Euskaldun: Language and the Basque Identity

Growing up in the Basque Country, everyone is acutely aware of languages. Whether you speak Basque or not, whether you’re enrolled in Basque medium education or Spanish medium education, whether you choose to talk to your children in Basque or Spanish, or both, there are many decisions involving language that one has to take from early on. From big life decisions such as your children’s schooling to small everyday choices: do you greet in Spanish or Basque when you walk into a shop? That depends. It depends on what kind of shop it is; where in the country the shop is; what about yourself you’d like to signal to the shop keeper. As there isn’t a clear default position, there will always be someone reading into your language choice.

When my dad was young, all that choice was taken away. Nothing but Spanish could be spoken in Spain. Under the dictatorship of General Franco, from 1939 to 1975, the public use of all regional minority languages within Spain was forbidden. Many people, like my dad, had to wait until the ban was lifted and learn Basque as adults. This created strong links between language and politics for many of his generation.

In most situations, for most parents, talking to their kids in their mother tongue is the most natural choice. However, when I was born, choosing what language to speak to me was not a matter of practicality or ease, it was a matter of identity – a new Basque identity that they had to fight for. And thus, my dad chose to speak to me in Basque, despite his mother tongue being Spanish.

My friends and I, however, learnt Basque at school, and as with many other kids from our area, we decided that Spanish was the language of friendship, while Basque was the language of education. It is only now, years after we finished compulsory education, that some of us are slowly making the effort to forgo our natural instinct to speak Spanish to our friends, and re-establish friendships in Basque, in much the same way that my dad made the effort to change his fatherly connotations from Spanish to Basque. And slowly, in some relationships, that which began as a conscious effort to keep the language alive and thriving, has started to feel natural and instinctive.

Photo by Casi Yost on Unsplash