Reclaiming Basque: Language, Nation, and Cultural Activism

Yesterday's linguistic avant-garde can become today's authoritarians, Jeremy MacClancy discovers

July 19, 2012

When my Irish father was 10, the monk at his primary school gave him such a clout across the head that my grandmother withdrew him that day. The only other school in town used Gaelic as its medium of instruction, so he ended up near-fluent. In contrast, his seven siblings, who went to English-language schools, forgot their Gaelic as soon as possible after graduation. As they complained, they were sick of it being "rammed down their gullets" as something special. The high-minded firebrands of the Gaelic renaissance had, in the eyes of the next generation, become authoritarian pedagogues.

Jacqueline Urla shows how the same thing happened with Basque (Euskara). Fired up by the fight against Franco, Basque radicals pushed the cause of a Standard Euskara, keen to overcome the divisions of seven dialects. That chimed with the common desire, usually among educated towns-people, to revitalise the language. Over time, countrypeople who were made to feel like bumpkins and rebellious urban youth sick of being told what to do gave voice to their feelings and reasserted the centrality of place, no matter how circumscribed, by the vigorous, proud use of local dialect on pirate radio stations and the like.

Of course, any planned programme of linguistic change brings a host of problems in its train. Language is absolutely central to most people's identity. And it can be difficult to budge, even with the best of intentions. I remember my astonishment, a few months into my fieldwork in Pamplona, when I realised that two of my new acquaintances were full-time teachers of Euskara. So why were they talking together in Spanish? They replied, with great sighs, that they had learned Euskara at school and used it for years. But when it came to personal, intimate conversation, they eventually returned to their mother tongue: nothing else, they felt, had the same emotional or psychological force. Similarly, a London-born expatriate I met told me that his Pamplonan partner demanded he declare his affection for her in English.

Speakers don't have to listen to planners, but can produce their own creative hybrids. In areas where Euskara is being reintroduced, schoolchildren's grasp of the language may be so incomplete that in the playground they dovetail it with español. Linguists dub the emerging result Euskanol. In traditional Euskara-speaking areas, native speakers will blend the grammar and words of both languages in such a playful way that only bilinguals can understand the mix. As far as they are concerned, purists can go to the Devil. In the process, these unrepentant creatives produce what is in effect a modern local Creole. Thus, as some ancient dialects die out, new ones appear in unpredicted forms and places.

What Urla's book demonstrates is the staggering level of commitment language revitalisers are prepared to maintain, over decades if need be (and it usually is). But they have to be as flexible as they are energetic, working out seductive ways to increase the use of Euskara. These days, with the tongue well established in the media, schools and adult evening classes, the revitalisers' aims are to get it spoken in novel spaces: offices, government departments, supermarkets. In this sphere, every little success is a further gain in making Euskara appear normal. Hip-hop artists might today chant in Eusko-rap, but the planners want the language spoken over cash tills as much as at rock concerts.

Although Urla's approach is framed as neo-Foucauldian, her style remains accessible throughout: an edgy balancing act skilfully performed. Her work is at its best when illuminated by her own fieldwork. Her book is a further contribution to the developing literatures on cultural dimensions of modern Basque life and, more generally, on language planning in the West.

Reclaiming Basque: Language, Nation, and Cultural Activism

By Jacqueline Urla

University of Nevada Press

292pp, £40.50

ISBN 9780874178753

Published 15 March 2012

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