The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language

The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language

From my car window, I watched Spain transform. From Madrid in the country’s centre to the coastal north, empty land and grazing cows turned to misty green mountains and a shimmering harbour full of boats. I had driven north before, but this was the first time I’d stopped in Getaria, a medieval fishing village with beaches, vineyards and the 15th-Century baptismal church of native son Juan Sebastian Elcano, the first person to sail around the world. 

In the early afternoon, on a narrow street, hot smoke rose from seabream sizzling on an outdoor charcoal grill. Two men standing behind a seafood delivery truck were speaking a language I’d never heard before. The staccato sounds they exchanged mingled with the light drips of rain on the pavement that March day. Later, I realised they were speaking an ancient language that has teetered on the brink of extinction. 

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Euskara, spoken in the autonomous communities of Navarre in northern Spain and the Basque Country across northern Spain and south-western France, is a mystery: it has no known origin or relation to any other language, an anomaly that has stumped linguistic experts for ages.

“Nobody is able to say where [the language] comes from,” according to Pello Salaburu, professor and director at the Basque Language Institute at The University of the Basque Country in Bilbao. “Scholars used to research this problem many years ago, but there are no clear conclusions.”

The distinct language is a point of pride for Basques. An estimated 700,000 of them, or 35% of the Basque population, speak it today. But it was a target for Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who enforced the use of Spanish and forbade other languages, including Euskara (also called Basque), during his rule from 1939 to 1975. 


The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language
View image of Getaria is a medieval fishing village in Spain’s Basque Country where the unique Euskara language is spoken (Credit: Credit: Peter Horree/Alamy)

When Karmele Errekatxo was a child in the 1960s and 1970s, she attended secret classes in a church basement in Bilbao, Spain, the Basque Country’s most populous city and home of the famed Guggenheim Museum. It was here that she learned the forbidden language of Euskara. 

If you take language from a place, it dies

“Language is the identity of a place,” said Errekatxo, now a teacher in Bilbao who speaks Euskara in her classroom. “If you take language from a place, it dies. The dictatorship knew that and wanted Euskara to disappear.” 

A group of parents set up a hidden Basque school, or ikastola, in 1944. By 1970, these secret learning institutions had more than 8,000 students, according to Salaburu. 

Salaburu was required at his 1951 baptism to take the name ‘Pedro Maria’, the Spanish version of his Basque name. He spoke only Euskara as a child and learned his first Spanish words at a non-Basque school in Navarre when he was six years old. 


The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language
View image of Bilbao, the Basque Country’s most populous city, is home to the Guggenheim Museum (Credit: Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images)

At this time Euskara was still spoken in isolated towns and farms in the Pyrenees Mountains and along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, where it was the only language many families knew. But it was silenced in cities, where informants reported Euskara speakers to the police. 

“Euskara was relegated to the intimate domain of the home,” Errekatxo said. “But in the cities, even the walls seemed to be listening.” 

Euskara was relegated to the intimate domain of the home, but in the cities, even the walls seemed to be listening

One day in the 1940s, Errekatxo’s grandmother was heard speaking Euskara to Bilbao food vendors from her hometown of Bermeo, a small seaside village 34km north-east of Bilbao. She was arrested, taken to jail and forced to pay a fine. Before she left, her jailers shaved her head to humiliate her. 

As a result, her grandmother did not pass Euskara to her children, including Errekatxo’s father. 

“The repression against the language had repercussions,” Errekatxo said. “Many families that spoke Euskara, because of fear, were losing the language. The language was not transmitted in some generations. It came to a sudden stop.” 


The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language
View image of Francisco Franco forbid the use of Euskara, so Basque schools were established to teach Euskara in secret (Credit: Credit: Oscar Fdez. Santana/Alamy)

But Euskara outlived the dictatorship, just as it had inexplicably survived several millennia.

Speleologists recently discovered an ancient cave in Errenteria, a town in the province of Guipuzcoa in the Spanish Basque Country, where people left drawings about 14,000 years ago. Other prehistoric caves in the Basque Country (including Santimamiñe in Biscay and Ekain in Guipuzcoa) were inhabited by people about 9,000 years ago.

“We don’t know the language spoken in the caves, of course,” Salaburu said. “But, unless we have other data proving the contrary, we should assume that that protolanguage is related in some sense to current Basque.”

When people from the East, or Indo-Europeans, began arriving in Europe 3,500 years ago, they brought their own languages from which most European languages originated. But Euskara does not have the same Indo-European roots, and is instead “completely different in origin,” Salaburu said. It’s the only living language in Europe with no relation to any others, he said.  


The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language
View image of Some of the prehistoric caves paintings found in the Basque Country date back 14,000 years (Credit: Credit: Eric Brissaud/Getty Images)

Among several theories regarding Euskara’s origin: Euskara and Iberian were the same language, or both evolved from the same language. Like Euskara, Iberian (a dead language once spoken in south-eastern regions of the Iberian Peninsula) had very little relation to the primary languages of the region.

“Iberian ‒ probably several languages itself, with different written systems – was mainly defined as opposite to Latin, and was spoken in the Iberian Peninsula, roughly current Spain and Portugal. One of their written systems was decrypted in the 1920s. We don’t understand it, but we know that it sounds very similar to Basque,” Salaburu said. 

Euskara’s milestones occurred fairly recently given that it’s been used for thousands of years. The first book in Euskara wasn’t printed until 1545 in Bordeaux, France; the first Basque school opened in 1914 in San Sebastian (only 30 years before Basque schools were forced underground by Franco), Spain; and the language was standardised in 1968, paving the way for writers to write in Euskara.   


The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language
View image of The first Basque school, or ‘iskatola’ opened in the coastal town of San Sebastian in 1914 (Credit: Credit: Peter Horree/Alamy)

“The best scholar in the Basque language, Koldo Mitxelena, used to say, ‘The miracle of Basque is how it has been able to survive’,” Salaburu said. “Really, it is a miracle that it survived without having literature, without having people educated in Basque.”

Euskara has been shaped over time by the Basques’close contact with nature. Their surroundings inspired a vast collection of words to describe their verdant valleys, stunning peaks, blue coastlines and bluer skies. The language contains varied vocabulary for landscapes, animals, the wind, the sea ‒ and about 100 ways to say ‘butterfly’. The language may still be around, in part, because its early speakers were geographically secluded from the rest of the world by the Pyrenees.

Basque people have the feeling that language is the most important feature that identifies them as a people

“But I would say that it was not as isolated as people say, because many people used this land,” Salaburu said. “Basque people have the feeling that language is the most important feature that identifies them as a people. They just don’t want to lose it.” 

In the 1960s, during Franco’s attack on Basque culture, the terrorist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna, meaning ‘Basque Homeland and Freedom’) formed, and killed hundreds of people over the ensuing decades in its fight to gain the Basque region’s independence from Spain and France. Euskara was used by ETA’s members in extortion letters demanding money from and threatening violence to businesses and individuals, and painted on walls by sympathizers who wrote pro-ETA slogans. ETA disarmed in April 2017. 


The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language
View image of Karmele Errekatxo: "There’s the perception that Euskara belongs to the nationalists. I believe a language is universal" (Credit: Credit: RAFA RIVAS/Getty Images)

“Euskara has been used as a weapon. It has become politicised and manipulated,” Errekatxo said. “There’s the perception that Euskara belongs to the nationalists. I believe a language is universal.” 

To keep Euskara alive, the government of the Spanish Basque Country, where most Basques live, recently launched one of many campaigns to encourage use of the language. The initiative includes a website where Euskara speakers can practice the language. Students in the region can also choose whether to study in Euskara, Spanish or both. Most choose to learn in Euskara, though it’s seldom heard in public; in the streets of Bilbao, for example, it’s still more common to hear people speak Spanish.

“For the first time in our history, many people that know Basque choose to speak in Spanish,” Salaburu said. “And this is something that makes me feel uncomfortable. The influence of Spanish and different languages is strong.”


View image of Euskara is now sung, spoken and printed in newspapers all across the Basque Country (Credit: Credit: Education Images/Getty Images)

In Getaria, the Euskara I’d heard was a modern version influenced by other languages. I noticed some sounds also heard in Spanish, like ch (written ‘tx’ in Euskara, as in txangurro, meaning ‘crab’), but there are few similarities between the two languages. For example, ‘thank you’ is eskerrik asko in Euskara and gracias in Spanish. 

All around the Basque Country, Euskara words appear on road signs and above doors, greeting visitors to stores and bars serving txakoli (locally produced white wine) and pintxos (thick slices of bread topped with seafood or other ingredients). The language once prohibited by Franco is now spoken on television, sung in music, printed in newspapers and broadcast on the radio. 

“In 1975, when Franco was dying, I think that Basque was taken as a symbol against him, and many people began to learn Basque and take care of the language,” Salaburu said. 

Basque has its ups and downs, it evolves forward and backward, like life itself

Will Euskara survive? 

“I say yes, because I’m an optimist,” Errekatxo said. “Basque has its ups and downs, it evolves forward and backward, like life itself.” 

After spending a day in Getaria, I drove 26km east along the Bay of Biscay coast to San Sebastian, a Basque city renowned for its restaurants and beaches. There, at the steps of the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, an 18th-Century Baroque building in the old part of the city, a men’s choir broke into a majestic song in melodic Euskara. I didn’t need to understand the words to appreciate their beauty.

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