15 December 2010


Last fall, I visited the Basque country in Spain (and briefly popped over the border to France), where I was struck by the warmth of the people and the unparalleled culture of a people without a state fighting for autonomy. I learned the word for the drink that is a combination of equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola (kalimotxo) and the Basque word for tapas (pintxos), but aside from eating and drinking, I didn't give the language much thought.

Until I got the chance to research, analyze, and explain a language I had never studied for a class I took on linguistic typology. Obviously I chose Basque. Maybe a linguistic analysis would offer me some insight into why the Basque language has so many x's, a's, and k's.  
The Basque language belongs to its own family and is native to the Basque region of northeast Spain and southwest France. It is spoken on both sides of the western Pyrenees mountain range. Since it is not known to be related to any other living languages, it is known as a language isolate. The Basque word for the language is euskara; its eight dialects have approximately 658,960 speakers. The language is fragmented into a variety of dialects by its rural nature; in both France and Spain, Basque is an official regional language, but has no state of its own. In Spain, the regions of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Araba are being incorporated in the administration of a Basque Government known as the Basque Autonomous Community; the institution supports language normalization and preservation of the language as a part of public life. In the Basque Autonomous Community, Basque-teaching schools, ikastolak, have been compulsory since the 1960s even though Basque had been banned from schools since the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Prominent dialects of Basque include Bizkaiera, at one geographical extreme in the west, and Zuberoera, at the other geographical extreme in the east. These are the two most distinct variations of the language; Gipuzkera, along with Bizkaiera, is one of the most widely-spoken dialects of Basque. Other variations of Basque include Euskara Batua, unified (official) Basque, based on the central dialects, and Lapurtera, the dialect most classic Basque literature was written in. The first printed book in Basque, a collection of poems that appeared in 1545, was written in Nafarrera Beherea (low Nafarreaga). For official public and non-local purposes, Batua is the preferred dialect. 
The Basque language has no gender. It has binary politeness distinction, a complex syllable structure, double marking in clauses, and a lack of remoteness distinctions in the present past tense. The language has between twelve and seventeen cases, depending on which grammar one consults.
Basque abides by the majority of Greenberg’s requirements for Type III (subject-object-verb, or SOV) languages: relative clauses precede nouns, numerals precede nouns, nouns precede demonstratives, genitives precede nouns, and nouns precede adjectives, and, perhaps most tellingly, it has postpositions. 
Basque has a relatively free word order. Its numerous cases (between 12 and 17 depending on which grammar you read) mostly keep track of who does what to whom in the sentence. Within clauses, word order is restricted, but at the sentence level, it is quite free.
The position immediately before verb marks the element in the focus of a sentence, a phenomenon called galdegaia. In Basque, “elements in focus are likely to appear immediately before the verb in declaratives and interrogatives and immediately after the auxiliary but before the participle in negatives and imperatives. Focus is thus marked exclusively by word order without using any special affix. Other arguments in the sentence can occur either preceding or following the galdegaia + verb constituent.
 An example of an acceptable sentence in Basque is:
                Etxe atze-an patio ederr-a d-a-uka-gu
                ume-ak jolas d-a-ite-z-en
                House back-s.loc patio pretty-sA
                3A-prs-have-1pE child-pA play 
                “We have a beautiful patio in the
                 back of the house (so) that the
                children play.”

In this example, the adjective ederra, “pretty”, follows the noun, “patio”, as predicted by Greenberg’s universals, and the sentence is well-formed in that it ends in the verb daitezen.  
Yet all four variations of the following sentence, demonstrating various word orders, are “good” sentences in Basque:
             Bilbo-n  euskara     hiru   urte-z    ikasi zuen
             Bilbo-in Basque(A) three year-for learn aux
             "He studied Basque in Bilbao for three years."
                      i.   Bilbon hiru urtez euskara ikasi zuen.
                      ii.  Bilbon ikasi zuen hiru urtex euskara.
                      iii. Hiru urtez euskara ikasi zuen Bilbon.
                      iv. Ikasi zuen Bilbon euskara hiru urtez.
It is curious that, although Basque is a verb-final language whose sentences generally end in periphrastic verbs, only two of the five samples sentences are sentence is verb-final, ending in the periphrastic auxiliary verb “zuen”, while the other three sentences end in nouns. 

In studying Basque in my limited time frame - and without actually trying to learn the language to speak it - I was unable to understand why such a verb-final language would so often allow its sentences to end non-verb-finally. Nor did I come to understand why, exactly, Basque utilizes so very many x's, a's, and k's. I can, however, say that the morphology of Basque - the way words are structured - is patterned on repeating particles that are used in various words. Case is marked on every noun, and with up to seventeen cases, many of which involve a's and k's, it's no wonder that the language involves a slew of ejectives.


Anonymous said...

so educational, thank you!

maya said...

thank YOU for reading