THE BASQUE COUNTRY & THE VASCOS – 2 (The “New Speakers”)

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The first Kilometroak (Basque for “kilometers”), held in Beasain, Gipuzkoa in 1977. The annual
festival purposely supports the Basque
ikastolas (language schools)


Basque Country & the Basques series


by Alicia Brown

Just like Ander Beristain , the graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Itxaso Rodríguez of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale is also conducting research this summer in the Basque Country.  While Beristain is a native of Azpeitia, Gipuzkoa, Dr. Rodríguez hails from Gernika in the province of Bizkaia.  Gernika, also seen spelled as Guernica, is widely known for Picasso’s painting commissioned as a response to the 1936 bombing of the city by the then-caudillo of Spain, Francisco Franco, with help from Hitler and Mussolini, in an effort to decimate the Basque resistance to his budding regime.

Franco delivers a speech on his visit to Eibar, Gipuzkoa in 1949: The regime expressly and categorically prohibited any manifestation of Basque culture such as speaking Euskera in public

Franco won the Spanish Civil War, and reigned from 1936-1975, during which time it was prohibited to speak in any language that was not Spanish.  Due to this, languages such as Basque (also called Euskera), Catalan, and Gallego suffered major blows to their vitality.  As it was illegal to speak in these languages, parents stopped teaching their children their native language.  Per linguist Joshua A. Fishman’s 1991 Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale, one of the most harmful factors to the robustness of a language is the lack of intergenerational transmission.  Simply put, the easiest way to kill a language is to make sure that parents do not teach it to their children.*

Despite being illegal to speak Basque for several decades, the language did not die, partly due to underground, clandestine language classes.  After Franco’s death in 1975, the situation in Spain began to shift.  In 1978, a constitution was ratified in which autonomous communities regained their linguistic rights.  In the case of the Basque Country, their language gained co-official status with Spanish.  Since then, language revitalization efforts have soared.

Dr. Rodriguez giving a presentation to the sociolinguistics reading group at UIUC on a project she was doing about the Basque spoken in Gernika

As Dr. Rodríguez explains, “Basque is considered a minority language in Spain and France, but in the last decades, the strong revitalization efforts of Basque on the Spanish side of the Basque Country has led to a big new population of Basque speakers called ‘new speakers’. When a large population learns a new language, it is normal to see influence of the majority language.”

In this case, that majority language is Spanish.  

Dr. Rodriguez, extreme right, at a sociolinguistics conference. With her (L-R): Marissa Barlaz, William Labov, Gillian Sankoff and Kate Lyons

Due to the surging revitalization movements, the Basque language is gaining popularity, especially amongst those that support independence from Spain.  This can lead to identity conflicts, such as the one that Dr. Rodríguez had: “Growing up, I always felt insecure about my Basque. My parents learned the language as adults and my sister and I initially learned from them. Because they were not native speakers of the language, I felt that my Basque was not rooted in our mixed ancestry and, therefore, I always perceived myself as having ‘too much influence’ from Spanish.  As I grew older, I wanted to study why I was feeling the way I was feeling as a child.”

At the Linguistic Landscapes sociolinguistics conference in Chicago, Kate Lyons and Itxaso Rodriguez present their work for which they win Best Paper award

This is precisely what Dr. Rodríguez investigates; by focusing on Basque Linguistics, she has been able to delve into the linguistic reasons why she, her family, and her community speak the way that they do.  Currently, she has been spending her summer in the Basque Country, exploring the question as to whether language contact leads to a more complex or simpler language system.  When multiple languages come into contact, each language affects the other, modifiying sounds, vocabulary, word order, etc.  To what extent this occurs in the Basque Country, however, is what Dr. Rodríguez intends to find out.


*See or 


Featured image/ Beasaingo EAJ-PNV, CC BY-SA
Franco in Eibar/Indalecio Ojanguran, CC BY-SA
Others/Itxaso Rodriguez


About Alicia
Known as “Joakina” amongst her friends, Alicia is a graduating senior from the University of California at Berkeley with a double major in Spanish Language & Literature and Linguistics, and a minor in Portuguese. She’s slated for MA in Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after which she hopes to earn her doctorate. In her free time, Alicia can be found laughing hysterically at ridiculous calques and bilingual puns, and plans to conquer the Iberian Peninsula by learning Euskera, Catalan, and Gallego in addition to her current language repertoire. She has never finished Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela.