The Basque Country is not demarcated by geography as much as linguistic and cultural lines. Above all else, Basques are united by their ancient language, Euskera. Euskera is related to no other lanuage on earth and is believed to be the oldest language in Europe. But the origin of Euskera is as unknown as the origins of the Basques themselves and for now remains a mystery
Over the years it has been influenced by the dominance of Spanish and French, but Euskera has survived. Recently, when Spain was ruled by the fascist dictator Generalismo Franco (1939-1975), it was prohibited to speak Euskera or any other minority language of Spain. But Euskera survived in exile, and has thrived in the post-Franco renaissance.
What explains the existence of a language so entirely different from the rest of Europe? Many people believe that ancient Europe was populated by cultures quite similar to the Basques, all of which were overrun when the Indo-Europeans invaded from Asia minor in the early Bronze Age. Their invasion introduced new cultural and linguistic forces that dominated all of Europe except the isolated hills of the Basque Country. That is, Basque could be the only surviving pre-Indo-European language and the Basques the ‘aborigines of Europe.’
Furthermore they resisted the Romans. Though the Roman Empire brought linguistic, cultural and societal influence with their legions, the Basques protected their culture and language from their powerful influence. Most other languages in Western Europe are direct descendents of the ‘vulgar Latin’ spoken by Roman soldiers, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan and Galician – but not Euskera.
By this point you might be smiling at my fascination at the Basques. Sure, there are other minority cultures in Europe, small pockets of overlooked traditions and languages overshadowed by more dominant nation-states. In England, the Welsh, the Scots. In France, the Bretons, the Corsicans. Indeed, Spain could be defined as a collection of minority cultures – the Catalans, Galicians, and Valencians all join the Basques in their resistance to the dominance of Castilian culture.
So what makes the Basques so special to me? To start, there’s the inherent mystery of their esoteric traditions and the continuous discovery that accompanies living amongst such an ancient and rare culture.
But furthermore I see them as a cultural and linguistic anomaly in the homogenizing age of Globalization. While most other cultures are sacrificing their particular traditions, languages or beliefs in favor of more ‘universal’ equivalents, the Basque culture indeed seems to be growing stronger.
The Basques give me hope in the future of the world’s minority cultures. If a small population with a peculiar language can survive for thousands of years in the face of invasion, persecution and external dominance, perhaps there is hope that other cultures won’t vanish in the face of an overpowering culture of the lowest common denominator.
If the other minority cultures on earth are as interesting as the Basques, that is a very good thing indeed.