, Spanish Basques from Vizcaya. They were different. They talk a lot and are pretty loud. I really don't know how to say it, but you can tell the difference....They pretty much stayed together. Their Basque is a lot different than ours and at first I couldn't understand them. I first met Vizcainos on the boat and when they talked I knew it was Basque because I understood a few words here and there, but that was all. Anyway, after I was in this country for a few years I got used to that Basque, too. There is another kind of Spanish Basques, Guipuzcoanos, from Guipuzcoa. There were only a few Guipuzcoanos in the United States. Their Basque was easier for me to understand than the Vizcaino.

According to anthropologist William Douglass, Basques of the American West were distributed into two distinct colonies which "had little to do with one another and at times even manifested mutual and low-key hostility." These divisions could be distinguished in large measure by the dialects spoken. French Basques and Spanish Navarrese Basques predominated in California, parts of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Spanish Vizcayan Basques were almost exclusively in southwestern Oregon and Idaho. Northern Nevada was "a transition zone" with a mixed population representative of all regions of the Basque Country.

One of the primary challenges to the Basque language, which provided perhaps the most fundamental unifying element in political autonomy, resulted from Franco's campaign against its use in the ikastolak, schools where all subjects are taught in the Basque language. Franco's government outlawed the teaching and use of Euskara, imposing severe penalties on those who attempted to keep it an integral part of Basque culture. At least in their intent, these measures were similar to those used by England to eliminate the Irish language or to attempts by the U.S. government to discourage the use of Native American languages. Over time, in combination with the loss of large numbers of native speakers through emigration, the widespread use of Basque declined significantly.

In the post-Franco era, which saw the legalization of the ikastolak, the Basques faced other equally formidable challenges to language preservation. One key problem, illustrated in Beltran's description of his encounters with other Basques in America, was the number of dialects. The greater Basque community came to realize that in order to promote the language efficiently a standard dialect was needed to ensure that children would learn the same language in school and that publications would use uniform vocabulary and spelling. To this end the organization called Euskaltzaindia (The Academy of the Basque language) came into being.

Since the 1950s Euskaltzaindia has been charged officially with the unification of the Basque language. This task has proven to be enormous, and many tensions have been generated by the choices forced by unification. Although the standardization of spelling still continues, the Biscayans felt especially slighted because the model for the Unified Basque verbs came from Guipuzcoan and the French Basque dialects. The "h" presents an especially thorny problem. The myriad "h"s used in the northern dialects have been reduced in Batua, but the Unified dialect uses more than either Guipuzcoan or Biscayan. In spite of all the problems inherent in creating a man-made dialect, the members of Euskaltzaindia have been reasonably successful in creating Batua. It is now one of the two official languages of the Basque Government (Spanish is the other), and it is taught in Basque schools from preschool to university. A Basque student can now complete his or her education entirely in Batua.

Another key organization, known as HABE (Helduen Alfabetatze Berreuskalduntzerako Erakundea), is dedicated to the teaching of the Basque language to those who have lost it or to those whose ancestors never spoke it. HABE also focuses on teaching those who grew up speaking the language but never learned to read or write it. An entire generation of Basques who lost the language because of Franco's oppression are being given the opportunity to embrace it again. However, many Basque Americans are skeptical that Euskara will continue to serve as the primary defining characteristic of Basque culture in the U.S.:

"I think that, as immigration has basically stopped, in one or two more generations the Basque language will not be an important ingredient of whatever being Basque in Idaho will mean....the language will be inevitably lost in its primary function as a means of communication, and the Basque identity will have to be based on other elements...."

In recent years linguistic activists in the Basque country have concentrated more and more energy into educating young Basques in their native language. As a result the number of speakers is growing. Second and third generation American Basques are also rediscovering their ancestors' language. However, in spite of all the energetic activity of HABE and the ikastolak, there remains a frighteningly small pool of native speakers, who are necessary to the survival of a language. These language preservation and expansion efforts have been complemented and stimulated by exchange programs meant not only to promote language instruction per se, but also to strenghen the cultural ties between European and American Basques. The rationale is that as these connections are solidified, interest in Basque language preservation will rise. Whenever possible, exchange programs draw on the skills and knowledge of elderly Basques who learned Euskara as their first language. One such tour took place in the summer of 1955. Thirty people from the Basque country travelled with a native speaker who had lived continuously in the High Desert for 43 years. The speaker was Beltran Paris. In his own words, he "...was their translator."



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