Don's Diary

July 6, 2001

Aste bat (week one)

Bang! The Oxford University language race is afoot. I find myself scurrying home with Colloquial Basque clutched in my hand, good intentions and enthusiasm. Decide to draw up a plan: I will complete one chapter in a day, followed by a day's review, allowing me to finish the whole book in the month given, with time left over. Easy.

I start to utter my first phrases in this exciting new (but old), easy-to-pronounce (but difficult-to-understand) language, and try to classify it in terms of other languages I know. Is there a parallel? It turns out to be a good pub discussion. Unusual, and impossible to solve even at closing time. Opinions vary: "sounds Korean... Bulgarian... Finno-Ugric" - in fact it seems to sound unfamiliar and foreign.

Aste bi (week two)

In a sudden flash of insight, inspired by the cassettes, I realise that Basque sounds rather like Klingon. I decide that it must therefore be spoken confidently, with vigour, boldness, and many exclamation marks: EZ ERRE ! (no smoking). MARGOTU BERRIA ! (wet paint). LARRIALDIAK ! (emergency). An Australian friend surprises me by announcing with great conviction: BANGORKOA NAIZ ! (I am from Bangor). Is my conversation a little lacking?

Mentally, I am constantly trying to give myself directions in Basque: The Bodleian? Follow the Woodstock Road. At the mountain, turn left. It is not far. This would not actually get you anywhere, but I can at least say it correctly. Truth loses out to the far stricter constraints of my fledgling language.

Aste hiru (week three)

Remembering vocabulary has been very tricky - with few exceptions there are no parallels to any language I know. I have had to resort to dull but effective methods of learning from scratch: great flapping lists of words, endlessly written out and repeated. Some terms do offer veiled clues about their provenance, a great help in convincing these unfamiliar words to stick in my mind: azoka "market", (Arabic, souk ), gurutze "cross", (Latin, crux , crucis ). Terms referring to recent inventions do occasionally provide shortcuts - television is telebista , bus is autobusa . But as my confidence builds, the similarities draw back, mimosa-like: aeroplane is hegazkin , police is ertzain .

Aste lau (week four)

My two-days-per-chapter has gone the way of most optimistic plans. Decide to start again from chapter one and test what I have learnt. I continue with my lists of vocab and verbs.

Coy hints of a fascinating culture ( otsail , February "wolf month"; urri , October "scarcity"; azaro , November "cabbage month") lead me to Mark Kurlansky's engrossing Basque History of the World .

During the test, I find myself having a basic but reasonably free-flowing conversation in Basque. I even manage to recite a poem, and feel inspired to continue my Basque adventures. You know, if I study a chapter one day and revise it the next...


Anna-Karin Saxena is a postgraduate studying romance philology, St Hugh's College, Oxford. Money raised in the race went to the Reading Quest charity.

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