Basque Fact of the Week: Features of Basque Grammar

When I was trying to learn Basque, one shortcoming I had as an English speaker is that I simply didn’t know the grammatical lingo. There are a lot of terms thrown about – declenation, ergative, auxiliary verb – that are used to describe the grammar that we simply don’t learn in English class. At least, I didn’t. Even when English has the same concepts. Maybe it’s just that we don’t learn it so “academically” when it is our native language. In any case, whenever you look at a Basque grammar book in English, they always refer to these mysterious-sounding concepts that were quite foreign to me.

Noun cases in Basque, as found on Buber’s Basque Page.
  • Basque is an agglutinative language. What this means is that elements can be joined together to form longer words and, importantly, those elements can be isolated and their meaning identified. This is in contrast to fusional languages, in which elements contain multiple meanings at once.
  • Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. This is a bit tricky for me to understand (this Quora thread helped), but essentially it means that if you go from an intransitive verb to a transitive verb (for example, “He eats” vs “He eats pie” in English), while in English “He” remains the same as it is the subject in both, in Basque, because in one there is no object in the other there is, “He” changes to make this. The absolutive label means that, in Basque, the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb have the same case, while the ergative label means that the subject of a transitive verb has a different case.
    • Blas lo dago. Blas is sleeping. Blas is the subject.
    • Lisa lo dago. Lisa is sleeping. Lisa is the subject.
    • Blasek Lisa ikusi du. Blas sees Lisa. Blas is the subject and Lisa is the object. Blas changes but Lisa does not.
  • Basque is a subject-object-verb (SOV) language. In contrast, English, Spanish, and French are SVO languages. SOV means that the verb comes at the end of the sentence. While this may seem strange, more of the world’s languages are SOV like Basque than SVO like English. No language is 100% any specific order – in English, we do construct SOV phrases such as “I thee wed.” Further, in Basque, the order of the various elements can change to emphasize or focus on different components, so it is even less rigid than English in this regard.
  • Basque has an auxiliary verb that exhibits polypersonal agreement. That Basque has an auxiliary verb means that there is an extra word added to verbs to indicate things like tense or person. That this verb indicates polypersonal agreement means that it changes in response to more than one of its arguments. That is, the verb is different if you have a subject, a subject plus an object (and it changes if it is direct or indirect), or if you have both. It also changes if you have one or more than one object…
  • Basque is a highly inflected language. Inflection means that words are modified or changed to indicate various things such as tense or number. In English, “-s” to indicate plural is an example of inflection. In Basque, there are seventeen cases for noun phrases, meaning seventeen different modifiers to indicate things like who did what, to whom, for whom, when, whose, and to where, for example. Further, these can be further inflected in many cases. It has been estimated that a noun can therefore take in excess of 450,000 inflected forms. As one example, etxearena (that which is of the house) can be declined to yield etxearenarekin (with the one which pertains to the house).

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: The Nature of the Basque Language, Thayer Watkins; Basque Language-Grammar, Wikipedia

Basque Fact of the Week: The Irrintzi, the Basque Cry

In an atmosphere full of wonderful sites and sounds, perhaps one of the more unusual sounds heard at Basque festivals is the high-pitched wavering cry known as the Irrintzi. In the mountains and valleys of the Basque Country, the Irrintzi can echo for countless miles, so originally it was a means of communication. Today, it is associated with joy and celebration.

Irrintzi by José Arrue, found on El Diario Vasco.
  • The irrintzi is thought to originate amongst Basque shepherds. The high-pitched cry would reverberate from the mountainsides and thus travel long distances. It was used as a way to communicate across valleys. It was also used in battles. There are accounts from the Middle Ages in which Basques used the irrintzi to intimidate their enemies, particularly Muslim invaders. A particularly bad Hollywood scene in which Basques use the irrintzi to communicate during battle appeared in the movie Thunder in the Sun.
  • Today, the irrintzi is a cry of celebration and is often heard at fiestas, where there are often competitions for the best irrintzi. It can reach 120 decibels – the same as a chainsaw or a rock concert.
  • Irrintzi also means neigh, suggesting that originally it was mimicking the neigh of a horse. However, there are other names for the cry – zantzo or lekaixu – meaning that there could be another origin.
  • The irrintzi saw the limelight when, in 1918, a cry was let loose from Victor Hugo Street in Baiona to celebrate the armistice of the First World War.
  • According to Augustin Chaho, a Basque linguist and author in the first half of the 1800s, the irrintzi is but one of many types of cries used by the Basques. The others include:
    • Khereillu: shouting.
    • Karraxia: confused cry.
    • Oihu: cry of calling out.
    • Deigrito: cry to wake up.
    • Hela: cry of warning.
    • Auhendu: cry of lamentation.
    • Orroko: scream of horror.
    • Marraka: cry of pain.
    • Marraska: tearful cry.
    • Marruma: muffled cry.
    • Heiagora: cry of affliction.
    • Deihadarra: cry of alarm.
    • Uhuri: howling scream.
    • Marrobia: roaring cry.
    • Sinkha: shout of jubilation.
    • Irrintzina: cry of laughter.
    • Kikisai: shout of joy.
    • Hozengu: shout of acclamation.
    • Dundura: a collective shout.
  • The irrintzi is one type of ululation, or high-pitched trilling howl. Such cries are common throughout the world, including the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
  • As an example of an irrintzi, here is a video of Vanessa Sanchez’s irrintzi as she performed it in a lab to understand the muscles and posture involved.

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: IRRINTZI. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [en línea], 2024. Available at:; Irrintzi (grito), Wikipedia

Basque Fact of the Week: Juanita “Jay” Uberuaga Hormaechea

When going to Basque festivals or summer dinners, we often forget the effort and dedication that goes on behind the scenes. Even the most cherished traditions – such as the Oinkari Basque Dancers – had to start somewhere and sometimes those ideas are met with resistance. It’s so important to have those individuals that not only devote their time and energy to such endeavors, but are the spark that catalyze something bigger. Jay Uberuaga Hormaechea was one of those sparks, leaving an indelible mark on the Basque community of Boise and beyond.

Juanita Aldrich Hormaechea – Director of The Song of the Basque – Music Week, 1949. Photo found on A Basque in Boise, with credit to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center.
  • Jay was born on October 14, 1908, in the family’s boarding house in Boise, Idaho. She was one of seven children. Her parents, Juana Arriola and Juan Uberuaga, were immigrants from the Basque Country. Juana was from Mutriku, Gipuzkoa while Juan was from Munitibar (he was the brother of my great-grandfather). Both worked extremely hard. Juan delivered coal and worked as a night watchman. During Prohibition, Juana sold bootleg whisky. At home, the first language was Basque.
  • By the time she was thirteen, Jay began working in other boarding houses as a maid. At these boarding houses, she worked hard, but she also danced every day. She also worked at some of the local stores, acting as a Basque interpreter. In 1937, she graduated from the State Beauty College and began working at the Whitehead Beauty Salon, owned by Ruth Yturri. She later purchased the salon and ran the business for another 48 years.
  • There were many firsts in Jay’s contributions to the Basque community of Boise. For example, in 1936, in an effort to bolster the Basque culture in the region, she helped create the Basque Girls Knitting Club. She was a founding member of Euzkaldunak Incorporated and the Basque Girl’s Club. She was the first elected delegate of Euzkaldunak to the North American Basque Organizations. She was the first woman inducted into the Society of Basque Studies in America’s Hall of Fame.
  • Perhaps most important, Jay was the first to teach traditional Basque dance in the United States. Her first formal classes started in 1947, with Jimmy Jausoro and Domingo Ansotegui providing music. Her first performance was in 1948 during Music Week in Boise. That same year, she helped found the Heritage School of Basque Dancing. At first, there was resistance from the local Basque community as they questioned who she was to teach dance and that her efforts would bring embarrassment to the community. However, dance brought them together like they hadn’t been before. Ultimately, her efforts laid the foundation for what would become the Oinkari Basque Dancers.
  • Jay died on May 9, 1997.

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: Juanita “Jay” (Uberuaga) Hormaechea, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center; Totoricagüena Egurrola, Gloria Pilar. HORMAECHEA UBERUAGA, Juanita. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: The Democratic Biltzar of Lapurdi

The Basques have a long association with democracy. John Adams noted their unique government and how they had preserved a voice of the people within it. Adams mostly saw Hegoalde. But Lapurdi, in Iparralde, also had its own unique institutions that represented the people, where every town had a vote in the decisions of the province. And, in particular, nobility and clergy were not allowed to participate.

Le château de la Motte of Ustaritz, where the Biltzar was traditionally held. Photo from Wikipedia.
  • The Biltzar was equivalent to the Juntas Generales, or General Meetings, of other parts of the Basque Country. Like in other areas, the parish or municipality formed the foundation of the Biltzar. Each parish, which included uncultivated lands, meadows, forests, waters, roads, pastures, hunting and fishing, was administered by the owners of houses and their heirs. If the owner was a woman, then her husband or eldest son represented her. Nobles and clergy could attend, but they could not participate.
  • The word Biltzar seems to come from a combination of bil and zahar, and might mean “meeting of the old people.”
  • The Biltzar was held in the town of Ustaritz. A trustee, with a two-year term, was appointed to lead the Biltzar. He could call on the Biltzar to assemble whenever he deemed necessary. Eight days before the assembly, he would send the mayors of each town a list of items to be discussed and each town would deliberate their position. Representatives sent by each town to the Biltzar didn’t actually have the power to vote, they simply bore the vote decided on by their respective communities. Thus, the Biltzar was a democratic institution that directly reflected the views of the municipalities. The trustee would then implement the decisions made by the Biltzar.
  • The only taxes that the people of Lapurdi were subject to were those voted on by the Biltzar. The Biltzar also negotiated the amount of tax that had to be paid to the crown. One of the primary functions of the Biltzar, then, was to maintain financial autonomy of Lapurdi. The trustee also had access to 1000 men to help defend the province if needed.
  • The oldest Biltzar for which we have documentation happened on January 24, 1567. We don’t know of another until 1593. It is thought, though there is no evidence, that the Biltzar goes back much further in history.
  • While we don’t know much about the origins of the Biltzar, we do know about its demise. The last Biltzar was held on November 18, 1789 in the middle of the French Revolution. This Biltzar asked the Estates-General to preserve the Biltzar for Lapurdi or, at the very least, to combine Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Nafarroa Beherea into one Basque department. The Biltzar also selected the Garat brothers to represent them at the Estates-General. The Estates-General declined both requests and instead created a new department in which the three Basque provinces were combined with Bearn, effectively ending the Biltzar.
  • There had been many attempts beforehand to curtail the power of the Biltzar and give the crown more power over the province, but all of those attempts failed. In one case, Le Camus de Néville wrote to Necker, the minister of Louis XVI, that “I suggest that you change nothing about the administration of this province. These little people, so to speak, stubbornly follow their ancestral laws. We would needlessly publish new regulations which would go against the morals of the Basques.”

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: Auñamendi Entziklopedia. BILTZAR. Available at:; Lapurtarren Biltzarra, Wikipedia; Biltzar, Wikipedia

Basque Fact of the Week: Lehendakari José Antonio Ardanza

When I lived in the Basque Country, during the years 1991-1992, Jose Antonio Ardanza was the face of the nation. Being a young kid who knew little about the politics of Euskadi, I didn’t really appreciate all of the intricacies and nuances of regional politics, but Ardanza somehow was this presence that sort of served as a backdrop to what was going on. The third Lehendakari – President – of the Basque Autonomous Community since the reestablishment of democracy in Spain, Ardanza died on April 8, 2024.

Jose Antonio Ardanza, former Lehendakari (President) of the Basque Autonomous Community, died on Monday, April 8, 2024. Image from EITB.
  • José Antonio Ardanza Garro was born on June 10, 1941, in Elorrio, Bizkaia. In 1961, he joined the youth branch of the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ/PNV), the Euzko Gaztedi. A few years later he and several of his friends were arrested for playing the txistu at a town’s fiesta. He managed to escape and remained in hiding to avoid detention.
  • His studies took him from the Diocesan Seminary of Derio to the Jesuits of Durango and then to the University of Deusto, where he graduated with a degree in law. When the Basque Nationalist Party was legalized in 1979, he immediately joined. In the very first elections after Franco’s death, in 1979, he was elected mayor of Arrasate/Mondragón and then, in 1983, he was elected General Deputy of Gipuzkoa.
  • Only a year later, after then Lehendakari Carlos Garaikoetxea had been dismissed, Ardanza was proposed as a candidate for Lehendakari. He was selected, becoming the third Lehendakari of the post-Franco Basque Autonomous Community (BAC), a position he held from January 1985 to January 1999. He was the longest serving Lehendakari.
  • Ardanza was recognized for his ability to bring differing groups together. One of his early milestones was the Ajuria Enea Pact of 1988, which united most of the political parties (minus Herri Batasuna) against the violence of ETA. He also helped consolidate governmental powers in the BAC, creating the Basque police Ertzaintza. And, he helped navigate the difficult economic times the BAC experienced after Franco’s dictatorship. One achievement was signing the agreement that would bring the Guggenheim Museum to Bilbo.
  • After his retirement from politics in 1999, he became president of the Basque telecommunications company Euskaltel, which he held until 2011.

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: Arozamena Ayala, Ainhoa. Ardanza Garro, José Antonio. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; José Antonio Ardanza, Wikipedia;

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 185

The next morning, Maite awoke to find Kepa already wide awake, his goofy smile beaming at her as he lay next to her. She would have been less annoyed by the sun blasting her directly in the face.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“How can you be so awake so early,” she grumbled as she flipped over and buried her face in her pillow.

“I’m excited for our vacation in Paris,” Kepa relied. “I’m all ready to go.”

“You’re packed and everything?”

“We don’t need to pack, we’ll have everything we need when we get there.”

“Can I at least get a cup of coffee?”

Kepa mused a moment, his smile only slightly deflating. “I guess that would be fine.”

About half an hour later, Maite popped out of the bedroom, steaming cup of coffee in her hands. “Thanks for the coffee,” she said.

Kepa smiled. “Of course.”

Maite sat next to him as she took a sip. “So, how does this work?”

Kepa waved his hands in the air and the virtual map appeared in front of them once again. “I’m not entirely sure as I haven’t tried it yet, but I think we just touch one of the zatia on the map and it will take us there.”

“You think?”

“Well, more I hope that’s what will happen.”

Maite nodded as she took another sip from her cup. She then placed it on the table in front of her, her head crossing through the virtual display in front of them, sending ripples across its surface.

“I think you just destroyed Australia,” chuckled Kepa.

As Maite sat back into the sofa, she saw the ripples flow across Australia which was almost unrecognizable because of the distortions.

“Ha!” chuckled Maite. “Though, Australia is always a place I wanted to visit. Maybe it can be next on our list.”

“We don’t have any resolution there, at least not yet,” replied Kepa. “I can’t see any zatia there.”

Maite shrugged. “Maybe someday. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s go to Paris.”

Kepa’s smile was as big as she had ever seen it. He was really proud to have figured this out. She just hoped the whole thing wasn’t ruined by them being put into some kind of hell hole.

Kepa reached out, his fingertip glowing brightly from the zatia’s power within him. He tapped a white dot that was centered on Paris. As was almost routine for them now, a bright light emerged out of that one point, growing larger and brighter until it engulfed the entire room.

Kepa grabbed Maite’s hand. “Here we go!” he exclaimed.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: La Gabarra, A Victory Parade Like No Other

On Saturday, April 6, 2024, after 40 years which saw the team make it to the finals 6 times – 3 in the last 10 years – only to lose, Athletic Club of Bilbao was once again on top of the Spanish soccer world, winning the Copa del Rey final against Mallorca. With a slogan “Unique in the World,” it is only fitting that the team and the people of Bilbo have their own unique way of celebrating their victory: la gabarra.

A view of la gabarra and the celebration of Athletic Bilbao’s Copa del Rey victory. Photo from Deia.
  • Literally, a gabarra is a barge – a flat bottomed boat used to ship heavy goods down rivers and canals. Athletic Club of Bilbao has used their barge, the Athleticen gabarra, to celebrate victories since 1983.
  • In 1983, Athletic unexpectedly won the league championship. An impromptu celebration was organized by the club, with the team floating down the Ría de Bilbao on the Gabarra. A million people lined the banks of the river, celebrating the team’s win as the gabarra floated down the river for over three hours.
  • The idea of floating the barge down the river to celebrate came from Cecilio Gerrikabeitia. He was reminded of an old song about the Acero club from Olabea which, in 1924, celebrated a victory in part by floating the river accompanied by fireworks. He and some other rechristened an existing barge Athletic and made history.
  • The club repeated la gabarra celebration in 1984 when they won the Copa del Rey and the league. Since that last victory, the boat had been used to haul goods along the river. In 2013, it was repaired but since then, the boat has sat silently in the port’s museum. Tests were made in 2021 to ensure it would still float. However, it wasn’t until this week, after Athletic won the Copa del Rey against Mallorca, that la gabarra again floated the river in celebration of victory.
  • La gabarra set “sail” once again on Thursday, April 11. Starting at Getxo, the barge and its accompanying fleet of boats filled with supporters meandered the thirteen kilometers to the Bilbo city hall. Every balcony along the route was crammed with fans. Again, about a million people lined the banks to celebrate. RTVE has a play-by-play of the entire celebration, including interviews with fans.

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: Athleticen gabarra, Wikipedia; ‘La Gabarra’: Athletic Bilbao’s one-of-a-kind trophy celebration befits one of the world’s most unique football clubs,; La Gabarra: the river barge Athletic Club uses to celebrate winning titles, San Mames

Basque Fact of the Week: Proto-Basque, the Basque of 2000 Years Ago

A few weeks ago, I introduced Koldo Mitxelena, who was the chief architect of the reconstruction of Proto-Basque, the Basque that was spoken some 2000 years ago. So, what is Proto-Basque, exactly, and how do people like Mitxelena reconstruct a form of a language that is 2000 years old when there are no, or at best few, written resources from the time? Read on, dear reader, and take a journey back in time.

The extent of Proto-Basque, in grey, as compared to the current borders of Euskal Herria. Image from Wikipedia.
  • The idea of Proto-Basque, called aitzineuskara in Euskara, was first broached by André Martinet but was fully developed by Koldo Mitxelena in the 1950s. By analyzing how words in Basque varied across the various modern dialects of the language, which provides a time capsule of sorts as to how words evolved over time, as well as how loan words from Latin evolved since Roman times, he was able to reconstruct what Basque must have looked liked some 2000 years ago. His reconstruction was validated when texts in Aquitanian were found and matched his Proto-Basque reconstruction very well; this also established Aquitanian as an ancestor of modern Basque.
  • In his The History of Basque, Larry Trask summarizes several findings about Proto-Basque that are useful in both understanding the evolution of the language and in making attempts to relate Basque to other languages:
    • No native Basque lexical item of any period (except for imitative items of no great antiquity) can begin with any of p-, t-, d- or r-.
    • Virtually no native Basque lexical item of any antiquity can begin with k-.
    • No native Basque lexical item in the period before the Roman invasion could contain m.
    • No native Basque lexical item of any period can begin with any consonant cluster at all.
    • Except in the eastern dialects, no native Basque lexical item of any antiquity can contain any of the cluster np, nt, nk, lp, lt or lk.
    • The palatal segments are always secondary: they could not occur anciently in lexical items.
  • These findings help linguists to better interpret the history of the language. For example, the fact that Proto-Basque had no ‘m’ means that any Basque words that do contain an ‘m’ are loan words from other languages. Looking at how those words have since evolved in the various dialects helps linguists reconstruct how other words must have evolved.
  • Going even further back in time, to before contact with the Celtic languages, Joseba Lakarra has reconstructed Pre-Proto-Basque. It seems that modern Basque, and Proto-Basque, have a relatively large number of words that start with a vowel and in which that vowel is immediately repeated after a consonant. A couple of examples include adar (horn), odol (blood), and ihintz (dew). This fact has led Lakarra to postulate that Pre-Proto-Basque must have exhibited a lot of reduplication, or the repeating of initial syllables: da-dar, do-dol, ni-nin. He also suggests that, while in modern Basque the verb typically goes at the end of the sentence, in Pre-Proto-Basque it was at the beginning.

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: Proto-Basque language, Wikipedia; Aitzineuskara, Wikipedia; The Proto-Basque Language,

Basque Fact of the Week: Korrika, The Race in Support of the Basque Language

Earlier this month, the Basque Country witnessed what has become an amazing spectacle in support of the Basque language. Starting on March 14 in Irun and ending in Baiona after 11 days and more than 2,700 kilometers, thousands upon thousands of people ran across the Basque Country in support of Euskara. It is an event like no other in the world, though other places are trying to mimic its success. This is Korrika.

Baiona from above as the 2024 edition of Korrika concluded. Photo from EITB.
  • Korrika, which means running in Basque, started in 1980. The first race took place between Oñati, Gipuzkoa and Bilbo, Bizkaia over the course of 9 days, starting on November 29 and ending on December 7. It was organized by AEK – Alfabetatze Euskalduntze Koordinakundea or Coordinadora de Euskaldunización Alfabetización – an organization that promotes the learning of the Basque language across the entire Basque Country.
  • Ever since that first event, Korrika is held every two years, usually over 10 days, and passes via a different route throughout the seven historical provinces of the Basque Country – some 200 cities and towns have been visited during the 44 year history of the event.
  • Korrika has been described as one of the largest pro-language demonstrations in the world and the longest relay race on the planet. Some 600,000 runners participate, and the relay goes straight through the 10 days with no breaks – even in the dead of night, runners keep running, passing a wooden baton that was used in the first race, to the next runner.
  • Korrika is not only a demonstration, but a fund raiser in support of the Basque language. Every kilometer – the race this year covered 2,700 kilometers, or nearly 1700 miles – is sold to a sponsor who then leads that kilometer. Supporters follow with banners and music, giving the whole event a festive air.
  • The baton also contains a secret message in Basque that is read at the end of the race by a Basque personality. This year, it was read by Garazi Arrula, an author who authored the message. She called the situation of the language both political and urgent and stressed how in Baiona, the city where the 2024 edition finished, the Basque language is not even official. She called the Korrika a “hungry people” and echoed the motto of the 2024 race: “harro herri” or “proud people.”
  • Korrika has become a world-wide phenomenon, with runs wherever there are Basques. For example, Boise holds its own version of Korrika, though much shorter in length. In 2024, many cities across the globe participated, from Reno to Tokyo and from Necochea, Argentina to Lapland, Finland. Further, Korrika has inspired other regions to hold similar events, including Brittany starting in 2008, Catalonia in 1993, and Wales in 2014.

A full list of all of Buber’s Basque Facts of the Week can be found in the Archive.

Primary sources: Korrika,; Korrika, Wikipedia

Thanks to Robert Uselton for suggesting this Basque Fact of the Week.