Nor Naiz, Gu Gara: David Cox

Nor Naiz, Gu Gara (Who I Am, We Are) is a series aiming to explore the meaning of Basque Identity around the world, both within Euskal Herria as well as in the diaspora.  For an introduction to the series, look here, and for a list of the previous entries, look here.

I have an unusual perspective on Basque identity as someone who can communicate in Euskara despite never having lived full-time in the Basque country, nor having any known Basque ancestry.

Many ‘clever’ people take as a given that one only learns a language for instrumental reasons (such as to find work) and not for the pure pleasure of communicating. People tend to learn the ‘big’ languages if they bother at all. It is easier to write off small peoples and explain them away.

And so, very few people from outside have tried to understand the Basques. I think of Orson Welles, George Lowther Steer, and Mark Kurlansky as those among the few who have made a start at doing so.

Big language people expect that others will learn their language to accommodate them. Not so the Basques.

Perhaps this is why I have seen doors open and faces completely change when I speak a few words of the Basque language — something that to me is just simple consideration and respect. And why we have made great friends and through them really become part of a community.

The reaction I have from people in on-line communities is similar. people look at my name and wonder what I am doing writing in Euskara. And they wonder how I know about Oskorri, Su Ta Gar, and other Basque cultural icons.

It has been said to me many times that “many people have lived here all their lives and they have not made an attempt to learn a few words of our language.” That said, there are many – including those with parents born in non-Basque Spain, who put a lot of effort into becoming Euskaldunak. Like friends of ours who are Basque learners and moved to Lekeitio so they could raise their children in a Basque-speaking milieu.

I am putting a bit of effort into learning Basque as well, spending a lot of time with the Ilari Zubiri blue grammar book, having graduated from Colloquial Basque. I haven’t taken classes, which has its downside.

What have I learned: There are other ways of looking at life than our self-satisfied, often wasteful, North American way. While each culture has its positives and negatives, we look with admiration at the Basques with their civilized public spaces, excellent transit systems, stewardship of scarce resources and many positive cultural traits. Most Basques would prefer to live closer together than to build sprawling cities of tract housing.

In my experience, a Basque does not spend a lot of time ruminating or navel-gazing or saying “woe is me.” They get on with it. A Basque does not say “we have to meet for lunch sometime,” for something to say. In general, a Basque does not pretend to be your friend on the first meeting. If you are a customer, he treats you as such, not as royalty. All of this takes some getting used to.

Without getting too philosophical about it, I think family life is stronger in the Basque Country because children and older folk are not as ghettoized. The attitude towards children in the Basque land is much more inclusive than in North America or Britain. I remember getting some blank looks trying to explain what a babysitter is. Or how we North Americans heedlessly move from one city to another.

After various visits to Euskal Herria, I think the culture has gotten a little bit inside of all of us in my family. I think speaking a language – even without having full command of it – changes our perspective on events, and becomes part of our identity. And when it is a “minority” language, like Basque or Welsh, we begin to identify with that group of speakers. We inhabit a shared world with our own cast of characters, places and stories.

I think it takes us out of our complacency and our tendency to individualism. It makes us somehow more “social” or part of a connected whole. And is this not what we as humans ultimately want to be?

David Cox lives in rural Ontario, Canada, with his family, and visits the Basque Country annually, or whenever possible. He writes for several internet-based publications including a music column, Altxor Bila, for Buber’s Basque Page.

6 thoughts on “Nor Naiz, Gu Gara: David Cox”

  1. David,
    what a wonderful piece you wrote.I am just beginning to try to learn Euskara.It’s such a beautiful language with interesting people and traditions.My family are from Poland-so I have no Basque in me and my friends ask why I want to learn this language.Your column has summed up exactly how I feel and am unable to communicate so eloquently.Eskerrick asko eta ondo segi!

  2. David’s column explains exactly how I feel.I am an American,with Polish ancestory and am beginning to try to learn some Euskara.It’s a beautiful language,with wonderful traditions and what I think to be amazing people.My friends often ask why I want to learn Basque and what David has written describes what I feel far more eloquently than I can ever communicate.Eskerrik Asko David eta ondo segi!

  3. Indeed, nicely worded. Without any desire to diminish any of the value or truth of David Cox’s words, I think they equally apply to many regions in Europe, especially to those that are not part of the former big centralized nation-states or of those that are still highly decentralized, speak a minority language or one of the ‘smaller’ languages (starting from Dutch down to the least spoken like Maltese).
    It is a matter of organically grown communities that have not been ‘depersonalized’ by the need to conform to a one-size-fits-all norm imposed on them, usually for socio-politico-economic reasons. In my view, that is what really makes the difference between Anglo-Saxon North America (and its London-centered followers) and Europe, especially the EU and other Schengen-area countries.
    It all boils down to respect for other people’s regional language and culture. Just ask the Québecois.

    The difference with the past is that respect for regional diversity is no longer an obstacle to integration on a higher (supraregional, supranational) level, unlike in medieval times, because almost all Europeans learn at least a second (communication) language which, combined with modern communications (e.g. internet), allows them to take part in that higher level happening without having to relinquish their identity. That finally removed any justification – if there ever was any – for forcing everybody in a big country to convert to the majority language and culture.

    Civilization IS advancing.

  4. Kaixo David

    zer moduz?

    I just returned from Euskal Herria and I was thinking of writing about my experiences of Basque culture and language etc. when I saw your post. Well, you have precisely written all that I feel. Many thanks for that.

    I would love to learn Euskara and would be glad if any of you want to join th effort. Lets all start a forum (or use this one) to exchange music, resources and help each other improve our Euskara?

    Egun on izan dezala

    Hugs from India

    ruhaan (

  5. Thanks David for your article and Buber’s Basque Page for hosting it!
    People, we should just admit that God loves the Basques so much that he found a new, creative way of multiplying them: a virus that makes unrelated, unsuspecting foreigners like you and myself to fall in love with Euskal Herria! I wouldn’t have believed that this virus has spread as far as India, though!
    I live in Eastern Europe, a place with a reasonable amount of social cohesion, so unlike David this was not what stroke me about the Basques in the first place. First it was the incredible work ethics plus people skills of the first Basque I met in a work environment. This motivated me to read about the Basques on internet and what I found made me feel that they were thousands of times more interesting as a whole than that one individual.
    So I am currently fascinated by the structure of the language, by the tens of traditional music instruments, by the original democratic structures and above all by the overall capacity of reinventing themselves so as to be a dynamic (because I cannot say young) culture after 7000 years of known history. I love Mikel Laboa, God rest him, Oskorri and Vaya Semanita. I love my Basque friends and my Basque-Argentinian friends, every txalaparta school and every salesman in a shop with traditional handicrafts. 🙂
    Eskerrik asko ta ondo ibili, lagunak!

  6. David,

    Bat nator beste irakurleekin, Bikain esan dozu, Gudari!!

    Beste amaren nire anai euskalduna zara zu.

    My Basque brother form another mother. You have define something so very well I’d like to pick this little jewel : ” We inhabit a shared world with our own cast of characters, places and stories.”

    Ddiolch ‘ch

    Bejondeizula ta Cymbru go Bragh!!!

    Gora Gales!

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