SNAPSHOT: Origins of the Basque Language

If you know anything at all about the Basque language, you may have heard that it’s unique. Road signs in Basque Country in Spain and France have unfamiliar letter combinations like TX, and locals say kaixo for hello instead of hola or bonjour. In fact, Basque, also known as Euskara, is “widely believed to be an isolate,” meaning a language unrelated to any other, writes Professor Juliette Blevins, a linguist at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

But in a new book, Blevins makes the “radical” argument that Basque is not a stand-alone language. Blevins unearths ancient roots, grammatical units, and sounds that “strongly suggest” a “genetic relationship” between Basque’s ancestral language, Proto-Basque, and Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral language of most European tongues.

A hermitage in Basque, Spain

These “two ancient tongues were distinct languages” descended “from a common ancestor,” she writes in Advances in Proto-Basque Reconstruction with Evidence for the Proto-Indo-European-Euskarian Hypothesis.

The Basques are one of Europe’s most ancient indigenous groups. If Blevins is correct, Proto-Basque speakers “split from a larger linguistic group” so long ago that they did not even have words for wheel or plough.

Similarities between languages don’t prove they are related. Languages have been borrowing words from each other since long before espresso came into English. Basque also has many loan words, thanks to contact with Celts, Romans, and Germanic tribes. But when similar words in different languages have basic meanings and matching sounds, they may have a common ancestor.

Blevins points out similarities between Basque and languages it had no contact with as evidence that all descended from one very ancient mother tongue. For example, the Basque word hara means valley. In the ancient Anatolian language, valley is haari. Both languages maintain a 6,000-year-old H sound lost in all other Indo-European languages. Similarities like this, plus hundreds of other related roots and matching sounds, Blevins writes, “are highly unlikely to have arisen by chance.”

Blevins’ research was covered by the Spanish language news service EFE, resulting in stories in news outlets around the world, including La Vanguardia, La Prensa and El Confidencial.