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August 30, 2010

What language would I learn if I wanted to give myself the ultimate challenge?

I would learn Basque.

I’d be learning a language that is not like any other in the world. One that has been a language isolate for as long as its existence has been documented. Language isolate means it has no ‘genetic’ relationship with, and, as a result, is completely different from the languages of its neighboring lands. Or any remoter lands. Some have speculated it might be related to Chechen – the language of Russia’s turbulent province – but the link is doubtful.

Called Euskara by the Basques themselves, the language blows your mind by its lack of clues that any other unfamiliar European language provides. No obvious similarities to Romance of Germanic languages, few cognates, no familiar roots or prefixes. Some Romance words have been adopted, but when I read through a Basque text, they seldom meet the eye. The core of the vocabulary consists of indigenous words. And when the borrowed words pop up, you are thrown off by the sentence construction because they do not appear where you expect them to in other languages.

Take a look at this:

‘Euritakoa hartu dut euria egin behar duelako.’ (I took the umbrella because it is going to rain.)

Not a clue.

‘Hagineko mina du amamak.’ (Grandma has a toothache.)

Now that you know the translation you might spot ‘mama’ in ‘amamak’ but how on earth would you know it’s ‘grandma’ and it’s the sentence’s subject?

Travelling in a bus through Spain fourteen years ago, I remember being stupefied when, after dozing off to the familiar sight of road signs in Spanish, I woke up to the same signs in what appeared to be a random collection of letters. I didn’t know about Euskara then. I thought I’d been thrown on to another planet. Of course all we had done is crossed the border of the Basque Country. Picking up my jaw, I tried to decipher any of the words and failed.

Like the fauna of Australia and New Zealand, Basque has been developing in isolation and has preserved its uniqueness over centuries. What makes it amazing is that there is actually no sea between the Basque Country and the rest of Europe.

It is the last remaining pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe. Little is known of its origins. Some researchers hypothesize Basque is the only survivor of a larger family that once extended throughout most of Europe. So, in that sense, if I learned Basque I would travel through time.

If I learned Basque, I’d learn the code that Americans used (along with Navajo, Iroquois, and Comanche) in their transmissions in the Pacific to throw off the Japanese during World War II. They simply put Basques, who also knew English, on both ends of the transmission, and those Basques spoke in Euskara. An unknown language in the Asian front, it drove the Japanese decipherers crazy. Hey, I might use it as a code to pass secret messages too! As long as someone else knew Basque that I could share secrets with…

Another reason learning Basque would be a challenge is that the noun phrase is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number; these 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again; and there are also two levels of recursion. So it’s been estimated that a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms. But don’t tell me it makes the language unlearnable! Even Basque kids can learn it.

There would be no hieroglyphs to memorize, thank goodness. The alphabet is Latin.

If I were learning Basque, I would definitely use this great resource:

I will learn Basque.

Some of it.



4 Comments leave one →
  1. julen permalink
    March 6, 2011 10:10 am

    Well, just if everyone in the Basque Country had a half of your motivation to learn Basque this would be a much better place!
    Actually Basque is under different politics depending on the region. It is officially unexisting in the French state and it’s considered “coofficial languaje” in some Spain’s regions.
    The sad reality is the number of basque-speakers is going down in both states as all basque-speakers must be able to speak wether French or Spanish.
    Also sad is that being the Basque country a region shared by three languajes many spanish and french-speakers consider the native languaje just an annoying folclorical thing.

    Anyways, it’s good to know there’s people out there concerned about diversity in whatever the subject nowadays!
    Cheers from Basque Country!

    • March 7, 2011 12:10 pm

      Hi Julen, Thanks for your comment. The sad reality for me is that I don’t have the time to learn all the minority languages I feel excited about and intrigued by (Basque definitely being one of them) but if more people in the Basque country shared the excitement and learned their tongue, I would be happy. I hope it’s sunny and warm in the Basque country now. 🙂 Still wintry here in Perm, Russia. 😦

  2. Julen permalink
    March 8, 2011 2:39 am

    Hi Alex!
    I’m happy you were cheered up by the comments!
    I hope you find the time, sometime, to keep on with you fantastic blog.
    Keep on with that interest and attitude!
    See you

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