Basque-ing in play by Begoña Echeverria

In this guest article, Professor Begoña Echeverria, a professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, describes how she uses songs to teach basic concepts of the Basque language to adults, focusing not on grammatical aspects, but rather conversation.

Eskerrik asko, Begoña!

Basque-ing in play: Using song to teach Basque in the American diaspora

Begoña Echeverria

Associate Professor and Associate Dean
Graduate School of Education
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521-0128



Efforts to revitalize Basque (Euskera) focus on showing its “equality” to dominant languages, emphasizing grammar and “correctness” in the classroom. But while the number of Basque speakers has risen in the last few decades, Euskera is still endangered.  Basque speakers will switch to another language (usually Spanish or French, but English in the diaspora) when only one non-Basque speaker is among them and speakers do not speak the Euskera they know:  by 2001, one-quarter of the population in the Basque Autonomous Community spoke Basque, but only 14% used in publicly (Urla, 2013: 133).  Standardization has increased native speakers’ insecurities so that “’the creative capacity of the Basque speaker is being lost, the capacity to play with and enjoy the language. And when that is lost, the language itself is on the way to being lost’” (Urla, 2013: 108, quoting Zuazo 2000: 132).

I took these lessons to heart when I taught a Basque class to adults between 2006-2010 for a Basque club in southern California.  The class was part of a larger effort through the North American Basque Organization, composed of Basque clubs in the United States and Canada, to promote the language (  I was asked to take over the class by one of its students when the first volunteer teacher was unable to continue. I agreed to take on the class so long as it focused on conversational skills—and not grammatical “correctness”—in part, because I am not a trained foreign language teacher, but also because the research I have done in the Basque Country itself suggested that focusing on teaching “correct” Basque was problematic to the extent that it made many Basque learners (and sometimes native speakers) too self-conscious to actually speak Basque outside the classroom (Echeverria 2003).

In this sense, my work corroborates that of scholars in other minority language communities.  That is, while attempts to revitalize languages often focus on standardizing and modernizing their languages so that they become more instrumentally useful and more able to challenge dominant language hegemony, such strategies do not guarantee that the prestige and use of that language will increase. Eckert (1983) demonstrates that minority language standardization can just as easily alienate native speakers as empower them; Wong (1999) shows that native speakers might reject the standard imposed on them altogether. Gal (1979) and Milroy (1987) suggest that, because of the association often found between vernaculars and solidarity, some speakers will continue to speak vernaculars even if they are not instrumentally advantageous.

But another reason for my insistence on the class focusing on informal conversation rather formal grammatical rules or conventions was that I knew that in order for the experience to be worthwhile for me—it was on a volunteer basis, after all—it had to be fun. And that meant using songs and games as much as possible to teach the language.  In this paper, I focus on the songs I used and wrote to convey some of the basic vocabulary needed for conversation in Basque, and to illustrate some the features of the language that most challenged my English-speaking students.

Basque Language Ideologies

I begin with a brief discussion of the various, often contradictory, language ideologies about the Basque language itself. Language ideology:

refer[s] to commonly held conceptualizations about the social life of language that circulate in the discourses of experts,  political organizations and civil society at large . . . the ideas (shared or contested) that people have about what speaking a language . . . implies about one’s identity or political loyalties; beliefs about how a language should be spoken and with whom; comparisons people make about the value, beauty, or elegance of different languages or dialects; theories about what makes a language live or die, and so forth”(Urla, 2013:  10; cf Schieffelin, Woolard and Kroskrity, 1998). 

When it comes to Euskera, like many other languages, language ideologies are often viscerally felt, vociferously debated – and often, very contradictory.  One of these is that Basque is a particularly difficult language to learn. To wit, there a saying that the Devil tried to learn Basque for seven years but only learned three words (though I cannot recall what those three words supposedly were).  This ideology is clearly articulated in The Basque English Dictionary by Gorka Aulestia, which was published by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1989.  The first comprehensive attempt to teach Basque in the English-speaking diaspora, it is widely used as a reference today.  In the introductory section of the book Aulestia states: “It is not easy to master the Basque language. One of the reasons for this is the richness and complexity of the verb.  Tackling the complexity of the Basque verbs can be frustrating for the American students accustomed to the simple structure of the English verb” (1989: 146).

However, the nature of the verbal system – and other features of Euskera that differentiate it from other languages as a language isolate — do not inherently make Basque hard to learn.  For instance, the late Basque linguist Larry Trask, had this response to the question on his website, now fortunately archived on Buber’s Basque page (

Q8: Is Basque exceedingly difficult to learn?

A: Not at all. Today thousands of people speak Basque as a second language; among these are native speakers of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, German, Japanese, and other languages. In fact, Basque is a rather easy language to pick up, while mastering it is no more difficult than mastering any other language. The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is regular, there is no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly any irregular verbs.

My point here is not to adjudicate whether Basque is difficult or easy to learn. I only wish to point out that diametrically opposed ideologies about this issue have been made—often drawing on the same linguistic evidence.  What is important to point out, however, is that this notion of Basque being difficult to learn permeated my own Basque class – even among Americans with no Basque ancestry who grew up with little exposure to the language. Usually this has manifested itself in questions about the “correct” ways to conjugate verbs or pronounce words.  In the rest of this paper, then, I provide some examples of the songs I wrote to (hopefully) assuage student concerns about “correctness” by attempting to make the lessons fun.


            I begin with some songs I used to convey basic Basque vocabulary on numerals and colors.  The first twenty Basque numerals are listed below (Trask, 1997: 272):

Text 1: Basque Numerals

 1 bat                                                       11 hamaika ~ hameka

  2 bi (northern biga                       12 hamabi
in isolation)

  3 hiru  (hirur in                                13 hamahiru ~ hamahirur
northern varieties)

  4 lau (laur in                                      14 hamalau ~ hamalaur
northern varieties)

  5 bost (bortz in                                15 hamabost ~ hamabortz
eastern varieties)

  6 sei                                                         16 hamasei

  7 zazpi                                                    17 hamazazpi

  8 zortzi                                                   18 hemezortzi

  9 bederatzi   (bede(r)atzu           19 hemeretzi
in Zuberoa)

 10 hamar                                                20 hogei  (hogoi in northern                                                                                                                     varieties)

            Certainly, a Basque teacher could use have students memorize these numerals. But there is also a song I learned from a friend and colleague whose maternal grandfather (from the northern Basque Country) taught it to her:


The same could be said about Basque color terms. Teachers could – and likely, do – ask students to memorize the list of basic color terms.  (Unlike with the numerals, there is little variation between dialects, except for the color “green,”  which can be either “berde” or “perde” (Trask,  1997: 267).  But some students found it helpful to have the color terms put in a familiar context:

Text 2: Koloreak
(Tune: “De Colores”)

Little Red Riding Hood
In Basque her cloak
It would be gorria

The blue sky above her
Euskaraz—da zeru urdina [in Basque—is the blue sky]

And the green grass she walks
on her way to her grandma’s—berdea

Gorria, urdina, berdea
Koloreak bait dira [Because they are colors]
Euskaraz erran! [say them in Basque]

The big bad wolf he snarls
his big yellow teeth
They’re horia!

Little Red Riding Hood
Runs away in her keds
They’re zuria

If you mix up these colors
They make black
Euskaraz da beltza

Horia, zuri eta beltza
Koloreak bait dira
Euskaraz erran!

 Time Adverbs

In addition to basic terms like numerals and color terms, my students sometimes struggled to remember the various time adverbs in Basque. As we see in Text 3, not all of the Basque terms have equivalents in English:

Text 3: Time Adverbs

Atzo                              yesterday
Aurten                         this year
Beti                                always
Bihar                             tomorrow
Biharamunean        the next day
Egun                              today
Etzi                                 the day after tomorrow
Etzidamu                    the day after the day after tomorrow
Gaur zortzi                one week from today
Herenegun                the day before yesterday
Iaz                                   last year
Ondoren                    afterward                               

As we can see, it is often possible to say in one word in Basque what it takes several words to say in English.  Similarly, the future tense in Basque is indicated by the use of suffixes rather than separate words:

The future form is used only used in certain compound tenses:  the future (hasiko da), the future-in-the-past (hasiko zen), the first conditional (hasiko litzateke), and the hypothetic (hasiko balitz).  The future form need not be given among the principal parts because it is easily derived from the dictionary form. Unless the dictionary form ends in n, the addition of –ko to it will give us the future for . . . If the infinitive ends in n, we can add –go or –en (King, 1994: 393).

Jansen (2007: 140) put it in a slightly different way: “The future participle is formed by adding the ending –ko (-go after a final n) to the perfective of the verb. Its appoximate meaning is ‘about to . . ‘ or ‘to be . . . ing.’”

Informed by both of these guides, I wrote the followign song to teach time adverbs and future tense together:

Text 4: “Bihar edo etzi”
 (Tune: “Tomorrow,” from “Annie”)

Bihar edo etzi
The future
To foresee
It’s stem plus
-ko, -go or (r)en

A week from today
Gaur zortzi
Bihar urte
One year from tomorrow
Don’t you know?

Biharamuna, “the next day”
Etzidamu—the day
After etzi
Don’t you see?

Bihar edo etzi
The future
To foresee
It’s stem plus
-ko, -go or (r)en

Intensification of Adjectives and Adverbs

Another feature of Euskera that was usually unfamiliar to my students was how “reduplication” is used to show intensity of adjectives or adverbs. Basque does have various adverbs for “very” –biziki, oso, izugarri (King 1994:  351); as in English the adverb precedes the adjective it modifies, i.e. “very good” would be “biziki ona” (among other options).  However, Basque also intensifies adjectives or adverbs by repeating it. The following song teaches this concept alongside simple vocabular: 

Text 5: Izar ttipi, ttipia
(Tune: “Twinkle, twinkle little star”)

Izar ttipi, ttipia
Twinkle, “very little star”
Not “very” much do we need
Pick an adjective, repeat
Izar ttipi, ttipia
Twinkle, “very little star”

            While my choice of noun and adjective is obviously inspired by the song source, other options could easily be substituted for “star” and “little,” per the lesson’s objectives.


            In keeping with my emphasis on conversation, my students spent much time in class talking about (or attempting to talk about) their experiences, their family, friends and other people with whom they interacted. These dialogues require knowledge of personal pronouns – and the knowledge that pronouns are optional in Basque. That is, “Basque has extended pro-drop: subjects, direct objects and indirect objects, all of which are marked in the verb, need not be expressed as overt [Noun Phrases]” (Trask, 1997: 123). I built on a song written by the Basque band Urko about pronouns and their corresponding “to be” conjugations in the present tense to teach “pro-drop” as it related to “to be” in the past tense:

Text 6: “To be” pro-drop

Past             Pronoun              Present

nintzen          Ni (I )              naiz
hintzen          Hi (You, fam.)       haiz
Zinen            Zu (You, formal)     zara
Ginen            Gu (We)              gara
zineten          Zuek (You all)       zarete
Zen              Hura (He, she, it)   da
Ziren            Haiek (They)         dira

Songs to teach about verbs

Whether one thinks the Basque verbal system makes it difficult or easy to learn – or somewhere in between – one cannot deny that it is different from that of English. There are three forms of verbs in Basque. Verb phrases usually combine a noun and a verb or an adjective and a verb; “[t]hese verb phrases are usually idiomatic in Basque and are not generally created by the speaker” (Aulestia, 1989:  a47). Synthetic verbs “indicate in one word the person, number, tense, mood and different complements” . . . Thus, the sentence ‘I come to you’ can be expressed in a single word, natorkizu, in which” (bold in original):

n = first person singular (“Ni” = “I”)
a = present tense marker
tor = verb stem for “etorri” (“to come”)
ki = infix preceding indirect object
zu = indirect object (“to you”)

Periphrastic verbs combine main and auxiliary verbs. “Periphrasis is used, as a general rule, to supply those tenses lacking in the synthetic conjugations” (Ibid).  The main auxiliary verbs are “izan” (“to be”) used with intransitive verbs, and “ukan” (“to have”) used with transitive verbs.  Most verb tenses require periphrasis; it is well nigh impossible to have a conversation in Basque without understanding how to use izan and ukan in doing so.  To facilititate understanding of this concept, I wrote the following song:

Text 7:  “’To be’ or not ‘to be¹’”

IZAN is the “to be” verb
“to be” verb, “to be” verb
IZAN also helps
Our intransitive verbs
Like “I go” or “you stay” or “we sit” or “they stand”
IZAN, it’s “to be”
for intransitive verbs

UKAN is the “to have” verb
“to have” verb, “to have” verb
UKAN also helps
Basque the transitive verbs
Like “I eat” or “you drink” or “we sing” or “they think”
UKAN “has” the objects
Of transitive verbs 

Transitive verbs

By far, my biggest challenge in not turning my class into lessons in English about the Basque language – rather than a conversation class in Basque – was the number of questions students had about transitive verbs.  As indicated in the song above, “ukan” is the main auxiliary verb for transitive verbs; it can also stand as a verb on its own.  In addition:

[t]here are six paradigms corresponding to the tenses of the intransitive verb . . . [but] in dealing with the transitive verbs we find ourselves obliged to include twelve paradigms . . . to cover the same tenses in order to account for the differences that occur when only a direct object is involved (the nor-nork construction) and when both a direct and indirect object are involved (the nor-nori-nork) construction (Aulestia, 1989: a58)

Having seen the eyes even of native speakers glaze over – and feeling my own do the same — when faced with the grids laying out these twelve paradigms, I decided to break the grid down into smaller parts through song.   One key feature of transitive verbs in Basque has to do with the “ergative –k . . . [which] is used for the subject of a transitive verb” (Trash, 1997: 92).  The first verse of the following song illustrates how the ergative –k functions when the subject “has” one object:

Text 8: UKAN (To have)
(Tune: “Twinkle, twinkle little star”) 

Nik dut                I have
Eta zuk duzu           and you have
Hik dun, Hik duk       She has, he has (familiar)
Guk dugu               We have
Zuek baita duzue       and you all have, as well
Harek du               S/he or it has
Haiek dute             They have
Aditz transitiboa      With transitive verbs,
Sujetu “k”-ekin du     The subject ends with “k”

The second verses illustrates ergativity when the subject “has” more than one object:

Eta dituzu
Ditun, dituk
Zuek badituzue
Eta dituzte
Aditz transitiboa                     [With plural objects,
Pluralak hola dira                    [This is how the verb goes]

The conditional tense of  “ukan”

            In keeping with my conversational emphasis, I also focused on the conditional tense of  the “ukan” (“to have”) auxiliary verb as it is used quite frequently in everyday Basque speech.

Text 9:  Conditional UKANta
(Tune: “You say tomato…”)

Nik nahi nuke                           I would like
Zuk nahi zenuke                     You (formal) would like
Guk nahi genuke                    We would like
(Zuek) nahi zenukete           You all would like
Harek nahi luke                       S/he or it would like
Haiek nahi lukete                   They would like
This is what we would like!

 (Plural object or activity)

Nik nahi nituzke
Nahi zenituzke
Nahi genituzke
Nahi zenituzkete
Harek nahi lituzke
Nahi lituzkete
These are what we would like!

Transitive verbs with direct and indirect objects

            The final song I will share with regard to the “ukan” verb has to do with its use with direct and indirect objects, or what’s known as “Nor-Nori-Nork.” The song is written in pairs: the first part of the pair demonstrates how “nor-nori-nork” functions with a given subject and indirect object when the direct object is singular. The second pair part illustrates the process when the direct object is plural:

Text 10: “Nor-nori-nork for dummies”
(Tune: “A huntin’ we will go”)

Eman dizut zuri
Nik eman d-i-zut
I gave something to you [earlier today]
Nik eman DIZUT

Eman dizkizut
Eman d-IZKI-zut
I gave SOME THINGS to you

Eman dizuet
Nik eman d-i-zuet
I gave something to y’all
Nik eman DIZUET

Eman dizkizuet
Eman d-IZKI-zuet
I gave SOME THINGS to y’all

Eman diot hari
Nik eman d-i-ot
I gave something to her, him, or it
Nik eman DIOT

Eman dizkiot hari
Eman d-IZKI-ot hari
I gave SOME THINGS to her, him, or it

Eman diet haiei
Nik eman d-i-et
I gave something to them
Nik eman DIET

Eman dizkiet
Eman d-IZKI-e-t
I gave SOME THINGS to them

“To be” or “to have” my favorite things

I conclude with a song I wrote to illustrate two different –but linguistically equal—ways to express liking or loving something, someone or some activity, or to find it pleasing:

Text 11:  “My favorite things”

I like” just one thing,
To do one activity
Nik maite dut
Or “Gustatzen zait neri
“Maite duzu
Or “Gustatzen zaizu
To say what there is
That’s pleasing to you

“They” have two choices
Besides “Maite dute”
“Gustatzen zaie”
“Gustatzen zaiote”
“Maite duGU”
“We like”—same thing is true:
“Gustatzen zaiKU”
“Gustatzen zaiGU”

 “You all” like something
Is “Maite duzue
Or you can say
“Gustatzen zaizue
“She, he or it likes”
The two ways to go:
Harek maite du
“Gustatzen zaio

For both of these choices
One more thing to tell ya
If liking verbs
They have to end in “-tzea”
It’s “-tea” instead if the verb ends in ‘n’
Like “to drink,” that’s “edan”
Exceptions again!

When what’s pleasing
With “gustatzen”
Is more than one thing
You simply say “zaizki”
Instead of “zai”-ing
For all of my
favorite things!


While writing these songs and this article was fun for me – and hopefully educative for the reader – what might the contributions of these songs be to Basque studies and endangered languages more generally?  I would remind those of us who care about preserving minority and endangered languages – for their own sake as unique perspectives on the world, or as emblems of various kinds of identity – to attend to the affective side of revitalizing languages as much as the technical.  As Krashen (1982: 30) pointed out,  students are more likely to learn a target language if they are provided with comprehensible input in a “low anxiety situation.” Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer (2004) also emphasize that the emotional aspects surrounding attempts to revitalize endangered languages must be attended to if such attempts are to succeed. That is, “[s]omewhere, people need to find a safe place for language in daily life, a place where it isn’t always being bombarded, a place where it can expand and grow” (Ibid: 97).

I suggest that use of songs for teaching Basque can facilitate the creation of such a safe space.  A looser grip on grammar, rules, and “correctness” would benefit efforts to revitalization of Basque and encourage its use. I hope this paper has provided useful, concrete ways to bring some fun into learning Basque, at least among English-speaking students.

Works Cited

G. Aulestia, Basque-English dictionary, University of Nevada Press, Reno and Las Vegas (1989).

N. Dauenhauer and R. Dauenhauer, Technical, emotional and ideological issues in reversing language shift:  Examples from Southeast Alaska, In L. Grenoble and L. Whaley (Eds.), Endangered languages:  Language loss and community response, Cambridge University Press, (1998), pp. 57-98.

 B. Echeverria, “Schooling, language and ethnic identity in the Basque Autonomous Community.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 34 (4):  351-372.

P. Eckert. Diglossia: Separate but unequal. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (1983), pp. 289-300.

S. Gal, Language shift:  Social determinants of linguistic change in bilingual Austria, Academic Press, New York, (1979).

W. Jansen.  Beginner’s Basque with 2 audio CDs,  Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, (2002).

A. King. The Basque language: A practical introduction. University of Nevada Press, Reno, Las Vegas & London, (1994).

L. Milroy. Language and social networks, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, (1987).

R. L. Trask, The history of Basque. London and New York, Routledge, (1997).

J. Urla,  Reclaiming Basque: Language, nation and cultural activism.  University of Nevada Press: Reno and Las Vegas, (2013).

L. Wong, Authenticity and the revitalization of Hawaiian. Anthropology & Education Quarterly (1999), 30, 94-115.


1: I do not know the exact provenance of the tune to which I wrote these lyrics, but it is based on a song about longitude and latitude that I heard at a planetarium during a 3rd grade fieldtrip.

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