An Interview with Mikel Morris, Part 2

Conducted in Fall/Winter 2009-2010

Mikel Morris, an American with dual US/Spanish nationality living in Zarautz, Spain, has written the definitive Basque-English dictionary and is currently working on the Morris Magnum which promises to be the largest bilingual Basque dictionary in existence. 

In the first part of this interview, Mikel shared his thoughts and hard-hitting observations on the status of the Basque language, the efforts the Basque government is making to promote Euskara, and his own tribulations in getting his dictionary published. 

In this part 2, Mikel describes how difficult it has been for him to work within the Basque system, his views of the future of the Basque language and the bright spots in the current efforts to promote the Basque language, and gives an update on the status of the second edition of his Magnum dictionary.

Buber’s Basque Page: In our previous interview, you mentioned that, after publication of your dictionary in 1998, there were no invitations to the Euskaltzaindia, what did you mean by that exactly?

Mikel Morris: Several people that I know have noticed that. They have told me that it is either obvious snub or a colossal omission. It is not as if they had never met me. I was on the Literature Committee of the Euskaltzaindia 1986-1988 chaired by Federico Krutwig. I am also the only person who has written a major Basque bilingual dictionary who is not at least an “euskaltzain urgazle”. It is not because I am not a native speaker of Basque because there are, and have been, several euskalberriak there. It is not because I was born outside the Basque Country because another “Anglo-Saxon”, Alan King, was recognized a few years back.

Mikel Morris is an American and Spanish citizen who has lived in Colorado, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Angola, and the Basque Country, where he has lived since 1979. In 1988, he founded the Morris Academy, in Zarautz, an English school and publishing house. With degrees in International Relations and Hispanic and General Linguistics, his passion for languages is evident. 

Mikel has written the definitive Basque-English dictionary, a project that took 19 years to complete the first edition. While Mikel has taken on new projects, developing dictionaries for both Thai and Chinese, he also continues to develop his Basque-English dictionary, with the Morris Magnum in the works. This dictionary will be the largest bilingual Basque dictionary in existence.

Nonetheless, I should also point out that the president of the Euskaltzaindia, Andres Urrutia, was instrumental in helping me secure the grant from the Spanish Government. He is one of the most open-minded of the euskaltzainak and is a kind and generous person. Urrutia is from Biscay, hardly surprising given that most of my “favourite” euskaltzainak are from there, and I admire him a lot for his efforts to make Basque a language viable for writing law. Urrutia’s help for me is proof that I am not exactly a “persona non grata” among all quarters there and people like him give me hope for the future of the Basque language and country.

Why would some euskaltzainak not take a liking to me or strive to ignore me? I suppose that there are some people who take the greatest possible exception to my virulent outspokenness regarding the direction that Basque is taking. A true intellectual challenges the established order of things if, in his or her opinion, they are not altogether right and could care less what that establishment thinks. I am vehemently opposed to the mindless aping of Spanish in the area of terminology and syntax. I am also quite outspoken about Basque always automatically taking a second seat to Spanish (or French) in everything, including the Euskaltzaindia’s own dictionary, “Orotariko Euskal Hiztegia”. I am not obstinate or set in my ways and am ever ready to debate any and every one of my positions unlike those championing “euspañol”. They really don’t like serious debate, especially written debate. I have challenged Elhuyar to debates in the itzulist forum (translators forum) but they declined as it was — in their words — not the place. In view of the fact that so many of the new “euskaltzainak” have direct ties to Elhuyar, it is clear that I will continue to be blackballed, perhaps forever. Understandably, some Elhuyar people really do not like to be challenged so vociferously and the end result is there is no real debate anywhere.

This is a crying shame because the Basque Country is being increasingly inundated by immigrants from other countries. If Basque culture (or cultura vasca, or kultura baska, or Euskal Kultura, euscal cultura, whatever) cannot accommodate those who are not of Spanish origin (i.e. those who are not Spanish immigrants or Spanish-speaking immigrants), than I am afraid that Basque has had it. Is it enough that we Anglo-Saxons, Chinese, Romanians, Arabs, etc. learn how to speak Basque or do we also have to adopt Spanish culture as well in order to integrate into Basque-speaking Hegoalde society? If that is the case, why learn Basque? What is the point? We non-Hispanics are at a loss when the supposed euskaldunak frequently sidetrack to endless jokes in Spanish and a million references that are only in Spanish. Such references can range anywhere from quotations from the Bible to quips by philosophers to talking about Spanish TV programs and songs. All movie titles are referred to in Spanish as well as historical names. If all there is to Basque culture is the Korrika runathon, an anemic ETB 1, bertsolari contests, folk sports contests, cute folklore, the occasional Benito Lertxundi song, and drinking cider — in the absence of a vibrant media, outward-looking (not hispanocentric) literature — then why go to all the trouble? Such statements may be anathema to many here but such matters ought to be debated. Nevertheless, misguided misfits such as myself who pose such audacious, soul- searching, faith-challenging questions have absolutely no place in the Euskaltzaindia.

I am supremely confident that, eventually, I will be proven right and future, wiser generations of Basques will side with a majority of my positions. Those born before 1984 generally have a very hard time thinking outside their Spanish and/or French mindsets. Just think of the education that they have received and the media that they normally and overwhelmingly read and watch. I really think that a generation of Basques who have a reasonable command of English, or even Chinese, will make all the difference but that will take a long time, if ever.

I must admit that I used to feel despondent about my “ostracism” but I no longer care that much. Sour grapes perhaps, but deep reflection has consoled me in the knowledge that the world is far larger than the Basque County and, after having spent the very best years of my youth working, worrying, dreaming, and sacrificing greatly to save a minority language from the often ignorant indifference of many of its speakers and the cunning guile of its enemies. As I have said before a few times, this is why Asia is proving more and more to be the “promised land” for me. I will still do things for Basque as it still arouses my ever-craving intellectual curiosity but my heart is in Thailand and China now.

BBPYou also previously mentioned that there were no posts were on offer at a university in the Basque Country after your dictionary was published. Didn’t you actually teach once at the University of the Basque Country?

Mikel Morris: My experience at the University of the Basque Country can mostly be summed up by such words as “utter frustration”, “utter disgust”, “raging wrath”. Readers who are not familiar with the university system here will be amazed at how things “work” here.

I originally sought to get my Ph.d. in this country in 1995 since I already had a B.A: and two M.A.s from the States but after I applied for admission and was accepted, I was told that even though I might get a doctorate, it would be totally worthless in Spain since I did not have an undergraduate degree from Spain. Thus, I was literally shanghaied into the undergraduate programme of the UPV (Universidad del País Vasco, I can’t bring myself to call it the EHU in view of the real situation of Basque there).

This quite literally brought me into conflict with some professors there. They were flummoxed to see that I was both a graduate AND an undergraduate. It had never happened but there I was, living proof of yet another impossible contradiction.

As I had to teach at my language school, I was only able to go to the university to take the finals. I depended on the good will of fellow students in the class to pass some notes on to me which, to their great credit, they did. I was the old guy, the old Anglo guy, for them.

One professor particularly took an intense dislike to my situation. Without naming the scoundrel outright, let us say he is the professor that teaches Transformational Grammar. I shall refer to him as Mr. V. I made an appointment with him to request the possibility of being able to take the final a bit earlier since I had to take a group of Basque students to America on the date of the final. The conversation started off all right but then when he mentioned that it was totally impossible for me to be both an undergraduate and graduate student and that there must have been a grievous mistake. I told him that I was admitted on the basis of my American degrees but that I had to get an undergraduate degree from Spain since it would be faster to do it than to wait for Madrid to “convalidate” (“recognize”) my U.S. degrees. I quipped that Franz Kafka was alive and well at the UPV. Mr. V then wielded his God-like professorial prerogative and thundered out of the blue,

“You think you are SO special, don’t you? Well, you are not. I cannot make an exception for you if I don’t allow it for others. I prefer people to ask me questions that I can deal with, not ones such as yours”. After that, I could see that he really, really, really did not like me.

After my dictionary was finally published, there seemed to be even more antipathy from some professors. I was waiting in the hallway for a professor when another professor, who sported a very Basque surname and who I never had a class with, stopped and asked me, quite out of the blue, and in Spanish, “are you the one who wrote the Basque dictionary?”.

“Yes, that’s right”, I replied, She then remarked abruptly “well, I don’t speak Basque”.

What do you say to something like that? I just said, “Oh, well, not everyone does”. Perhaps she was miffed at me for doing such a thing when she had a Basque surname and I did not. Who knows?, but the incident showed that there was ill feeling towards me. I never flaunted my dictionary. I really tried to keep a very low profile but that was so very hard when almost everyone spoke such atrocious English that when I opened my mouth, everyone else looked on in uneasy awe, especially some of the professors.

University rules meant that it took me 4 years to finish the undergraduate programme, no matter what, while I did the doctorate courses in 2 years. The most difficult class was Mr. V’s since I could not attend his classes, and when I could, I did not understand his take on Chomsky and the notes in class had little to do with what was actually on the test. I had to sit for the test 3 or 4 times and I think Mr. V flunked me with great relish and satisfaction but then again 60% of the class usually flunked his exams. Amazing. As I said above, I did attend some of Mr. V’s unpalatable lectures in which I was subjected to hearing transformation grammar explained in a truly atrocious accent but they were of little value to me. As for the last test I sat for, I studied for it 10 hours a day in August. I pulled out all stops to prepare for it. I was even able to join a study group in Pamplona where I was able to explain the arcane workings of the problems of the test to others in the group. The ones who I helped got an 8 on the test while I was given, begrudgingly I suppose, a minimum passing 5 (out of 10). I was all right by that. I wanted to see the back of Mr. V. I anxiously wanted him out of my life.

There were many such incidents but I survived and got my “licenciatura” in English Philology. I also got all of the Basque certificates and so what was left was my thesis. My thesis director, Luis Larringan, was a very kind man and interested in my dictionary material for the purpose of discourse analysis. When we presented the thesis proposal, it was turned down. The thesis director was shocked since it had never happened before. He looked into things and found that one of the professors on the board that examined thesis proposals worked very hard to sway the other professors to turn my thesis proposal down. That professor was none other than Mr. V. Hmmm. He really must have been gunning for me and to think that I thought the cad was out of my life forever!

A translation and interpreting department was established at the University and the goal was to integrate professions in the field into the University of the Basque Country. I decided to apply for it in January 2003 athough I was afraid that some people in the Department would try to thwart me as many often had tried before. To my amazement, I won the post. I could not belief my luck. My dictionary work was fundamental to being accepted and some of the people on the selection committee, I think, liked me (not all the professors in the English Department disliked me, quite the contrary).

However, all this happened just prior to the beginning of the term. Indeed, it was a just few scant days before the beginning of classes that we professors (profesores asociados, not to be confused with associate professors) even knew that we had the job. The man in charge of the mess, Gidor Bilbao, told us that we could teach anything since it was virgin territory. I was assigned to teach interpreting, consecutive interpreting from English to Basque to be exact.

I found the students to be quite nice, even delightful, but then came the first shock: Most of them could not even understand me speaking a slow, clear “special English”. Even fewer could speak English fluently or well enough for a foreigner to understand their translation. If that were not enough, I discovered that these future translators did not even know how to say basic words in Basque such as “knuckles”, “oats”, “aircraft carrier”, or even “velvet”.

I told the people in the department about that and was met by amazement … amazement that I even cared. I told them that the university ought to contact interpreting departments in countries with languages that have structures similar to Basque such as Finnish, Hungarian, and Turkish and build on their experience. They must have thought I was dangerously weird.

There was a meeting at the department and we were told by Prof. José Miguel Santa María that there was going to be another “convocatoria” but not to worry since all of us would be safe thanks to the points awarded for teaching experience. This was to be for the position of “Profesor colaborador”, legally a different position but, nevertheless, not to worry we were told. It was a mere formality.

Santa María, who speaks about as much Basque as George Bush (both of them), told me that I should move to Vitoria as they did not like someone like me having a language school. I told him that I would probably quit the language school but I could not move to Vitoria from Zarautz on account of my family. I would commute but never move. He did not seem to like that.

I remember the results of the second “convocatoria” in September, 2003. Out of the five people in the same situation, four got through easily. The only one that did not make it through was me. I was, and still am, shocked and extremely upset about it. In the previous convocatoria, I had obtained 31.02 points but this time I WENT DOWN to 24.02 points. Amazing. I was the only one of the candidates that actually went down in points. Everyone ELSE in my situation went considerably up in points.

I then took a closer look and compared these results in points:

  • Teaching experience: 
    • 3 (first “convocatoria”)
    • 11 (second “convocatoria”)
  • Research work (author of the only comprehensive English-Basque dictionary) 
    • 7.7 (first “convocatoria”);
    • 0,4 (second “convocatoria”).
  • Academic record (undergraduate degree from Spain, a B.A. and two M.As from the U.S:) 
    • 15,12 (first “convocatoria”)
    • 6 (second “convocatoria”).
  • Professional experience (experience as teacher, interpreter and translator at my business plus experience in teaching English for a Master’s program in Leioa) 
    • 5 (first “convocatoria”); 
    • 2 (second “convocatoria”).
  • Other “merits” : (attending conferences, having all the Basque diplomas, certifications, etc.)
    • 0,2 (first “convocatoria”); 
    • 5,1 (second “convocatoria”).
  • Total points: 31,02 (first “convocatoria”); 24,02 (second “convocatoria”).

In effect, it was an obvious manoeuvre by someone of influence to put someone else in (“eso tiene bicho” is the slang term used by those in Spanish academic circles for such situations) . In view of the fact that I was going to have more points for teaching experience, other points had to be lopped off wherever they could. Thus, my ace in the hole, my dictionary work, was relegated to less than half a point! My academic record was reduced by nearly two thirds. Even my professional experience was more than halved.

The one who wound up with my post got a total 27.46 points, and was awarded a full 2 points for a 7 page article about “Social Interpretation” which was deemed to be worth 5 times more than 19 years of my work of thousands of pages that had gone into my dictionary, a work that is still essential to both translation and interpreting in Basque today, whatever they might say. Nowadays, “social interpretation” from various languages to Spanish (not necessarily Basque) seems to be what the UPV seems keen on and so I can see that I really was the odd man out. Basque is just an afterthought there when it comes to interpreting from English to that language. It probably reflects the sociolinguistic situation rather accurately.

I confronted Prof. Santa Maria but it seemed to have been a done deal. He was arrogantly adamant that there was nothing I could do when I told him that I might take it to the courts if necessary. There is one thing that Spanish catedrático (tenured) professors know how to do and that is how to feather their nest and “arrange” things. The other people on the board either agreed with the “catedrático” or were cowered into acquiescing. I can say that a lot of the professors in the department were quite afraid of him and, I suppose, of their jobs.

I soon found that no one at the University would dare defend me in public even though they told me in private that it was grossly unfair. Apparently, one of the professors in the translation department, who, along with me, was one of the five whose posts were up for grabs, lobbied for the eventual winner and knew how to arrange things so that friend of hers would have a fighting chance (e.g. having her article published in Basque translators’ Journal SENEZ in anticipation that it would have been decisive).

Also, according to some sources, what they were looking for was greater emphasis on Spanish rather than Basque which explains their interest in “social interpretation”, little of which, if any, is done in Basque (it deals with interpreting for poor immigrants from other countries). I suppose I really was in the way as I would have fought tooth and nail for Basque.

I went to the trade unions. ELA essentially supported the university’s decision, LAB looked into it with a mixture of curious interest and indifference about really doing anything to help me but the only ones who truly went to bat for me were the much hated Comisiones Obreras trade union. They are hated by many because they are the ones who fight Basque-language requirements tooth and nail. They, of all people, were the only ones who showed genuine outrage at my predicament. The union lawyers told me that only in rare cases does the university lose because they have been given so much leeway by the Basque Parliament. Had the university been under Spanish (MEC) control, I might have had a better case since MEC universities are under far tighter rules.

I asked the Basque Translators’ Association (EIZIE) to prepare a statement that simply stated that my dictionary was the main dictionary used by translators. It was hardly a bold assertion since in those days my dictionary was the only one utilized as Gorka Aulestia’s dictionary was not used by any translator that I or anyone else knew of in the Basque Country. The president of said association in those days was Carlos del Olmo who claimed that they could not do such a thing since it could not be proven. That, of course, is patently false since dictionary sales could readily attest to which dictionary was most widespread (by then, hardly any copies of Aulestia’s were even available in stores, let alone sold). I felt like Caesar being stabbed by Brutus. I still find it unforgivable.

To bring this sordid matter to some closure, let me say that it was appealed to the powers that be in the UPV but ultimately rejected. It was taken to court. In court, I was able to hear the University lawyer’s case. In a nutshell, the university lawyer claimed the second “convocatoria” had absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with the first one because, in their opinion, a single class was going to be taught in Spanish even though the content of the classes was nearly the same as that of the previous term. At that, the judge eventually ruled in favour of the University since, as I said above, that its what usually happens anyway, barring shockingly scandalous revelations, on account of the great leeway granted to that University. I have been told by some UPV “catedráticos” that quite a few people on all three campuses know about my inglorious defenestration and have commented on the injustice of it all.

This whole mess eventually made me realize that I should forget trying to help and save Basque altogether, especially if I had no bigwig as a mentor to fend for me (a prerequisite here), and to go on to other matters such as other languages and even to concentrate on actually making money. Basque needs all the help it can get but if my love for Basque is not returned, I decided, why not start afresh in non-Basque projects? I had plans to write an extensive Latin-Basque dictionary, Greek-Basque, and even detailed, definitive books on how to translate English into Basque and vice verse. I no longer plan to waste my time on such quixotic nonsense if no one really cares.

It is only when I decided that Basque should not be the sole axis of my professional, even personal, life that my financial situation has improved immensely and even support for my large dictionary project from the Spanish Parliament came through after I had given up seeking support. In any case, nowadays I would no sooner teach at the University of the Basque Country than undergo a frontal lobotomy without anaesthesia. At this moment, the very idea of dealing with such a chaotic, Kafkaesque organization is grossly abhorrent to me, especially when the pay seems to be so abysmal, even for a tenured professor. Sour grapes, to be sure, but this opinion stems from bitter experience and 20/20 hindsight.

BBPClearly, you have a great deal of material for future projects about Euskara, most of which, because of forces outside your control, you are abandoning. Will any of those projects see the light of day? You are working on a new English-Basque dictionary, correct?

Mikel Morris: Once upon a time, I wanted to write a definitive book for translating English into Basque that would be comprehensive and authoritative. I have also designed Latin-Basque and Classical Greek-Basque dictionaries. These, except in the event of a sincere plea not to do so backed up with funds to carry them out, will never see the light. If the Basques are indifferent about these projects, why should I go to all the trouble of doing them? I have also thought about preparing projects connecting Basque to immigrant groups (Arabic, Romanian, Portuguese even Wolof) but no one I’ve talked to cares. So, on to other things. Life is short.

I am working on the second, greatly expanded edition of the Morris Magnum dictionary which came out in 2008 (limited print run). I have put so much effort into this project that I feel it must be completed, no matter what. The same goes for my French-Basque, German-Basque, and Chinese-Basque projects. They will be completed since I have already spent so much time and money on them.

BBPDo you see any future for Euskara? 

Mikel Morris: The answer is quite simple: Yes, there is a future for Basque. I really think that Basques — despite their lack of effective planning, dearth of initiative in higher cultural matters, want of cosmopolitan outlook, and inability to look on their language as something ready for prime time — are genuinely worried about its future and have invested millions of euros in it, albeit poorly invested in many cases. Children do speak it as a first language all over the country. The problem is that when they become teenagers, they use it less when they realize that there are not many fun things in it compared to Spanish, French and now English. That is where the problem lies as I have said time after time. In their adult life, Basque is used among young people from Basque-speaking towns who learnt in Basque but it is often diluted with Spanish words and calques. Sometimes, one sentence is in Basque and another in Spanish. There are even times when a sentence starts in one language and ends in another (code-switching in the jargon of linguistics).

However, everyone wants their kids to learn Basque when they are kids and a language without child speakers is a language doomed to disappear after two or three generations.

It has been said that by 2100, only 400 of the estimated 6,000 languages on the planet today will survive. I hope that is overly pessimistic but I am not sure. There are hundreds of languages with just hundreds of speakers. Those are certainly doomed though they might live on in cyberspace, not unlike what is being done by fanciers of Elvish and Klingon.

Basque has advantages over almost every language that is in the same predicament. It has money because the Basque Country is a rich country. There is awareness that something must be done and politics do favour Basque no matter who is in power. Compare the situation of Basque with the situation of Welsh, Frisian, Breton or most of the mostly non-official indigenous languages in the Americas, Asia and Africa. In the world of minority languages, Basque has been seen as a model and is the envy of all minority language enthusiasts. Barring a cataclysmic collapse of the political system, Basque will never be prohibited again, at least in the Southern Basque Country which leads to where it will not survive: Iparralde, aka the Northern Basque Country or the French Basque Country.

The Southern Basque Country has everything the Northern Basque Country does not: a vibrant, diversified economy, political awareness, and an overriding concern to preserve the language. Just 6% of the children in Iparralde actually speak Basque and that is thanks to the ikastola movement. Were it not for the Southern Basque Country, Basque might have simply disappeared already in the Northern Basque Country. The French state, while anxious about multilingualism in Europe with French being proposed as one of the languages in the cocktail (they know they have lost the battle with English), is very much in favour of monolingualism in the French state. There are no Basques, Flemings, Corsicans, Bretons in France, only French. That sounds nice but it condemns every other language to extinction.

The French Parliament passed a law making French the sole official language of the state. It was said that such steps were needed in order to stem the overwhelming onslaught of English on Europe. At the present, English is fast becoming the only lingua franca among all of the people of Europe despite France’s best efforts. Thus, in the French view of things, if regional languages such as Basque, Corsican, and Breton have even semi-official status, it will weaken the status of French within Europe, perhaps the world. Regional languages are tolerated when deemed weak and attacked with the full power of the French state when deemed resilient. Basque is in the first category while Corsican and German (Alsatian) belong to the second. In a nutshell, considering the number of child speakers in the French Basque Country, the lack of political will (Basque nationalists rarely get above 10-15% in elections, and the derelict tourist-based/farm-based economy there, Basque, barring a spectacular miracle, does not have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving in Iparralde beyond token status.

BBPDo you see any hope in the next generation for an Euskara that not only survives, but also thrives?

Mikel Morris: This question is much harder to answer. One must define “thrive”. If it means being vibrant and going from strength to strength, being able to keep up with the times then one can say that Basque has never thriven throughout its history. It has always fudged along. In Roman times, they were content to borrow Latin words and even learn enough Latin to get along when fighting in (not against) Roman legions. Later on, the Roman Catholic church authorities ignored Basque and cultivated Latin and latinate languages. Basque was never cultivated by anybody, even in Navarre when it was an overwhelmingly Basque-speaking kingdom. There were no people like the venerable Bede as there were among the Anglo-Saxons. No one, save for the occasional bertsoa snippet, ever bothered to write anything serious down until 1545. The Basque ruling elite simply stuck to the easy course of diglossia which is unbalanced biligualism. They were content to adopt the language of the empire and speak Basque at home with the wife, children, animals, and servants. The elite in the city were relatively lazy and did nothing for the language. No translations of the classical writers were ever undertaken until very late. No serious dictionaries (I don’t consider Larramendi’s dictionary serious) containing modern concepts were ever written. No encylopaedias were ever written. No text books were ever written. Education was never systematically carried out in Basque until recently. Only cathechisms for peasants were written along with various kinds of religious books. With a scant few exceptions (e.g. Peru Abarka), little literature was written in Basque aside from religious tracts and bertsopaperak. The men and women of learning in the Basque Country certainly did let Basque culture down in contrast to what the Catalans or what the Finns did for their culture.

Since rural peasants rarely invent anything culturally relevant or write novels, treatises, encyclopaedias, etc., Basque, confined to a rural setting, just fudged along while Spanish and French made significant headway in the cities and larger towns. There were few serious attempts to make Basque a viable “normal” standard language capable of transmitting higher culture until the 1960’s. It is all now a game of “catchup”, and there is a lot of catching up to do.

Thus, the goal must be to overcome millennia of fudging along. Even though the Basque language is said to be thousands of years old, Basque-language culture still has to grow up. Up to now, it has been like a child that has never grown up. It has to wean itself of the apron strings of Spanish/French and be able to be independent. It has to have confident, fully capable speakers who are able to produce interesting things for the whole gamut of society. Indeed, these cultural products should be interesting for the world. Translation can make Basque culture available to the entire world just like Scandinavian culture is so there are no limits to what can be done in Basque.

Are Basques ready to do this? In view of their history and looking back on their recent track record, I am afraid that Basque will survive rather than thrive since fudging along is a deeply-ingrained and time-honoured trait of the people that speak it. I sincerely hope I am completely wrong.

BBPHow do you see the future regarding language policy and Euskara in general with Patxi Lopez becoming lehendakari?

Mikel Morris: This is a very interesting situation and, this being the Basque Country, a very complicated and messy one at that. Nothing is what it seems and nobody actually spells it out in black and white.

To start with, there is a general perception among those who tend to vote for Basque nationalism that Mr. Lopez’s government is a result of a kind of an devilishly brilliant trick. They point out that only 43% of the electorate actually voted for PSOE and PP and that over 100,000 votes for HB were nullified.

The above is objectively true but it should be explained in context. The percentage of votes is skewered in favour of pro-Spain (or constitutionalist if you prefer) parties since each province is accorded equal representation regardless of the population. This was done to placate Araba so that they would not feel that they would be steamrolled by Biscay’s demographics and industries. Since a huge percentage of Araba’s population came directly from “deep” Spain in the 1960’s, it is hardly surprising that the pro-Spain/constitutionalist parties have a majority of the votes there. It was the system that the Basques decided on themselves.

Secondly, the ploy to nix HB’s seats in the Basque Parliament was a veritable cakewalk since HB (or whatever their name of the day happens to be) is so very easy to predict . All the Spaniards had to do was to wait for ETA to murder someone in cold blood and then confirm that HB people would fail to condemn the murder, something which they did not. Predictable, so very predictable. The plan was then put into effect like clockwork. Had there been an even mild reprimand by HB spokesmen, the plan would have gone haywire.

Since the HB people are so fundamentalist and politically clumsy that they cannot even so much as utter an even slightly nasty tone about a foul, heinous murder (e.g. of the industrialist murdered in Azpeitia recently), the deed to outlaw their latest ersatz organization was a cinch for the Spanish. Moreover, HB decided that they should instruct their voters to vote with ballots that would be later declared null and void, something that would have a direct impact on the distribution of seats according to the d’Hont calculation method. Had they instructed their followers to abstain, Ibarretxe would have won re-election since those 100,000 votes would not have been taken into consideration. It is inconceivable that HB could not have foreseen that such a ploy would not have favoured PSOE and PP. Add to this EA’s (Eusko Alkartasuna) utter insanity of going it alone instead of opting for a coalition with the PNV and we can understand how the perfect storm swept the PSOE into power and the PNV into opposition.

The pro-Spain/constitutionalist voters are overjoyed at Patxi becoming lehendakari for various reasons. There has been great resentment against the PNV, rightly or wrongly, among many voters in the Basque Country. They are deemed by many to be the party of the oligarchy, of those who are proud of their Basqueness (defined more by the number of Basque surnames in the family rather than their ability to speak the language) than anything else. Many of those who are not so “vasco” (I won’t use the word “euskaldun” here) and/or who are to the left of the PNV politically are equally glad to see the back of them.

Some of the PSOE and PP voters want Basque to be de-emphasized if not forgotten. Before the policy was to push for Basque to be the language of instruction in all of the schools instead of being a subject. For many, this was the last straw because of the hypocrisy of those advocating such a policy and because it was seen as a ploy to impose “Basque patriotism” on school children. Indeed, EA was the party pushing so very hard for Basque to be used as the only language of instruction in Basque schools and yet a great percentage of its parliamentarians couldn’t even speak Basque. As I recalled in another question, EA failed to make an alliance with Aralar because their negotiators could not even speak Basque. In any case, it is said, quite plausibly, that EA pushed so hard for Basque in the schools not because they loved Euskara so very much but because they wanted to win over HB’s disaffected voters. I guess that didn’t work out for them, did it?

In view of Basque nationalists themselves failing to actually speak Euskara, how can you possibly insist on the grand old language being used in schools and hospitals if you cannot even use it in your own house? Perhaps now they will change but I doubt it. Old habits are so very hard to get over.

Thus, if Basque is pushed by those who either do not speak it or hardly use it in any serious matters, if it is wholly testimonial at best in non Basque-nationalist circles, if it is deemed to be entirely local/hickish as well as not ready for serious things, and if there is the general perception that there is hardly anything of real interest available in Basque (engaging TV channels, sports magazines, gossip magazines, etc.) then pushing so hard for Basque is ultimately untenable. A great shame. There is a great need for genuinely cosmopolitan leadership for Basque language policy but, alas, I am only dreaming.

I honestly do not believe that PSOE will do anything drastic against Basque, whatever the PP might allegedly insist. They took over at arguably the worst possible moment. They are in a sinking economy that is part of a country that has already sunk very deep and is still sinking. The huge property bubble that has burst, Spain’s lagging productivity coupled with scant innovation are factors that will tend to prolong the tragic recession. If the Socialists attack Basque directly and if the economy is still in the tank, they will go down in flames in the next election for the Basque Parliament. However, in my humble opinion, some backward steps have been taken. The education department has withdrawn plans to make Basque the “vehicular language” in education thereby going back to the status quo, i.e. Spanish is the vehicular language.

In the beginning, I thought that they just might do better than the PNV. The PSOE-led government in Catalonia has championed Catalan far more than the CiU ever did. and the CiU did a lot compared to here. In my own little world, the PNV-led Department of Culture decided that they would never support any dictionaries for reasons unbeknownst to me even though serious dictionaries in Basque are hardly commercial ventures. Instead, they preferred to fund lavish “Euskara Eguna” celebrations, send txistularis to Argentina, and wage the outlandishly nonsensical “Ukan Virus” campaign. Such fluff constituted high priority items for them. They set up bureaucratic apparatuses for promoting Basque but Basque still lacks basic tools such as world-class dictionaries in various languages, comprehensive encyclopaedias, and interesting media of the kind that Basques actually want to see and use. Perhaps the new Basque Government will be able to invest in “infrastructure” projects (dictionaries, encyclopaedias) with the money that they save on axing the Ukan Virus program, etc. Basque needs “smart” investments, not expensive elephantine bureaucratic solutions that usually just mean “jobs for the boys”. Basque needs “software”, not just more “bureaucratic hardware”.

Nevertheless, it is worrisome that the speaker of the Basque Parliament speaks little, if any, Basque and that Mr. Lopez is hardly fluent at all (though he promises to pull an “Ibarretxe” by the time his term ends, i.e. he’ll be speaking it well). Some Basques might be gnashing their teeth at some of the steps taken backward when it comes to Basque language policy, but then they happily go back to their Spanish-language newspapers, Spanish-dubbed Hollywood movies, Spanish-language internet, Spanish-language books (original and translation, even from Basque) and Spanish-language TV. Time will tell but when all is said and done, the Basque Country is definitely NOT Catalonia. In Catalonia, they actually love their language and even go so far as to really speak it, not just speak about it.

Buber's Basque Page: An Interview with Mikel Morris, Part 2

BBPIn light of all of the problems you see with the current handling of Euskara and its future, do you see any bright spots? Are there specific things you see that give you hope that things might begin moving in the right direction?

Mikel Morris: The brightest spot is what no one writes about. It is the perception that Basque is capable of expressing anything be it modern or ancient, whether urban or rural. Adolfo Suarez, the Spanish Prime Minister during the transition and a while after the 1978 Constitution was passed, was asked around 1977 whether education would be allowed in Basque. He basically said that the premise of the question was ridiculous because Basque itself was wholly incapable of rendering an explanation about nuclear physics. I met several people in the Basque Country at that time who told me that Basque was simply not up to the task of anything beyond farming and fishing. We got into heated arguments about whether science could be taught through Basque. When I showed them a physics book in Basque, they dismissed it as just “batua”.

That groundless dig was akin to saying that physics can’t be taught in the backwoods of the Ozarks because people from the sticks can’t say words like inertia, kinetic. Even though Jed Clampett couldn’t rattle off them fancy-pants words, someone speaking standardized English can and the same goes for Basque. The problem is that few people still know standard Basque (Batua) as they should. All standard languages are somewhat artificial. Standard English once deemed that the future should be I or we shall, and will for the second and third persons, no sentence could end with a preposition (who did you come with), and that split infinitive (to boldly go where no man has gone before) were considered to be beneath contempt. These rules were influenced by Latin and not appropriate for a Germanic language like English, and they have been now mostly disregarded. Batua is still in the making but it has come a long way. However, as I have often said before, Basques have to know their language like Swedes know Swedish (paraphrasing Txillardegi here) which means they ought to know how to say oats, nutmeg, VAT, website, knuckles, caterpillar in their language without resorting to Spanish or “Euskañol”. Nonetheless, hardly anyone, aside from monolingual ignoramuses with a grudge, now claims that Basque cannot describe any modern concept.

Consequently, now no one thinks that it is insane for there to be text books about physics or string theory in Basque. Of course, no serious scientific research takes place in Basque but, then again, no serious scientific research takes place in Spanish either since English has that top spot in the world. The overwhelming presence of English in every possible sphere in the world ranging from aeronautics to cinema to computer technology practically puts Basque and Spanish (and nearly every other language) in the same boat. Like Basque, Spanish is a translation language, i.e. modern state-of-the-art technology and research is mostly done in English but translated into Spanish and/or Basque (or other languages) for those unable to read English very well. Spanish is virtually on par with Basque in areas such as, for example, m-theory (a super string theory) since English is the be-all and end-all of the cutting edge of modern science. Spanish beats Basque at having many more translations from English but it is still subservient to English in technical matters.

Another bright spot is the fact that a large percentage of the younger people (for example, those under 21) are familiar or very familiar with Basque. Just 20 years ago, Basque was on par with Bulgarian and Estonian in places like Barakaldo, much of Araba, and even Irun. This mighty wall of ignorance has fallen quite a lot among those born after 1990 although those who were born before then still call the shots in society. Basque may not be spoken that much more than a few years ago but at least there is now a strong base to go on. That coupled with the perception that Basque is just a coarse peasant speech best left to peasants and poor fishermen has given way to the reality that most Basque speakers actually live in urban settings.

Finally, another bright spot is the power of technology. Computers are able to even things up in many areas. The Basque Academy (Euskaltzaindia) has said several times that advances in computing were vital in the compiling of their 16 volume Basque-Spanish dictionary (Orotariko Euskal Hiztegia). The internet has freed access of information in Basque (though video games in Basque are rare).

However, the Basques have been slow to make full use of the internet’s potential. As I have said before, much more should and could be done with expanding the Basque version of Wikipedia so that Basque kids don’t have to switch to Spanish for information about various topics. There could be more Basque news websites than there are. There could be Basque-language clones of sports magazines, cars, etc. Printing is no longer necessary, just web design and people doing the content.

The power of digital technology could be used for Basque movies as well. I am constantly hearing complaints about how there is no money to make Basque movies but the judicious use of a fairly affordable digital camera, imaginative use of sound equipment plus an Apple computer with Final Cut editing can result in a world-class result. There are plenty of great films that have been done like that (Blair witch project, etc.). Of course, no blockbuster flicks like Titanic are possible but a lot of good work can still be achieved.

The real obstacle to Basque movies is the Basque themselves. It is not imperialistic Hollywood or the whims of a bloody-minded Spanish judge or Patxi Lopez or Jennifer Lopez or even a quite dead Franco. What is needed is a very good script, good acting, and good editing. Distribution can be tricky, that is true, but a truly good film can always get through and films can be dubbed or subtitled. Non-English movies all suffer the same fate but with a bit of luck and imagination, a lot can be achieved, even in Basque.

The power of technology levels the playing field for everyone. Modern technology is truly democratic. It has enabled me to be on par with organizations far greater in number and with greater ability to come up with government grants to produce dictionaries that are on par with dictionaries anywhere in the world. If I can make dictionaries on par with far larger organizations such as Elhuyar or even Oxford, certainly Basque culture can do the same. The limitations are in the mind, not in the demographics. Basques can do a lot if only they can learn how to overcome their inferiority complexes and defeatism.

BBPFinally, as it’s been a while since I asked, what is the status of the second edition of your dictionary?

Mikel Morris: About the status of the second edition of the Magnum, I am carefully making the biggest bilingual dictionary in Basque even bigger and better. I am having people process thousands of illustrative pictures so that Basques can better understand what a spool is, or a plinth or a gasket. I am also putting in a huge appendix containing chapters about how to write proper sentences for essays in Basque/English, how to write invitations, all kinds of letters, sentences used in a thesis, and functional sentences (what to say and when to say it, e.g. how to be evasive, how to express one’s condolences, how to express disagreement). Of course, I am trying to put in thousands of sentences that were done but which I had no time to put in the first edition. Hopefully, this will see the light by December, 2011. It is quite a job considering the fact that I have my responsibilities at my language school, not to mention working on my Asian projects (Chinese and Thai dictionaries) plus now I am helping out on a Haitian Creole dictionary project. I will be retiring from a lot of the academic teaching in 2013 but, in the meantime, I am working on these projects in preparation for that event.

BBPEskerrik asko, berriz, Mikel!

3 thoughts on “An Interview with Mikel Morris, Part 2”

    1. Hi Mary, There is an online version here:

      You can get a print version of the student dictionary here:

      The Boise Basque Museum carried this one at some point.

      And here is the bigger one, but I’ve not seen this one myself:

      I will ask Mikel if there are better places to get his dictionary.

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