Basque separatists speak one of the planet's most unusual languages.

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May 30 2003 5:15 PM

How Do Basque and Spanish Differ?

Basque separatists speak one of the planet's most unusual languages.

The Basque separatist group ETA is being blamed for a bombing that killed two policemen in the northern Spanish town of Sangüesa today. Basque nationalists often point to the group's distinct language as a primary reason for independence. How different is the Basque tongue from Spanish?

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Aside from a few similar pronunciation characteristics, like trilled r's, the two are completely unrelated. In fact, Basque—more formally known as Euskara—is one of the planet's most unusual languages. Though linguists have tried to connect Euskara to everything from Pictish to the Dravidian languages, the current consensus is that it is not related to any other. It doesn't seem to belong to the Indo-European language family and likely predates the development of those tongues. One theory, popular among Basque scholars, is that both the language and the ethnic group descend from the Iberian peninsula's earliest settlers, who may have arrived around 35,000 years ago. There is scant archaeological evidence, however, to support this assertion.

What is certain is that an ancestral form of Basque, known as Aquitanian, was being spoken when the Romans arrived in Spain, around 200 B.C. Though the Basques came down from the Pyrenees to trade with the conquerors, they were never thoroughly subjugated, which may account for the perseverance of Euskara while the rest of the peninsula was influenced by Latin. In the Middle Ages, Basque was widely spoken in northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Between 1200 and 1332, the three Basque provinces of Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, and Araba allied themselves with the Castilian crown, but they were granted special privileges, including self-government.

The first wave of oppression followed the Carlist Wars of the 19th century, after the Basques supported the losing cause of the pretender Don Carlos. Things got much worse under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who came to power after the Spanish Civil War and outlawed the speaking of Euskara. This repression led to the creation of ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna—"Basque Homeland and Liberty") in 1959. Though the Basque region was granted considerable autonomy after Franco's death, a small faction of separatists, who believe their culture is threatened, continues to fight for complete independence. There have been 839 people killed as a result of ETA attacks since 1968.

There are about 600,000 fluent Euskara speakers in Basque Country today, with the vast majority on the Spanish side, and another 400,000 speak Euskara as a second language—there has been a tremendous Euskara revival in Basque schools over the past two decades. A sign of the Basques' pride in their tongue is their word for themselves, Euskaldunak—"possessors of the Basque language."

Explainer thanks the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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