On the Basque detail

In the NYT on the 5th,”A Taste of Basque Paella Amid Idaho’s Potatoes” (the on-line head) by Kirk Johnson, beginning:

Boise, Idaho — When the president of the Basques arrived here in Idaho’s capital from Europe late last month, the mayor stepped in to interpret for him into English from Basque, one of the world’s most ancient and difficult languages.

“Boise is part of Basque Country,” said the mayor, David H. Bieter, in an interview, explaining his role. [Basque Country is the customary name for the Basque regions of Spain and France, viewed as an entity.]

Mr. Bieter’s brother, John, a professor of history at Boise State University who was at the time running an academic conference across town about all things Basque — coordinated with the weeklong festival that had drawn the president, Iñigo Urkullu — said he could not agree more.

“If you’re into Basque studies,” he said, “this is Christmas.”


A giant puppet, a Basque tradition, at the Jaialdi festival in Boise, Idaho

Two things here: the claim that the Basque language is one of the world’s most ancient and difficult languages; and something of the story of the Basques in the U.S.

Ancient and difficult. Both adjectives are problematic. Take difficult first. The difficulty of a language L is relative to the language(s) known by the people who are trying to use L and to the aspects of L that new users might have trouble with: Mandarin is often labeled a difficult language because of its writing system. But sticking to aspects of spoken L, there’s still plenty of room for problems. In the case of Basque, aspects of its morphosyntax are unfamiliar in the Indo-European languages of Europe, which is no doubt why speakers of these languages might find Basque “difficult”. From the Wikipedia article on the language:

Basque is an ergative–absolutive language. The subject of an intransitive verb is in the absolutive case (which is unmarked), and the same case is used for the direct object of a transitive verb. The subject of the transitive verb is marked differently, with the ergative case (shown by the suffix -k). This also triggers main and auxiliary verbal agreement.

The auxiliary verb, which accompanies most main verbs, agrees not only with the subject, but with any direct object and the indirect object present. Among European languages, this polypersonal agreement is found only in Basque, some languages of the Caucasus, Hungarian, and Maltese (all non-Indo-European). The ergative–absolutive alignment is also unique among European languages, but not rare worldwide.

Then ancient. Suppose for the moment that language change proceeds largely internally; then when subparts of a community speaking some language are separated from one another, each subcommunity’s language changes on its own, but in a real sense the results of these changes are equally old: they all go back to the language of the original community. Then if Language originated only once, all existing languages are equally old.

Of course we don’t usually talk this way. We say that Dutch is older than Afrikaans, for example (even though they have the same origin), meaning that the language we call Afrikaans came into being as a system distinct from the (equally evolving) language we call Dutch — distinct on the grounds of mutual intelligibility or structural features or (more important) socio-political identity — relatively recently. There are two other cases in which we can talk about “new languages” (language revivals, as with Modern Hebrew; or origin via contact-induced change, as studied by Sally Thomason and Terry Kaufman). All three sorts of “language creation” can be approximately dated via written records of several sorts — but for Basque, such records don’t take us very far back.

For ordinary internally driven language change (the first of the three cases above), we can use the method of comparative reconstruction to posit (and approximately date) plausible earlier languages, but the method works only if you have a suffcient number of sufficiently different existing languages to compare, and for Basque we don’t.

The result is that, unless you believe that Basque was seeded on earth by space aliens (or something similar), you can be sure that Basque goes back a very long way, but since it’s a language isolate with a shallow historical record, we have no way to tell what its predecessors were like. It’s not that Basque is ancient; it’s just that we don’t know anything about its earlier forms.

Basques in America. From Wikipedia:

Basque Americans (Basque: euskal estatubatuarrak) are Americans of Basque descent. According to the 2000 U.S. census, there are 57,793 Americans of full or partial Basque descent, but the real number of Basque Americans could easily reach 100,000 people. … The states with the largest Basque-American populations are California (20,868), Idaho (6,637), Nevada (6,096), Washington (2,665) and Oregon (2,627).

… No U.S. state is more associated with Basque people and culture than Idaho. Basques today are an integral part of the state’s social fabric, especially in Boise. [List of prominent Basque-American elected officials in Idaho follows.]

On the Basque Block in Boise, from an SFGate article on Basque-American spots in the western U.S.:

America’s largest concentration of Basque Americans lives in Boise, and this downtown neighborhood is as Basque as it gets. Besides the Basque Museum, with its poignant exhibit about the bombing of Guernica, there’s a restored 1864 sheepherders boardinghouse you can tour on Saturdays; a store; and restaurant-bars that serve lamb dip, chorizo sandwiches and wines from the homeland. Traditional song lyrics are even carved into the sidewalk squares.

Nevada has its own claims. From another Wikipedia article:

Basques have been living in Northern Nevada for over a century and form a population of several thousand. Basque immigrants first came in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush. For a century and a half the Basques have been closely tied to sheep herding in Nevada and neighboring states.

The Basque-American culture in especially prominent in the town of Winnemucca. Basque immigrants to Winnemucca founded the Martin Hotel and the Winnemucca Hotel, both of which were associated with the Basque sheepherders.

[Personal notes: Winnemucca was on one of the routes between Ohio State and Stanford that I traveled over the years, so I stopped there several times. It’s a small place in the high desert, and it has its own Basque festival:


The place achieved a certain amount of fame via Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (9 novels, originally serialized in San Francisco newspapers, later developed into a tv mini-series), whose cast of characters includes the S.F. landlady Anna Madrigal and her mother, the owner of the Blue Moon Lodge brothel in Winnemucca, Mother Mucca.]

Also in Nevada is the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, an amazing resource for all things Basque (and for travel and study in the Basque Country of Europe). From its rather stiff mission statement:

The mission of the Center for Basque Studies is to further Basque-related study by conducting, facilitating, and disseminating original Basque-related research in the humanities and social sciences

(The site itself brims with enthusiasm.)

Basque hotels, originally catering to the sheepherders, are sprinkled throughout the American Basque country, especially in Nevada (for instance, the Overland Hotel in Fallon as well as the Winnemucca hotels) and California (in northern California, especially around San Francisco, and in the San Joaquin Valley, with notable hotels in Fresno and Bakersfield).

Around San Francisco, at least two of these hotels survive, though they’re somewhat altered from the high days of Basque presence in the area. One has become the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco; from the SFGate article:

It’s a haven for dance and music performances, Basque-language films (with English subtitles) and pelota (Basque handball) tournaments year-round. All are open to the public and most are free. The center is actually in South San Francisco, a longtime magnet for Basque country immigrants. There’s also a restaurant, with lunch and dinner entrees such as duck legs confit, stuffed quail and, of course, lamb.

As is characteristic of the Basque hotels, which were in fact boarding houses, meals at the Cultural Center are served family-style (as the Center itself says: “Traditional Basque cuisine delivered in family-style portions amid group-friendly surrounds”).

The other survivor is the Basque Hotel in San Francisco’s North Beach (located in an alley off Broadway):


From its website:

The rich history of the Basque Hotel resides within the walls of this century-old building. For upwards of 50 years, the Hotel operated as a boarding house for Basque shepherds. The boarders were invited to join in daily, family-style lunches and dinners alongside the local patrons who made the Basque Hotel Restaurant a San Francisco institution for decades.

We respectfully continue this tradition of community and hospitality. Located in the historic North Beach neighborhood above one of the city’s most beloved bars [15 Romolo, which offers some Spanish Basque food], The Basque Hotel boasts 25 private rooms with shared bath.

[More personal reminiscence. Back in December 1975 I ate at the Basque Hotel when it was still a boarding house. This was during the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (and my first visit to San Francisco, though I’d been to L.A. and the Central Coast frequently, starting in 1963). An expedition to the boarding house was organized for a small group of linguists by Claudia Corum, who grew up in the Nevada Basque country and did research in Basque syntax. A pretty young academic woman who was fluent in Basque astonished the residents, who treated us very well indeed. The food was substantial and delicious, and it came with the powerful Basque liquor patxaran (Spanish pacharán).]

Restaurants offering Basque food are all over San Francisco — mostly Spanish/Basque, but at least two (Fringale in SoMa, Gitane in the Financial District) French/Basque.

[A final note. Quite a few linguists have studied or done research in the Basque Country of Europe, and they all seem to have fallen in love with the landscape, the people, and the food as well as the language. The Wikipedia pages for the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, in northern Spain, and the greater region (the home of the Basque people in the western Pyrenees that spans the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast) have excellent maps, breath-taking photos of the landscape, and tempting but rather amateurish photos of Basque food (food photography is hard).]

3 Responses to “On the Basque detail”

  1. Dirty Harri Says:

    On the Basque (de)tail

    A previous visit by the president of the Basque autonomous region to the States made quite a splash on the other side of the pond, when the president of the Basque Club of New York, Aitzol Azurtza, resigned, over disagreements with the traveling politician. Coinciding with these disagreements, his career as gay porn actor Antton Harri was revealed to the press.

    Perhaps we could have a follow-up in the X blog?

  2. Alon Lischinsky Says:

    “Basque paella”? Jesus. That’s as genuine as Vermont cornpone. In fact, Basque cuisine is much more likely to use potatoes than rice as its main starch.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I suspect that the Basque-Americans in Boise are fairly far removed from their roots in Europe, so that for Basque cuisine they look to Spanish cuisine. In any case, “Basque paella” seems to be a thing in Boise.

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