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3 posts categorized "Basque"

10 July 2015

Basque and Georgian – are they related?

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Basque, the only non-Indo European language in Western Europe, is an isolate, a language unrelated to any other living or dead. Nonetheless attempts have been made to demonstrate a relationship with a variety of languages including ancient Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, and Berber. The most consistently proposed kinship has been with the Kartvelian family of Caucasian languages, in particular with Georgian.

The origin of Basque has been bound up with theories about the origin of the Basque people themselves. Greek and Roman historians referred to the region corresponding to modern Georgia as eastern Iberia, as distinct from western Iberia, i.e. Spain and Portugal. The Greek geographer Strabo referred both to the Iberians of the Caucasus and to the ‘western Iberians’ (Geographica, bk. XI, ch. II, 19). Appian of Alexandria later wrote ‘some people think that the Iberians of Asia were the ancestors of the Iberians of Europe; others think that the former emigrated from the latter’ (Historia Romana, bk. XII, ch. XV, 101). However, he continued ‘still others think that they merely have the same name, as their customs and languages are not similar’. The Georgian language was also known, confusingly, as Iberian.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Basque historians adopted the prevalent Spanish legend according to which after the Flood, Tubal, a son of Japheth, was the first settler in the Peninsula, but they added that he settled first in Cantabria, i.e. the Basque region. Esteban de Garibay (born 1525) found evidence for this claim in similarities between place names in northern Spain and in Armenia, e.g. Mount Ararat (in modern Turkey) = Aralar, the mountain range in Gipuzkoa and Navarra. He also links the Basque Mount Gorbeia  to an Armenian peak ‘Gordeya’. He considered Basque the first language of the whole Peninsula and, presumably, the language of Tubal. Other writers followed Garibay, notably Andrés de Poza and Baltasar de Echave. Garibay’s identification of similarities between toponyms, however fantastical, can be seen as a forerunner of the Basque-Caucasian hypothesis.

Garibay2Esteban de Garibay, Los XL libros del Compendio historial… de todos los reynos de España (Antwerp, 1571) British Library C.75.e.4.

In the early 20th century philologists developed more scientific arguments for a link between Basque and Caucasian languages. Typological similarities certainly exist between Basque and Georgian. For example both are ergative languages. Put at its simplest, this means that the subject of a transitive verb appears in the ergative case (or ‘agentive’), while the object is in the absolutive case and is unmarked. Thus, in Basque we have ‘gure aitak etxe berria erosi du’ (‘our father has bought a new house’) contrasted with ‘gure aita Donostian bizi da’ (‘our father lives in Donostia’).  In Georgian, ‘father’ in the first sentence would be rendered by ‘mamam’ and by ‘mama’ in the second. However, the ergative construction would not be employed in subject-direct object-verb constructions in all tenses and aspects. In Basque the ergative is more regularly employed.

Another notable similarlity is that the verb morphology of both languages is pluripersonal, i.e. the form of the verb may encode not just the subject of the sentence, but any direct or indirect objects present. In Basque this is illustrated in the examples:

Nere semeak kotxe berri bat erosi du = My son has bought a new car
Nere semeak bi kotxe erosi ditu = My son has bought two cars.

The infix it in the auxiliary verb in the second example agrees with the plural object bi kotxe. However, the verb morphology of Georgian is extremely complex and functions very differently from Basque.

Typological parallels are all very well, but ergativity and pluripersonal agglutinative verbal morphology are not exclusive to Basque and Georgian, and doubt concerning possible kinship between them arises when lexical coincidences are cited. According to Basque philologists today, the majority of those seeking similarities have cast their nets very wide, claiming cognate fish when most should have been thrown back. Cognates with Basque have been sought among several Caucasian languages, although a genetic relationship between the Northern and Kartvelian groups remains unproven. Furthermore, in many cases proto-Basque forms have not been matched with proto-Georgian forms; many coincidences are thus anachronistic. The philologist R.L. Trask also stressed that the Basque, in its hypothetical early form, had a vastly impoverished consonantal system in contrast to the wealth of consonants of the Northern Caucasian groups in particular. Today, Georgian has 28 consonants, Basque 21.

Georgian1 The 36 letters of the Georgian alphabet according to Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum… (Rome, 1629); 621.c.33.(1.)

The case for a relationship between Basque and other languages intensified in the early 20th century with the philologists Hugo Schuchardt, C.C. Uhlenbeck and Alfredo Trombetti. Much of the debate was conducted in scientific periodicals, particularly the Revue Internationale des Etudes Basques (P.P.4331.aeb.). We might add here the Georgian linguist Nikolai Marr who developed the so-called Japhetic theory linking Kartvelian with Semitic languages and subsequently the theory that all languages had a common origin. He also found parallels between Kartvelian languages and Basque.

MarrandBasquesMarr (third from right) with a group of Basques, reproduced in Nikolai Marr, Basksko-kavkazskie leksicheskie paralleli (Tbilisi , 1987) YA.1991.a.23022

The case for possible Basque-Caucasian cognates continued to be advanced in the second half of the last century by linguists such as René Lafon and Antonio Tovar. However, later scholars, notably Luis (Koldo) Michelena and Trask, firmly rejected the Caucasian link.  This has not stemmed the tide of speculation, which in fact has widened to include Basque in a macro-language family (Dené-Caucasian) and even beyond in the hypothetical single language of the so-called proto-world. This notion seems to bring us back to Nikolai Marr. These last speculations find approval also among those still hoping to prove a common ethnic origin for the Basques and the Iberians of the Caucasus. Given that the Basque language remains alone in a class of one, it is wisest to conclude that the case for a link remains unproven.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic studies and Anna Chelidze, SEE Cataloguer Russian/Georgian


Itzia Laka, A Brief Grammar of Euskara ([Vitoria-Gasteiz], 1996); available at

Juan Madariaga Orbea, Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language (Reno, 2006). YC.2007.a.857.

R.L. Trask, The History of Basque (London, 1997). YC.1997.b.547

José Ramón Zubiaur Bilbao, Las ideas lingüísticas vascas en el s. XVI. Zaldibia, Garibay, Poza (Donostia, 1989). YA. 1993.a.5626.

La Prensa Iberica interview with Davit Turashvili:


01 June 2015

Basque Books in the British Library

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The first book in the Basque language was printed in Bordeaux as late as 1545.  It is a collection of poems by the vicar of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Bernat Etxepare, entitled Linguae Vasconum Primitiae (‘First fruits of the Basque language’). Only one copy survives, in  the Bibliothèque national in Paris. Subsequent printing in Basque, both in France and Spain, was not extensive. So how it is that so many books in Basque are now in the British Library’s collections?

In fact books in a wide variety of languages, including Basque, were in the foundation collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who owned copies of three editions of Jean Etcheberri de Çiboure’s Noelac eta berce canta esperitual berriac (‘Carols and new spiritual songs’; Bordeaux, 1645; Bayonne, 1699; Bayonne: [1700?]; British Library 1064.a.30.(30), (2), (1) respectively). He also possessed the third edition of Etcheberri’s Eliçara erabiltceco liburua (‘A book to carry to Church’).

Jean Etcheberri, Eliçara erabiltceco liburua (Pau, 1666;

It is doubtful that Sloane knew Basque, but books in foreign languages, including minority languages, were intrinsic to his collecting policy as language was seen as fundamental to the description of peoples. He also owned two key works about the Basque Country and the language: Andrés de Poza, De la antigua lengua, poblaciones, y comarcas de las Españas (Bilbao, 1587; 627.d.32) and Baltasar de Echave, Discursos de la antigüedad de la lengua cantabra vascongada (Mexico, 1607; C.33.i.6).  Both emphasized Basque’s perceived status as the first language of the  Iberian Peninsula.

The King’s Library contains a copy of what is arguably the most iconic book in the Basque language, Joannes Leiçarraga’s New Testament, printed in 1571.  For the Basques this text is their Tyndale and King James versions combined.

he opening of St Matthew’s Gospel from Joannes Leiçarraga’s Basque New Testament Iesus Christ Gure Iaunaren Testamentu Berria (La Rochelle in 1571) 217.d.2

In the second half of the 19th century, purchase became the main means of acquiring foreign books. Thanks to Antonio Panizzi, Keeper of Printed Books from 1837 until 1856, the British Museum Library secured sufficient funds to acquire contemporary works of foreign scholarship systematically. These included books about Basque, as about other foreign languages.

The increase in acquisition budgets also allowed the Museum to bid ambitiously at book sales.  One of the most important for minority language material was the 1873 Paris sale of the Bibliothèque patoise of  French bibliophile Jean Henri Burgaud des Marets (1806-1873), which included  more than 300 works relating to Basque. Of these the Museum purchased 130, mostly religious works, but also periodicals, books of music, travel writing, and scholarly works on the Basque language and region. Most were printed in the 19th century, but a number were from the 18th, e.g. Basque versions of  The Imitation of Christ (Bordeaux, 1720; IX.Basq.7.) and  St Francis de Sales, Introduction à la vie dévote (Toulouse, 1749; 886.d.2.)

The Museum received important donations material from two scholars of Basque during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first was Napoleon I’s nephew, Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte, who spent much of his life in London.  He commissioned translations of the Song of Songs and of St Matthew’s Gospel into several minority languages and dialects, most notably Basque.  These  were used to compare dialects and as a result Bonaparte produced his dialect map of the seven Basque Provinces (Carte des sept provinces basques, 1863; Maps 18649(4)). Bonaparte’s basic divisions have largely stood the test of time.  

The second donor of Basque books to the Museum was the irascible and obsessive Oxford Bascophile Edward Spencer Dodgson (1857-1922).  A pupil of Resurrección María de Azkue, the first director of Euskaltzaindia, the Basque language academy, Dodgson devoted most of his life to studying Basque language and bibliography. This latter interest extended to collecting Basque books, most of which he donated to the British Museum.  These fall into two broad categories. The first were cheap, popular, small-format books in Basque. Their subject-matter goes beyond the usual works of popular piety to include translations of episodes from Dante’s Inferno and Cervantes’ Don Quijote, a popular tale, and various dramatic works.  The second group consists of Dodgson’s own publications: works about Basque, notably the verb, and his editions of earlier works (e.g. those of Rafael Mikoleta and Agustín Kardebaraz). Basque language courses, readers and conversation manuals can also be conveniently included in this group.

A conspicuous feature of Dodgson’s donations are his manuscript annotations. These indicate how, when and where he obtained a particular book, what he paid for it or who gave it to him. Other notes are corrections, including intemperate comments on the authors’ linguistic incompetence. Inside a copy of Tomás Epalza’s El euskara ó el baskuenze en 120 lecciones  he wrote: ‘The author of this collection of bad Basque and silly Castilian is Thomas Epalza of Bilbao’. He corrected the text in many places. In a second copy he wrote: ‘This book is of very little value.  Its lightest mistakes are misprints. These are very numerous indeed.’

Dodgson’s note in one of his copies of Epalza’s El euskara ó el baskuenze en 120 lecciones (Bilbao, 1896) 12978.c.38.(1)

The British Library’s early Basque holdings were thus built up in part fortuitously and in part strategically. That collection strategy has been maintained, with some variation. Today, the Library focusses on works about the language, editions of classic texts in Basque and a selection of contemporary literature (including in Spanish translation).

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

19 May 2015

The Basque Language

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Basque, or Euskera, as the Basques call it, is a pre-Indo-European language now spoken in four provinces of northern Spain and three in France, on either side of the Western Pyrenees. It once extended over a much wider area, but how much wider is a matter of conjecture, as indeed is the prehistory of the language and people. In spite of perceived similarities and lexical coincidences between Basque and an extraordinary number of languages, living and dead, from across the world, only surviving fragments of Aquitanian, a language once spoken in South-Western Gaul, have been shown to have meaningful coincidences with Basque. Aquitanian can thus reasonably be regarded as an ancestor or close relative. Today Basque is an isolate, and the only surviving pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe.

Basque is a difficult language for speakers of other Western European languages. For example, the relationship of subject and object is quite different from what we are familiar with in English, or Spanish, and from what we may recall from Latin with its nominative (subject) and accusative (object) cases. Wikipedia  tells us that:

Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. The subject of an intransitive verb is in the absolutive case (which is unmarked), and the same case is used for the direct object of a transitive verb. The subject of the transitive verb is marked differently, with the ergative case (shown by the suffix -k).

Here are two contrasted, basic examples: ‘nire anaia etorri da’ (‘my brother has come’); ‘nire aitak emakumea ikusi du’ (‘my father saw the woman’).

The Basque verb is especially complex. Wikipedia again:

The auxiliary verb accompanies most main verbs, agrees not only with the subject, but with any direct object and the indirect object present. Among European languages, this polypersonal agreement is only found in Basque, some languages of the Caucasus, and Hungarian (all non-Indo-European).

So in Basque we have the sentence ‘nire aitak Mireni liburu eman zion’ (‘my father gave the book to Miren’) where the auxiliary (zion) recapitulates the relationship between ergative, direct and indirect objects.
     LarramendiThe first Basque grammar, Manuel de Larramendi’s El impossible vencido (‘The Impossible Overcome’), printed in Salamanca in 1729 (British Library G.16752).

The present-day Basque Country, or Euskal Herria, straddles France and Spain and within Spain it is divided between the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco and the Comunidad Foral de Navarra.  The three French provinces (Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule), together with Béarn, make up the department of the Pyrénées Atlantiques.  The Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco comprises the three provinces of Alava, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. In Spain the language is spoken most widely in Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia and the northern parts of Navarra. The number of Basque speakers in France is declining and the majority of speakers are elderly. However, usage among young people has increased according to figures from 2011.

Basque_country-resized-600The  Basque Country (highlighted).  Source: UCLA Language Materials Project

The Basque Country is also divided linguistically: according to Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s dialect map (London, 1869; Maps 18649.(4.)), the language can be classified into eight dialects. The situation in the late 20th century has been described by Koldo Zuazo as consisting of five dialects.
Since the late 1960s concerted efforts have been made to create a standardized form of Basque, known as batua (= unified; < bat = one).

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the use of Basque was forbidden in education and public life as part of General Franco’s quest to impose national unity. At its most harsh, his regime forbade even the speaking of Basque in public. By the late 1960s the situation had eased somewhat and private schools, ikastolak, which had been functioning in secret, were now tolerated. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 gave Basque co-official status in the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco and in some areas of Navarra. The introduction of the teaching of Basque in state schools by the autonomous Basque Government has saved the language from what would almost certainly have been total extinction. Basque imaginative literature has re-emerged and the works of prominent writers such as Bernardo Atxaga and Kirmen Uribe  have been widely translated.

The most recent survey of the state of the language (V Encuesta Sociolingúística, 2011) has permitted broadly positive conclusions. Nearly 60% of people in the Comunidad Autónoma del P.V. now have some knowledge of Basque, an increase of 14.5% over the past 30 years. The percentage of fairly competent speakers now stands at 36.4% of the population, a roughly similar increase. Strangely, one worrying aspect of the survey is that the use of Basque in the home has dropped very slightly.  However, the broad conclusion of the survey is that the future of Basque – in Spain – lies with the Basques themselves.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Further reading

Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1990). YC.1990.a.10183 and 90/20865

Alan R. King, The Basque Language: a Practical Introduction (Reno, 1994). YA.1999.b.3105

R.L.  Trask, A History of the Basque Language (London, 1997).  YC.1997.b.547 and 97/06294