There’s a funny folktale about the Basque language that perfectly illustrates its singular strangeness. In the myth, the Devil once attempted to learn the language in order to pick out the Basques he wanted to send to Hell. But, after seven years of fruitless studies, he had to give up.
The point of this parable isn’t to remind us that even the Prince of Darkness struggles with his conjugation tables — though this can be useful encouragement for a certain kind of language student — but to tell a truthful fiction about how difficult Basque is to learn.
As one of the world’s most well-known language isolates, Basque, also known as Euskara, has long puzzled historians and linguists with its apparent lack of relation to any other living language.
Spoken by approximately 700,000 people in the Basque region of Northern Spain and Southern France, which is flanked by the Pyrenees, Euskara has, against the odds, survived as a singular phenomenon, and its mysterious origin story remains uncracked.
The History Of The Basque Language
Compare the Basque phrase for “welcome” to the Spanish bienvenidos and the French bienvenue: ongi etorria. Given what we know about the way languages splinter organically — with geographically neighboring dialects being most mutually intelligible to each other — this seems like an improbable deviation to crop up in the midst of a Romance language continuum.
Basque predates the Indo-European tongues, and at the height of its influence, it was spoken throughout a region that was bordered by the Ebro River, the Garonne, the western Pyrenees and Catalonia. Invasions from the Celts, Romans and more have decreased its geographical reach over time. Additionally, Franco forbade the use of any languages besides Spanish during his rule between 1939 and 1975, but Basque managed to survive in isolated rural mountain towns and along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, as well as in hushed domestic conversations in the cities. We know, based on the discovery of ancient cave drawings, that people have been in this region since at least 14,000 years ago, and it’s probably the case that those people spoke a protolanguage that’s related to modern Basque.
Next came a wave of arrivals from the Indo-European cohort around 3,500 years ago, which is when the seeds for most current European languages were scattered around the continent. However, this didn’t seem to occur in the Basque region itself, which was geographically isolated from the rest. It took until 1545 for the first book to be printed in Euskara, and the language was finally standardized in 1968.
Today, Euskara exists in a topologically scattered form, with many of its speakers living in rural or suburban areas that each feature slightly different dialects. There’s a standardized form of Euskara called Batua that’s used in schools and institutions, however. Euskara has also been the co-official language of the Basque Country Autonomous Community since 1979, along with Spanish.
A Language Isolate Until Proven Otherwise
None of this is to say that there haven’t been substantial attempts to pin down the linguistic pedigree of Euskara.
One theory that seems credible at first glance is that Euskara is related to Armenian. Even though these languages both exist in two geographically distant corners of Europe, they share a compelling number of very similar-sounding words and grammatical elements — and the speakers of both languages even have a biological link. This runs counter to the official Basque origin story, which is that they simply descended from hunter-gatherers who settled in the region thousands of years ago, and have been biologically and linguistically isolated from other cultures since.
Researchers have uncovered hundreds of “links” between the Basque and Armenian languages, including a few near-identical words associated with agriculture (like sheep and barley). But the linguistic research to support the Armenian-Basque link kind of falls apart under closer scrutiny. Actual living natives do not recognize many of these supposedly shared words, as they are rather antiquated. And many Basque scholars reject the link completely, citing a lack of archeological proof and other missing links.
As was pointed out to the BBC by Xabier Kintana, head director at the Euskaltzaindia (the institution that oversees the Basque language), the “shared words” are randomly selected from various modern dialects of the Basque language, and many of them are likely old loan words that come from languages like Latin, Celtiberian and Iberian. To prove a link between Basque and Armenian, one would have to compare them both in their most ancient forms, subtracting any influences from other languages that were picked up along the way.
There is some scholarly consensus that Basque is associated with Iberian or Berber, or even that Euskara and Iberian were once the same language, but this has never been conclusively proven either. Though they do bear similarities in phonology, Basque has not been an effective key to cracking the Iberian language, which is a mystery in itself. Iberian is a dead, ancient language that also bears little to no relation to Latin, or to any other languages that now flourish in its place. So for now, Basque is a perplexing linguistic outlier.