Txomin Pellein's piece takes writer and brand consultant Susannah Hart on a journey deep into the Basque language.
OK, I’ll come clean: I’m a linguist. So when I volunteered for this PEN thing I thought it couldn’t be that difficult. I know French, Russian, Latin, more than a little German, Spanish, Italian, a smattering of Swedish, Finnish and Dutch. I can work out headlines in tens of languages.
But I really, really, really don’t know any Basque (or, as the Basques themselves call it, Euskara.) Then again, only a very few people in the world do know any Basque. In fact, all I know about Basque is that Basque is not like anything else – it’s not a Germanic or a Romance or a Slavonic or a Finno-Ugric language. It might even be pre-Proto-Indo-European. It’s out on a limb, a language isolate, an island of language, an orphan tongue. It’s got no parents, no siblings and, as far as we can tell, no distant cousins either. It’s spoken by around one million people around the world and its homeland is the Basque country – the borders between France and Spain. It’s estimated that no more than 632,000 of the world’s Basque speakers are native speakers.
I know now a few more things about Basque. Firstly, it has more Xs and Zs in it than any other language I’ve ever seen written down. I read that the American poet Phillis Levin described it as ‘like a treasure map’ because of all the Xs. Though some medieval poems and letters have survived, publication in Basque only began in 1545. An organisation called Euskaltzaindia (the Royal Basque Language Academy) is officially in charge of the unification of the Basque language and the current orthography was only introduced in 1964. So this makes it not only a very old spoken language, but a rather new written language. One of the most interesting Basque literary forms is the bertso, a type of extemporized song composed according to various rules and rhyming patterns; the singers are called bertsoli and the art of creating and performing these songs is called bertsolaritza. Regional and national championships are still held and learning about bertsolaritza alone would take me many months.
Given my surpassing ignorance about Basque, it was all the more surprising that, though there is much I cannot tell you about Txomin Pellein’s piece, I can tell you some things. I can tell you, for a start, that it is not a poem, nor a story, nor a piece of descriptive writing. I can tell you that it is some form of literary history of Basque. I can tell you that it focuses on a particular period of modernising or modernisation or modern influences on Basque literature – the period from 1950 to 1960. I can tell you that it concerns, in the main, three writers, who were respectively born in Paris, Bilbao and San Sebastian.
Without a dictionary, I know it contains references to books, culture, churches, control, censorship, industry, Franco, erotica of various kinds (including masturbation, paedophilia and necrophilia), drugs and alcohol, and existentialism. With a dictionary, I can work out a little more, but, disappointingly, only a little. It turns out that Basque is an inflected language with affixes and infixes and declensions galore; Wikipedia tells me that a Basque noun can have more than 450,000 forms. It’s really difficult to look up a word in Basque if you don’t know its root form. However, I have found out that the piece is something to do with a ‘break’ or a ‘fracture’ in Basque literary history – perhaps a breakaway, a break with tradition, a schism? Each of the featured writers was, I think, responsible for a new break – Jon Mirande Aiphasorho for the first, Gabriel Aresti Segurola for the second, Jose Luis Alvarez Enparanza for the third.
The author himself, Txomin Peillen (Txomin, by the way, is the Basque form of Dominic), is head of Basque at the University of Bayonne. He was pretty much a contemporary of the three writers he has written about. As one of the at least 500 million speakers of English worldwide (the highest estimate is about 1.8 billion), I wonder how it feels to be a keeper of the flame of a language that is only spoken by 1 million people. Does it make you feel culturally, as well as linguistically, isolated? Does every word you speak or write feel special? My words are common currency and cheap as anything, but Basque words have survived against the odds, stubbornly resisting the surrounding linguistic pressures. Each word has cost a lot more. Indeed, the link between language and identity is never more clearly visible than in the case of ‘small’ languages. Even as I wrote this, I read on the news that the military leader of the Basque separatist organisation ETA had been arrested in France.
Some people are learning Basque as a foreign language right now; you can even find on-line Basque courses. One of the currently held beliefs amongst aspirational middle-class parents is that learning Mandarin will be an advantage to their children because of the sheer volume of Mandarin speakers in the world. By that metric, Basque as a modern foreign language would be pretty low down the options list.
So who does learn to speak Basque? One of the people I read about (courtesy of the Basque Oral History Project by the Basque Museum in Boise, Idaho and the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno) was Frank Berria, the son of Basque immigrants to the US, and 79 years old in 2001 when his interview for the project was recorded. Basque was his first language and he spoke no English at all when he started school in 1927. At the time of the interview, he still loved speaking Basque, was an active member of his local Basque community in Boise, but was only then learning to write the language. So in 2001, as an American Mid-West father and grandfather, he was just in the process of becoming a Basque writer.
In Boise, it turns out you can even send your child to Basque immersion preschool. I guess Txomin knows about Boise’s thriving Basque community; I wonder if he has ever visited and played a game of mus with Frank.