Euskara, a secret handshake

I was in San Antonio this week for work. The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, better known as TMS to materials scientists, has an annual meeting that floats around the country, and this year it was in San Antonio. This conference brings together researchers from around the world that are advancing our understanding of materials, from more applied aspects such as how materials corrode to fundamental insights into the nature of grain boundaries — the interface regions between grains that occur in all but the most defect free of materials.

In any case, on Wednesday, my last night in San Antonio, I was returning to my hotel after a dinner on the river walk. (An aside: being from Idaho, I always class California, Texas, and Florida in these bins of “places that are horrible and I never want to visit.” However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Texas and have particularly enjoyed San Antonio the few times I’ve been there.)

Anyways, I was waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn. A family approached the corner — the parents, a baby in a stroller and a little boy of maybe 5 or so. Suddenly, the crosswalk is going nuts: “wait,” “wait,” “wait,” blared from the speaker over and over. At some point, the parents start yelling at the boy. I suddenly notice that they are yelling at him in Euskara. My Euskara being piss-poor, I understood only a few words (“zikin” being the one that jumped out at me).

As they pulled the boy away from the button, the light changed and we crossed. As we crossed, I asked, in my broken Spanish (which is infinitely better than my piss-poor Euskara), if they were from the Basque Country. They looked at me warily and said “yes,” at which point I told them that my dad had been from there and that I lived for a year in Donosti (learning the little bit of Euskara I do know). They, coincidentally, are from Donosti.

We talked for a minute about their vacation in the Americas (starting from Mexico, going up into Texas, after which they were heading east). It was a brief conversation, lasting only a few minutes, and I never caught their names. But, it struck me how even recognizing Euskara is like being part of a secret club, where people you might not otherwise recognize as being from the Basque Country are instantly recognizable. A few words of Euskara and suddenly there is a connection.

This has happened to me before. I met a couple of guys who were speaking in Basque in a line leaving an airplane in Germany. It’s always cool to make these connections, facilitated by the strange and wonderful language of the Basque Country.

Basque Fact of the Week: Ana María Bidegaray, the Basque Spy

Ana María Bidegaray, born in Hazparne, Laburdi in 1890, provided critical humanitarian aid and worked as a spy in both World War I and II. Raised in Uruguay, she married Raymond Janssen, Consul General of Belgium in Uruguay. Collaborating with the British and French secret services, she used her husband’s diplomatic ties to gain intel on German prison camps and helped create a rescue network for prisoners of war, the so-called Bidegaray Network, which allowed Belgian prisoners to cross into the allied zone and also helped to feed the civilian population. At the end of and just after World War II, she collaborated with the Basque Government in exile to identify and capture Spanish, Italian and German agents who sought residence in Uruguay. As Ana María said, “Por este mundo solo se pasa una vez y quiero que ese paso que sea bueno.” — “We only pass by this world once, and I want mine to be good.”

Image from Deia.
  • Though her parents were living in Uruguay, they returned to Hazparne for Ana María’s birth, to ensure she was born in the “Basque cradle.”
  • Ana María was decorated twice, first by King Albert I of Belgium for her efforts in World War I and by the Red Cross for her efforts in World War II.
  • The Bidegaray Network may have inspired the Comet Line, which helped Allied soldiers escape main land Europe for Britain.
  • She also wrote Cuna Vasca, a canonical biography of a Basque immigrant in America.

Sources: Deia and Noticias de Alava.

Basque Fact of the Week: Hard Apple Cider once Dominated Basque Life

Before wine and beer and soft drinks became popular, before land was devoted to corn, sagardoa, or apple cider, was the drink of the land. This was true up to maybe 100 years ago. Family farms, or baserriak, made cider for family consumption and sagardotegiak, places to drink cider that were the de facto main public meeting place, existed in all towns. These sagardotegis were the ancestors of the gastronomic societies that later sprung up in places like Donostia.

  • The word sagardoa is a contraction of two other words, sagarardo, literally meaning apple wine. Curiously, this term entered the popular speech of Andalusia with the meaning of bad woman, perhaps explained by some association with the acid taste of the cider broth.
  • Since at least the mid 1300s, the regulation of cider has been encoded into local laws, with the goal of controlling quality and to defend the local production of cider. Already by November 1, 1335, the town hall of Tolosa warned the cider merchants that if they were caught selling watery cider they would be fined 100 maravedis. Both aspects of law – the defense of local cider and the prosecution of fraud – appear in title XXI of the Fueros de Gipuzkoa of 1585.
  • The judge of Bordeaux, Pierre Lancre, who at the beginning of the seventeenth century burned several hundred people accused of witchcraft, wrote in his book Inconstance des Demons that the perversity of the Basques was caused by the cider that was drunk in the Basque Country, being the juice of the demonic fruit that caused the condemnation of Adam and Eve. (He also believed that “the root of the natural Basque tendency towards evil was love of dance.”)
  • Basque sailors, in their contracts, demanded cider as part of their pay, requiring 2-3 liters per day. The high level of vitamin C in cider protected them from scurvy, a disease that ravaged sailors from other regions that did not drink cider.

Aguirre Sorondo, Antxon; Aguirre Sorondo, Antxon. Sidra. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [en línea], 2019. [Fecha de consulta: 09 de Febrero de 2019].

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Originally Didn’t Have Separate Words for Blue, Grey and Green

In modern Basque, there are words for blue, grey and green. However, only one of these, urdin, that is native to the language. While today urdin means blue, originally it also encompassed the colors grey and green.

  • Urdin, meaning grey, can be found in several phrases. For example, grey hair and beards are still often called urdin. And, the word for an old maid, motxurdin, has the sense of grey. Larry Trask described this word here.
  • As for green, there is a mushroom that is called gibelurdin. Gibel means back, so one might think that this word means “blue-underside,” but, as Larry Trask emphasizes, the actual mushroom has a green underside.
  • Other color words native to Basque are beltz (black), zuri (white), gorri (red), and hori (yellow). There are also words that describe shades of color more than a specific color, at least originally. However, all other words for specific colors are borrowed from other languages.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque was only Standardized in the 1970s

The Basque language — Euskara — became standardized in the 1970s. The Basque Language Academy (the Euskaltzaindia) felt that a standard was needed to give the language a better chance of survival against the pressures of languages like French and Spanish. This unified Basque, Euskara Batua, was based on a dialect of Basque from Gipuzkoa.

The density of Basque speakers, from Wikipedia.
  • There are at least 5 dialects of Basque, subdivided into 11 subdialects and 24 minor variants. I’ve heard it said that every valley — indeed every baserri — has its own dialect. My dad, a Bizkaian, would say he couldn’t understand the Basque of the French side.
  • In comparison, the Royal Spanish Academy, founded in 1713 to ensure the stability of Spanish, published its first grammar in 1771, though the first Spanish grammar was published back in 1492.
  • Euskara Batua is now an official language in Spain, but not in France.

Basque Fact of the Week: Bermeo, not Bilbao, was Originally the Capital of Bizkaia

Bermeo, a town of about 17,000 on the Bizkaia coast, was founded between 1234 and 1239 by Lope Diaz de Haro. Bermeo was the capital of Bizkaia between 1476 and 1602, at which time Bilbao was made the capital of the province.

Historical coats of arms of Bizkaia, from the Auñamendi Encyclopedia.
  • Bermeo’s history begins in 1051, with the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (meaning “the craggy fort” in Basque), which has gained recent fame as one of the filming sites of the series Game of Thrones.
  • Bilbao, founded in 1300, gained strength through a series of charters that, amongst other things, forced an important trade route to go through Bilbao.
  • From about 1040 to 1876, Bizkaia was ruled by the Lord of Bizkaia. One legend says that the first mythical Lord of Bizkaia, Çuria (in other tellings, Jaun Zuria — the White Lord), was the son of the god Sugaar and a foreign (typically Scottish) princess and was born in the village of Mundaka (now famous for surfing).

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