Basque is the oldest European language still in use today and is thought to be a descendant of Aquitani, an ancient language which was spoken around the Pyrenees, dating as far back as 200 BC. The Basque people were isolated from the rest of Europe for thousands of years, mainly due to its dense forests and mountainous landscapes. This is probably why, unlike the rest of the ancient European languages, Basque managed to survive.
Basque is not an Indo-European language and is not related to any other known languages spoken today. It is known as an isolate language, its roots are not based in Latin, any other Romance languages or even Germanic languages. Over the years, Basque has of course been influenced by Romance languages in terms of some of its vocabulary, but its structure and grammar are still completely different.
Basque may be the language of the Basque Country, but it is spoken by less than half of the population. This is in contrast to some of Spain’s other languages, such as Catalan, where around 73% of the population speak it and around 95% understand it. There are around 800,000 native Basque speakers, although because of migration there are also a significant number in other places in Europe, as well as the Americas. There are a number of reasons why only 27% of the population speak the language. Firstly, over time when the Basque Country became less isolated and outsiders came in, people started communicating in other languages such as Spanish and French. Secondly, during Franco’s regime (1939-1975), languages other than Spanish were heavily suppressed. It was forbidden to speak Basque in schools and banned in the media, this led to a reduction in the number of people able to speak the language. In recent years however there have been efforts to revive the language and promote Basque-language learning, so the numbers are rising.
Basque was originally spoken in three ancient French provinces in the south of the country. Today, although it’s not actually a co-official language, it is spoken in the areas around Biarritz and Bayonne. Although this really only accounts for 0.1% of the French population, there are also southern French regions around the Pyrenees which may not speak Basque, but definitely identify with its culture and traditions.
In the Middle Ages there was one common Basque language, however as more outsiders arrived in the area and it was divided up into different provinces due to politics, five different dialects emerged. These dialects include Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan, Upper Navarrese, Navarro-Lapurdian and Souletin (the last two are spoken in France). Although Navarra is actually a separate area to the Basque Country, it has many similarities in its culture and the Upper Navarrese dialect is spoken by part of the population here. Some of the Basque dialects are said to be quite different, so in an effort to standardise the language, the written Euskara Batua (Unified Basque) was created.
It is said that the Basque language is very difficult to learn and there is a myth that even the Devil tried to learn the language so that he could decide which of the Basques were going to Hell. After seven years of trying to learn he eventually gave up as he could still not understand anything!