Basque Language: the Mysterious Oldest Language of Europe

Euskara, the Basque language, is spoken in the regions of the Basque Country across northern Spain, Navarra and the south-west of France, and is one of the greatest mysteries of the whole Europe. It has no known origin or relation to any other language spoken across the continent.


The distinct language is a point of pride for Basques, who cherish their language as the most important feature that identifies them as a people. It was also a specific target for Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, who enforced the use of Spanish and forbade any other languages during his rule from 1939 to 1975. But Euskara outlived the dictatorship, just as it had inexplicably survived several millennia.


“Straddling a small corner of Spain and France in a land that is marked on no maps except their own, the Basques are a puzzling contradiction—they are Europe’s oldest nation without ever having been a country. No one has ever been able to determine their origins, and even the Basques’ language, Euskera—the most ancient in Europe—is related to none other on earth. For centuries, their influence has been felt in nearly every realm, from religion to sports to commerce. Even today, the Basques are enjoying what may be the most important cultural renaissance in their long existence” says Mark Kurlansky in his book The Basque History of the World.



There are almost no similarities between Euskara and Spanish, except for neologisms that entered the language of the Basque people through the Spanish channel. Most common words and expressions are completely different. For example, thank you is eskerrik asko in Euskara and gracias in Spanish; hello is gabon – hola; welcome is ongi etorri – bienvenidos.


Traditional Basque dance on the streets of Donostia – San Sebastian


Historically, the oldest proofs of prehistoric caves inhabited by people, in the Basque Country, date from about 14,000 years ago (Errenteria) and 9,000 years ago (Ekain). 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, thus being only living language in Europe with no relation to any others.


The iconic town of Getaria, hometown of Juan Sebastián Elcano, a seaman well-known for being the first man to circumnavigate the earth.


The first book in Euskara wasn’t printed until 1545 in Bordeaux, France. The first Basque school opened in 1914 in San Sebastian, and the language was standardised in 1968, paving the way for writers to write in Euskara. In the 1960s, during Franco’s attack on Basque culture, the terrorist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna, Basque Homeland and Freedom) was also known for using Euskara in its manifestos, menace and extortion letters, or in the messages painted on the walls of Basque cities. Today, all around the Basque Country, Euskara words appear on road signs and above doors, greeting visitors to stores and bars, and the language once prohibited by Franco is now spoken on television, sung in music, printed in newspapers and broadcast on the radio. 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.



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