Language portraits: Part I -- Basque

"Language Portraits" is the start of a new series of articles on the alugha blog in which individual languages are portrayed. The first in the series is Basque.

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Estimated reading time:6minutes

The Basque Country -- hilly and rainy in the mountains, quite sunny at the Atlantic coast. Some may think of the beret, others of the pintxos, as the Basque tapas are called, still others may think of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (or Bilbo, as the city is called in Basque -- the Hobbits send their regards and certainly feel comfortable in the Basque Country).

Where is the Basque Country actually located and what is so special about the language? 

The Basque Country is a cross-border region in the south of France and the north of Spain. There are seven provinces in total, three of which are in France and four in Spain. And in the Basque Country they speak a special language -- Basque. Maybe you've heard of it, maybe only partly. There are people who think that Basque is related to Spanish, or even, because it is a minority, that it is similar to Catalan. That is wrong. But maybe you know a little better and know that Basque is not related to any other language.

There are numerous theories about where Basque comes from, but none held up. So it is now simply assumed that it is an isolated language. There are several isolated languages, but Basque is the only one in Europe. This makes it special, something that Wilhelm von Humboldt was already interested in. Basque is thought to be older than the languages that surround it. 

Due to the fact that Basque is an isolated language, it is very different from the Indo-European languages around it. Naturally, however, the influence of Spanish, French and Gascon is also present (cf. Haase 1992). Of course, all of the approximately 600 000 speakers of Basque are multilingual. In France in particular, the language policy is known to be quite rigid (I also briefly touched on Basque there, by the way. So feel free to have another look at the article). But back to the special features of Basque, which cannot all be mentioned here. 

No word order from a galaxy far far away

Nothing typically Basque, but different from the common school languages, is its word order. The neutral common order is subject-object-verb. No, it is not the same position that Master Yoda uses. His order is object-subject-verb, but we'll save that for 4 May. 

A typical Basque sentence is therefore: 

  1. Mirenek       gereziak jan du.

          Miren.ERG cherries  eat AUX

          ‘Miren ate cherries.’

If you want to emphasise something in Basque, you need the conjugated verb directly after the emphasised information, in Basque called galdegaia, in the sentence. 

  1. Gereziak          jan du   Mirenek.

          cheeries.EMPH eat AUX Miren.ERG


One of the biggest peculiarities is certainly that Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. What is that? It is a different case system than we know in English or German, for example. For this we have to look a little deeper into the grammar. You may have heard of transitive and intransitive verbs. A verb is transitive if it needs an object, intransitive if it does not. In Basque, the subject of an intransitive verb is in the absolutive (ABS), while the subject of a transitive verb is in the ergative (ERG). In the latter case, the object needs the absolutive case. Let's look at this with the help of examples. 

  1. Kepa        badator

          Kepa.ABS comes

  1. Mirenek      abesti    bat kantatzen    du

          Miren.ERG song.ABS one sing.PROG AUX

There are even more ergative-absolutive languages worldwide. These include Greenlandic or Georgian, for example.

Basque is like a puzzle

This sentence did not come from me, but from a fellow student. He was right. In Basque, theoretically, you don't need to realise a subject or objects. Everything can be marked in a verb or auxiliary verb. Let's look at a simple sentence: 'Jon saw Miren'.

  1. Jonek     Mireni       ikasi dio

          Jon.ERG Miren.DAT see  AUX

This tiny auxiliary verb contains the information "he/she/it", or actually not, since genus does not really exist in Basque, but it does contain the information 3rd person singular, as well as that the object is in the dative. In the appropriate context, one could say "Ikasi dio". "He/she/it saw him/her/it”. This puzzle can be expanded. For example, "diguzue" means "you (PL) have it for us". (Haase)

That doesn't sound so complicated now, but I regularly cut my teeth on it. 

Basque varieties

Basque also has several varieties (I already touched on this in my article on minority languages in France), some of which are very different from each other, especially phonetically (but they are clearly dialects). Here again is an excerpt from the Little Prince in Standard Basque (6) and in North Basque Souletin (7).

(6) Ene marrazkiak     ez     zuen          kapelu bat     erakusten.

     My  drawing.ERG NEG AUX.PST.3SG hat     INDEF show

     'My drawing didn’t depict a hat.'

(7) Ene marrazkiak ez züan txapel bat agertzen.

 Standard Basque Euskara Batua (United Basque) is a bit contrived. After the minorities in Spain were suppressed under Franco, Basque almost disappeared. In order to revive it, various language policy measures were necessary, PR so to speak. These included, for example, writing and teaching in Basque.

However, in order to make this possible and to strengthen the feeling of togetherness among all Basque speakers, a standardised version was needed. Many speakers of Basque today are neo-speakers who only learned it properly at school. In France, due to the more restrictive policy,the situation is different.

A little everyday conversation

Kaixo. -Hello

Ni Lisa naiz- I am Lisa.

Nor zara zu?- Who are you?

Zer moduz? - How are you?

Ondo nago. - I am fine

Agur. - Goodbye

Maite zaitut - I love you!


Unlike many Indo-European languages, Basque does not have a decimal system, but a vigesimal system. This means that numbers are not expressed in tens but in twenties. For example, the number 30 in Basque is "twenty and ten" ("hogeitahamar"), or 40 is "twice twenty" ("berrogeita"). In French there is some of this. 80, for example, means "four twenties" (quatre-vingts). In linguistics, it was therefore assumed that this was an influence of Basque. However, there is very little to support this, as the other languages surrounding Basque (such as Spanish) do not have this system. Rather, it could be a Breton influence (cf. Kaiser 2014). But that is another issue... 

What else do you know about Basque?







Gabriel, C., & Meisenburg, T. (2017). Romanische Sprachwissenschaft (Vol. 2897). UTB.

Haase, M. (1992). Sprachkontakt und Sprachwandel im Baskenland: die Einflüsse des Gaskognischen und Französischen auf das Baskische. Buske

Hualde, J. I., & Ortiz De Urbina, J.(Eds.). (2011). A grammar of Basque (Vol. 26). Walter de Gruyter.

Kaiser, G. A. (2014). Romanische Sprachgeschichte. Paderborn: Fink. (04.08.2021, 12;25) (04.08.2021, 12:26) (04.08.2021, 12:26)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Printze txikia.2001. Donostia elkar Ediciones Salamandra, Übersetzung von Patxi Zubizarreta                                   

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Printze ttipia. 2013.Mauléon: Sü Azia, (unknown translator)


Photo Credit: Edurne Chopeitia via Unsplash


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