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Basque – A Language in Bloom?

Last month saw the Spanish Film Academy decide on their choice of film to represent Spain at next years Oscars.

The Academy’s choice to carry Spain’s ambitions at the annual ceremony has been bestowed upon the film Loreak (Flowers) directed by both Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga.

What makes their choice noteworthy is that the film is in Basque.

This is the first time that a Basque-language film has been submitted by the Spanish film academy for the Oscars; in fact, this is the first time that a Basque-language film has been given much attention at all by the Spanish film world.

Incredibly, Loreak was the first Basque-language film to be screened in official competition at Spain’s largest film festival – the San Sebastiàn film festival.

The irony of the biggest film festival in Spain being held in the Basque country and failing to recognise a Basque-language film for competition for the previous 50 years is not something that is lost on the locals!

Loreak also received a nomination for best film at the Goyas, Spain’s own Oscars – another first for a Basque film.

While the Spanish Film Academy has long been dismissive against claims of under-representing the autonomous communities in Spain, particularly the Basque region, it does follow a long and ingrained pattern of behaviour from the Madrid-centred establishment.

That the Basque language has survived at all is almost certainly a linguistic anomaly.

Often referred to as the oldest surviving language in Europe, a misnomer that is guaranteed to start any linguist twitching, the Basque language is so tightly woven into the identity of the Basque people identify themselves by the term euskaldun which translates to Basque speaker and to their country as Euskal Herria which means Country of the Basque Language.

The Basque language is a language isolate, which most likely pre-dates the arrival of the Indo-European languages to the area.

Certainly, recent genetic research points to the Basque people being the most direct descendants of the original prehistoric Western Europeans.

The National Geographic Society Genographic Project concluded that through extensive DNA research, the Basque people had unique genetic patterns that distinguished them from the surrounding French and Spanish population.

While the Basque language survived the introduction of the Indo-European languages to Western Europe, stronger challenges to its survival were yet to come.

The Basque way of life was at odds with the surrounding cultures.

A matriarchal society was firmly in place from as early as 20BC. The noted Greek geographer Strabo noted in his work Geographica that “a sort of woman rule” governed the region.

This way of living was still present in 1610 during the Spanish Inquisition.

The Basque practice of allowing women to inherit property and officiate in churches coupled with strong pagan practices in the region saw the inquisition carry out one of the largest witch-hunts with over 7,000 cases investigated.

Yet even the inquisition in full flow made little impact with female control lasting up to the 20th Century.

The Spanish Civil War and the rise to power of Franco and the Nacionales saw the Basque region targeted first by a terror campaign intended to break the spirit of the region and then by the bombing of Gernika.

After the civil war, Franco turned his full attention to the eradication of the Basque region.

Strict laws were passed to severely stifle the language and culture of the region, which saw the rise of the terrorist group ETA in the 1960s.

For the next 50 years a constant battle was fought, claiming the lives of over 1,000 people and even tougher crackdowns and sanctions on the Basque people. After global peace talks in October 2011, ETA announced a “definitive cessation of armed activity”.

When put into context, it’s easy to understand the Basque people’s sensitivity to a lack of inclusion and recognition in Spanish culture.

After years of decline and suppression of the language and culture, the Basque region has enjoyed a huge resurgence in the post Franco years and it seems the rest of Spain is beginning to take notice. Here at London Translations, Basque is just one of the many languages we specialise in.

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