By Keith Johnson (THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 06/11/07):
BILBAO, Spain — Rosa Esquivias is caught on the front line of the Basques’ fight for independence from Spain. Actually, she’s in the front row — of her Basque language class.
Ms. Esquivias, a 50-year-old high-school math teacher and Spanish-speaking native of Bilbao, must learn Basque or risk losing her job. Like her nine classmates, including a man who teaches Spanish to immigrants, she has been given at least a year off with pay to spend 25 hours a week drilling verbs and learning vocabulary in Euskera — a language with no relation to any other European tongue and spoken by fewer than one million people. About 450 million people world-wide speak Spanish.
“For the job I do, I think learning the language is clearly over the top,” Ms. Esquivias says.
Basque separatists have been waging a struggle for independence from Spain for 39 years. But lately, many have taken to wielding grammar instead of guns. Separatists still dream of creating their own homeland, but in the meantime they are experimenting with pushing a strict regime of Euskera into every corner of public life. Of the present-day Basque Country’s approximately 2.1 million inhabitants, roughly 30% speak Basque; more than 95% speak Spanish.
The regional government of the Basque Country has begun to tighten the screws on its language policy to the point where now, all public employees, from mail-sorters to firemen, must learn Euskera to get — or keep — their jobs. Cops are pulled off the street to brush up their grammar. And companies doing business with the Basque government must conduct business in Euskera. Starting next year, students entering public school will be taught only in Basque.
Although there is a shortage of doctors in the Basque Country, the Basque health service requires medical personnel to speak Euskera. Health-service regulations detail how Euskera should be used in every medical situation, from patient consultations down to how to leave a phone message or make an announcement over a public-address system (Basque first, then Spanish). There are rules specifying the typeface and placement of Basque signs in hospitals (Basque labels on top or to the left, and always in bold).
The official goal of the Basque policy is to transform Euskera from a “co-official” status with Spanish to “co-equal” status. That, say Euskera proponents, is necessary to make up for years of linguistic repression. The language was banned during the 36-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and only began to re-emerge in the 1980s.
“To have a truly bilingual society, you need positive discrimination,” says Mertxe Múgica, the head of the Basque language academies where Ms. Esquivias studies. Many Basque speakers still feel discriminated against because of the pervasiveness of Spanish.
But as Basque nationalists try to push their language into the mainstream, they are bumping up against an uncomfortable reality.
“Euskera just isn’t used in real life,” says Leopoldo Barrera, the head of the center-right Popular Party in the Basque regional Parliament. Though it has existed for thousands of years — there are written records in Basque that predate Spanish — it is an ancient language little suited to contemporary life. Euskera has no known relatives, though theories abound linking it to everything from Berber languages to Eskimo tongues.
Airport, science, Renaissance, democracy, government, and independence, for example, are all newly minted words with no roots in traditional Euskera: aireportu, zientzia, errenazimentu, demokrazia, gobernu, independentzia.
Meanwhile, there are 10 different words for shepherd, depending on the kind of animal. Astazain, for instance, is a donkey herder; urdain herds pigs. A cowpoke is behizain in Euskera. While Indo-European languages have similar roots for basic words like numbers — three, drei, tres, trois — counting in Euskera bears no relation: bat, bi, hiru, lau, and up to hamar, or 10. Religious Basques pray to Jainko.
The regional government has spent years of effort and billions of euros to make sure that every official document, from job applications for sanitation workers to European Union agricultural grants, is available in Euskera. But this year, in San Sebastian, a hotbed of Basque nationalism and the region’s second-largest city, not a single person chose to take the driver’s license exam in Euskera, says Mr. Barrera.
The Basque-language TV channel is loaded with Euskera favorites, such as the irrepressible redhead “Pippi Galtzaluze.” But the channel has a 4.4% audience share in the Basque Country, according to data from Taylor Nelson Sofres — less than the animal-documentary channel of public broadcasting.
Even some of the biggest proponents of Basque independence stumble over Euskera’s convoluted grammar. Juan José Ibarretxe, the Basque regional president, speaks a less-than-fluent Euskera at news conferences. Like most people in the region, he grew up speaking Spanish and had to learn Euskera as an adult.
Other adults who are now running afoul of the new language policy are having similar trouble picking up the tongue. “I guess we’re the last of the old guard, but we don’t have any choice,” says Ignacio Garcia, a math teacher who is a classmate of Ms. Esquivias, and is sweating over a stack of notes before his first big Euskera exam.
The language policy has led to a massive adult re-education push, as tens of thousands in the Basque Country head back to school. Their predicament has become a popular sendup on a Basque comedy show. In one sketch, non-Basque-speaking adults who have been sent to a euskaltegi, or Euskera language school, have to ask schoolchildren to help them with their homework.
Joseba Arregui, a former Basque culture secretary, native Basque speaker, and onetime architect of the language policy, feels that Euskera is being pushed too far. “It’s just no good for everyday conversation,” he says. “When a language is imposed, it is used less, and that creates a diabolical circle of imposition and backlash.”
In the classroom, Euskera use has also allowed separatists to control the curriculum. Basque-language textbooks used in schools never tell students that the Basque Country is part of Spain, for example. No elementary-school texts even mention the word Spain.
Students are taught that they live in “Euskal Herria,” stretching across parts of Spain and southern France, that was colonized by “the Spanish State.”
Some local politicians worry that the insistence on Basque language makes any type of reconciliation between separatists and Spain impossible. “Everything young Basques later encounter in life — like the fact they live in Spain — then appears to be an imposition from Madrid,” says Santiago Abascal, a regional deputy from the Popular Party who campaigns against the linguistic policy. “That creates frustration that keeps violence bubbling in the Basque Country,” he says.
But back in the classroom, most of the frustration seems to be with the dense grammar, forthcoming exams, and the difficulty of finding quality shows on Basque TV.
Arantza Goikolea, Ms. Esquivias’s teacher, leads a class through an exercise about their daily routines. Tamara Alende, 25, watches a lot of TV at night, she says in pidgin Euskera.
“Basque shows?” asks Ms. Goikolea. Ms. Alende lowers her head and turns red. “No, Spanish series,” she mumbles, to a chorus of boos from the teacher and the rest of the class.
Le responde Juan Uriagereka: Pastores y zagales (EL CORREO DIGITAL, 11/1/07):