Buber’s Basque Flashback: Larry Trask’s Introduction to Basque

Larry Trask, who died in 2004, was a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex. He published prolifically, with numerous books to his credit. In particular, he was an internationally recognized authority on Euskara, both its grammar and history. He almost fell into his studies accidentally, starting off as a chemist, only going into linguistics after he realized he didn’t have the skills to be a lab chemist. He fell into Basque almost as randomly, having encountered a Basque speaker at the university. He started learning Euskara, but became much more than just a proficient speaker; he became an expert in all aspects of the language. As Michael Mullan wrote in this obituary:

There is a popular myth in the Basque country that, many centuries ago, Satan arrived on a proselytising mission but, after 10 years of trying to lead the Basques from the path of righteousness, he gave up because the only words of Euskera he could master were bai eta ez (“yes and no”).

Trask was one of the few outsiders to succeed where the Devil had failed. 

Larry was prolific on online forums related to Euskara and the Basque Country. While I never met him, I exchanged emails with him and read much more. At the time of his death, he was working on what he called “bongo-bongo” theories of the origins of Euskara, with the goal of debunking some of the outlandish claims that have been made and reemphasize a more scientific approach to the language.

There are numerous articles on Buber’s Basque Page that were originally penned by Larry, including, with the permission of his family, an archive of his Basque website. One of the first writings of Larry’s I put on Buber’s Basque Page was this overview of the Basque language which, for such a brief document, is remarkable for its comprehensiveness, covering the history of the language, its phonology and morphology, syntax and lexicon, and even an example deconstruction and translation of sentences in Euskara.

Larry made an impact on linguistics beyond Basque, though he likely will be most remembered for his work on Euskara. One of his last books, published posthumously, was an etymological dictionary of Basque. Larry had a no-nonsense attitude towards his subject, and had little patience for all of those who wrote him with their bongo-bongo theories. This interview with The Guardian gives some sense of Larry’s personality.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Brothers Discover Tungsten

Fausto (1755-1833) and Juan José (1754-1796) Elhuyar discovered the element tungsten (atomic number 74) in 1783 in the town of Bergara, Spain.

  • Fausto founded and was the first director of the Palace of Mines in Mexico City.
  • Tungsten is a key component of ITER, the international effort to create a fusion reactor that creates more energy than it uses.
  • The Elhuyar Foundation, named for the brothers, works to bring science and the Basque language together.

Euskara in the Age of Globalization

The age of Globalism offers an interesting dichotomy for minority languages such as Euskara. On the one hand, as the world becomes more homogeneous, with Starbucks and Ikea in every corner, languages such as English become even more universal, a modern lengua franca that makes communication between random people easier. At the same time, however, new tools of communication make it possible for more people from all over the globe to learn about minority languages and to engage with these languages, to at least learn rudimentary aspects of languages that they would never have even heard of before.

Whenever I talk to people about my intense interest in the Basque culture, language, and country, one question that always arises is the language itself, its history, and why it is worth preserving. This becomes a complex issue very quickly. There is of course the Basque-centric answer, which revolves around the heart of Basque identity. The Basque word for a Basque person — euskaldun — means one that has Euskara, one that speaks the language. Especially as the world becomes smaller with globalization and more people move around, with more people moving to places like the Basque Country, the identity of regions like the Basque Country will be less on ancestry and more on identity markers such as language. It won’t matter as much if a person living in the Basque Country was born in Bilbao, Boise, or Africa — if they learn the language, they will be part of the culture.

There is also a broader answer, related to the idea that each language gives us a unique perspective, a unique way of looking at the world, a unique system for thinking. I’ve read both that this is true and that it is not, that our primary language doesn’t really make much difference about how we think. But, it seems to me that there are expressions of language and thought that each language can express uniquely, and that with each language that is lost, we lose a way of looking at the world, a way of interpreting our experiences and expressing them to others.

Those I talk to who speak majority languages don’t seem to be bothered by this. For example, when I talk to British people about this question, and the push for the survival of languages such as Welsh, they often (though not universally) have the opinion that it would be better to just let such languages die as the benefit of ease of communication far outweigh any loss due to diversity. This, then, becomes the heart of the dilemma. For a species, what is more valuable? How do we weigh these conflicting benefits? Certainly, in fields such as science (my own field of expertise), having a common language (English) makes communication much easier and ideas are much more readily shared than if all scientists only wrote and communicated in their local language. However, I expect that new ideas arise because these scientists think in their own languages, ideas that may not have come about (at least not as quickly) if everyone also thought in English. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems likely, at least to me.

I guess the question comes down to what is the value of diversity. If the Basque language disappeared tomorrow, what would we lose? A small corner of the world would lose something that makes them unique. But, what would the greater world lose? Maybe not much, if only Basque disappeared, but as more and more of these minority languages are lost, and more and more people speak just the same few languages, I expect more will be lost than just a few special ways of looking at the world. This debate has a long history, with strong arguments on both sides.

Euskara has made enormous strides since Franco died. The story of its survival is fascinating in and of itself (see this podcast to learn more or click the link below). It is estimated that 70% of young people — people 25 years old or younger — now have some proficiency with the language (as is described in this article from the Irish Times on how Euskara has survived and even thrived in recent years). But, its survival, as with all things Basque, is a very political subject, as one side advocates for greater exposure of the language in an effort to ensure its survival and the other resents being forced to be exposed to a language they don’t care about or want to learn.

For languages such as Euskara to survive in a world where everything is run by companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, they need the support of people who don’t have a vested interest in any particular language, but in the diversity of human culture more generally. That is, minority languages need people to accept their place in human heritage, not be openly hostile to their existence. It is only by people who don’t know what Euskara even is, but who want the world to be more than just English and Chinese, that languages such as Euskara can survive.

Just as importantly, however, people need to learn these languages. Languages die when people stop speaking them. People can be supportive of minority languages all they want, but if no one speaks them, it simply doesn’t matter. Whether they learn to speak a given languages is a function of many factors, not least of which is the effort necessary to learn the language and the utility of the language if it is learned. When I first when to the Basque Country, to spend a year in Donostia to learn Euskara, my dad, a man whose first language was Euskara, asked me why, as Spanish would be so much more practical, spoken so much more widely in the world. Well, my personal reasons were to learn more about his and my grandfather’s culture, so it was never really about communication for me. I never learned enough to communicate well — Spanish was so much easier to learn and communicate with — but I learned enough to give me some appreciation of the language and its role in the culture. My regret is that I didn’t do a better job of learning it.

That said, languages die all the time, dying with their last speakers. Even in the effort to stabilize and grown Euskara, there have been sacrifices, in the form of dialects that are disappearing. As Batua gains strength, not only does it help ensure the survival of Euskara as a whole, it also ushers in the decline of dialects such as Bizkaian. All the time there languages, or dialects of languages, that disappear. To what extent do we try to save every way of thinking? It is said that every valley in the Basque Country has its own dialect. We can’t hope to save them all. Where do we draw the lines?

In the end, is it selfish to try to save languages like Euskara? Do the benefits of a common language far outweigh those of diversity? Based on the current situation in the United States, it isn’t so obvious to me that a common language is some salve that solves all of our problems. I don’t think it is possible or even a good use of resources to save and preserve all languages, but I also think we need to save what we can. The question is where to put those resources, what languages to try to save, and how to best advocate for their survival. Euskara is doing well, at least for now. But, is this just a temporary blip or will it survive and thrive for some time to come?

The Basque Country from Ten Thousand Feet

Inspired by this article in The Atlantic, where they showed parts of the world in chunks of seven square miles, I scoured Google Earth for images of the Basque Country from 10,000 feet (a few are from a bit higher), to show some of the natural and human diversity of the Basque Country.

I’m sure I missed lots of cool places. If anyone has any others, please share.

The Basque Dragon

There aren’t too many references to the Basques in popular culture, particularly for kids. So, when I saw The Basque Dragon, part of The Unicorn Rescue Society series of books by Adam Gidwitz, Jesse Casey, and Hatem Aly, I jumped on the chance and got it for my daughter. The premise of the series, as a whole, is to explore rare mythological creatures and protect them from two menacing corporate brothers. In this particular case, the heroes — two kids named Elliot and Uchenna and their mentor/teacher Professor Fauna — must travel to the Basque Country to save a herensuge — a Basque dragon.

My daughter and I read this together. Let me start with my daughter’s thoughts:

This book is about  two kids, Elliot and Uchenna, that get invited to join a secret organization by Professor Fauna, a teacher at their school. The society is called  The Unicorn Rescue Society. They travel to the Basque Country in order to help one of the professor’s many friends, Mitxel Mendizabal, find his lost herensuge (dragon). With the help of Jersey (a Jersey Devil), they discover that the Schmoke brothers, a dreaded enemy of the professor’s, have taken the herensuge. In order to save the herensuge, they have to venture into a deep cave with a dragon on the loose. Is The Unicorn Rescue Society up to the task?

I enjoyed this book, it was full  of adventure. I also liked learning some Basque words while I read. I also learned about some mythical creatures, like a Jersey devil — I didn’t know what that was. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes “mythical” creatures. Would you dare enter a dragon’s cave? Save a Sasquatch? Or talk to a Sphinx? If so, then you belong in The Unicorn Rescue Society.

This was a quick read with nice illustrations to capture the imagination. The characters, for such as short book, are fleshed out nicely with their own personalities. For me, the best part was listening to my daughter as she discovered various aspects of the Basque Country: some of the words (kaixo, baserri, pintxos, herensuge), the places, and names (Mitxel Mendizabal) gave the book enough of a Basque flavor to make it feel special. My daughter quickly grabbed a notepad and started making her own Basque word list based on all of the words she encountered in the story, including a phonetic spelling. She was excited to see something about the Basque culture in a book aimed towards her. I was excited to see her so excited. I also learned something. I didn’t know the herensuge had the powers described in the story. I’ll have to check it out and learn more.

The authors aren’t Basque themselves, but, judging by the notes, they consulted heavily with the Basque community of Boise to get the details right and to help add some extra sense of Basqueness to the story. For such a short story, they do a nice job of capturing that feel. In the Basque Country, the story focuses on a rural setting, so while the big city is mentioned, it isn’t where the action takes place. 

Overall, the story is still about the kids and their adventures, which just happen to take place in the Basque Country, so the story isn’t dominated by Basque culture and references, but it still has enough to give some Basque flavor and, maybe, pique my daughter’s interest in exploring the Basque culture more. That is, it isn’t a heavy-handed, in your face exposition on Basque culture, but is rather a subtle but nice introduction to some aspects of the Basque Country. I like that the authors chose a little-known corner of the world to focus this story on. Clearly, the series is meant to capture the imagination of world folklore and mythology and the authors hope to have many books in a long series. That they quickly visit the Basque Country instead of the heavy-weights of mythology speaks to their interest in exploring diversity. 

Orbea, the Basque bike company

Our daughter is growing up fast and it was time to upgrade her bike. We stopped at the local bike shop (Sirius Cycles, owned by this great guy from Panama who is one of the few people I have met that has known a Blas…) They are a small shop, but with a lot of bikes, most hanging from the ceiling. We’ve been in there before and my eye is always attracted to the bright orange ones, the ones with “ORBEA” splashed across the frame. But, the adult bikes are beyond the price I want to pay, especially considering how little I ride. So, it was a pleasant surprise when he had a child’s model, from last year, that was discounted to a reasonable price. My wife and I jumped on the chance. We now have an Orbea in the family!

Orbea is a bike manufacture centered in Mallabia, in the heart of Bizkaia (my dad’s sister-in-law lives there). Mallabia can’t be bigger than a few thousand people (Wikipedia says 1,135). And yet, out of this small town has arisen a world-famous bike company that sells bikes all over the world. And, that isn’t the most interesting thing about the company.

Orbea began in 1840 in a nearby town, Eibar, as a gun company. Started by three brothers, they sold handguns to governments that were emblazoned with the slogan “Orbea Hermanos.” However, after World War I, the demand for guns in Europe dropped, a consequence of the fatigue from war. Orbea had huge institutional expertise and experience making steel tubing for guns and, adapting with the times, they shifted focus. What else could be made with steel tubing? In 1930, they abandoned the gun business and shifted towards other products, including baby carriages, though their focus was bicycles. They gained notoriety when Mariano Cañardo, riding an Orbea bike, won a stage in the Tour de France.

Yet, even this transformation is not the end of the story. Orbea underwent a second massive transformation, not in what they made, but in how they were operated. The Basque Country is famous for the Mondragon Corporation, a group of worker-owned companies centered in the Basque city of Mondragon. Near the end of the 1960s, with the Spanish economy in dire straights, Orbea followed suit. The workers came together and purchased the company, making it a worker-owned cooperative as well.

Since then, they have diversified from road bikes — the kinds that are featured in races such as the Tour de France — to mountain bikes and now even electric bikes. Their global presence is highlighted by the fact that the mountain bikes are designed in the United States and built in Asia. Today, their bikes are used by riders all over the world. Their riders have won stages in the Tour de France, medals at the Olympics, and championships at the Ironman Hawaii triathlon. 

The Orbea website says “The road of the cyclist has climbs, descents, plains, false flats, endless routes, unexpected curves.” The same could be said of Orbea itself, its curved and tortuous path through history. Shifting dramatically in both mission and ownership, Orbea has weathered the storm and come out stronger than ever. Maybe I’m biased (just a little), but the story of Orbea is one of perseverance in an ever-changing global market. They are a role model for how a company can and must adapt to an evolving world economy. There are lessons to be learned by other companies, by other parts of the world, where the old business models simply don’t work any more. Companies, like people, like cyclists, must adapt to the curves in the road. Orbea has been extremely successful in doing just that.

Some day, maybe if I can get off my butt and start getting some more exercise, I’ll find the justification for getting myself an Orbea. For now, I’ll live vicariously through my daughter’s bike. I’d certainly like to visit the Orbea headquarters in Mallabia, to check out their design and fabrication process. Maybe next time I visit my aunt… 

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