by Beñat Garaio Mendizabal
This magazine, and this “People’s Issue” in particular, are the loudspeakers and meeting point for those of us who believe that there is an alternative in this world, another way to understand our lives. We resist thinking that we will live and die on the same errant planet, a planet that is being systematically destroyed by our neglect and cannibalistic attitude.
Global warming is a reality, and we may soon see how, for example, two entire countries (Maldives and Tuvalu) will disappear from the face of the earth due to the rapid melting of the northern and southern polar ice caps. Survival of the fittest? No, it is definitely our fault.
Language shift, resulting in language death, is the decay of languages that can lead to their total disappearance. To be fair, a language does not die, but the speakers of that language stop using that language, shifting generally to a language of higher status. According to the last Ethnologue report, we have more than 7000 languages on this planet, but we should start the countdown: a language dies approximately every two weeks. Survival of the fittest? Not at all. A speaker may favor an alien language so as to have better prospects for their future; so as to avoid stigmatization from majority language speakers; so as to obey the orders of an autocratic regime that is promoting the language of the elite to the cost of others; and so on and so forth.
A language does not die, but the speakers of that language stop using that language.
Indeed, language diversity and ecological diversity walk hand in hand. Moreover, we could argue that many language activists are also environmentalists, and vice versa. Interdisciplinary collaboration is vital if we want to achieve our aims; alone, we are too small to convince the silent masses, let alone the big corporations, the governments, the lobbies . . . Why don’t we join forces to have a voice on these issues? Nobody apart from us is going to get off their comfy couches at home, unless they are persuaded, attracted, or motivated by a big wave.
Here, I’d like to talk about a specific spot in this world, called Basque Country. What can I say about it, if not that I love it with all my energy, and I am pleased when I see her virtues, but it hurts my feelings when I see her erring? My love of Euskal Herria, which means “the land of the Basque language,” does not blind me, and I will do my best to contribute to the start of a change.
Until a century ago, my great-grandparents lived in a rural region where fishermen, shepherds, and peasants had a very hard life, a life that could only be eased by their devoted love of God and the quite distinct culture, customs, and language that guided their way. But that mountainous green land was severely disrupted when the mining industry set up shop there, changing the social networks, bringing in many people with different beliefs and languages, and destroying the landscape of several valleys. That was the beginning of the largest historical decay of the Basque language, a decay that has been present ever since.
General Franco’s dictatorship could have inflicted the last stab to Basque Country, and therefore to the language, and vice versa. The regime’s atrocious repression, witnessed by the entire world in the town of Gernika (Guernica), was supported by Franco’s overt assimilationist policy (what some would rightly call linguicide), mushrooming industrial development, road infrastructure and urbanization, and the immigration of thousands and thousands of Spaniards brought in to work as cheap laborers, with not even the slightest effort to maintain the local heritage. Moreover, those immigrants worked side to side with many Spaniard peers who were already under major stress, putting in long work shifts in a new industrial environment, far away from their beloved homeland. Under these conditions, one can understand and empathize with the demographic and socio-cultural shift in Basque Country.
The history and the origin of the Basque language (Euskara) are very unique. Being an isolated non-Indo-European language, possibly the oldest in Europe, it is almost a treasure. But, to quote a reputed Basque linguist, the real miracle is how Euskara has survived under these harsh circumstances.
The real miracle is how the Basque language has survived under these harsh circumstances.
The language and political activists on both sides of the Pyrenees, the Northern Basques (in France) and the Southern Basques (in Spain) have tenaciously worked to ensure a future for our past. However, the decay has not stopped, and even though the knowledge of the language is growing and growing, the use of the language is still declining. What else can be done?
But what about the environmental issues, you will ask. Well, the strong opposition of Basque society has not put a stop to many initiatives that are helping destroy our ecological diversity. As in many other parts of the world, fracking, the construction of huge infrastructure projects (especially roads and the High-Speed Train), and more urbanization are all shaping our new “langscape.”
Fracking, the construction of huge infrastructure projects, and more urbanization are all shaping our new ‘langscape.’
First of all, the AP-48/AP-1 highway and the forthcoming High-Speed Train will create massive ecological disruption, as roads and rail need to go through steep valleys and huge numbers of tunnels, and long high bridges have been and are being built. “We need to move forward.” “We need to become a top region in Europe.” “We need to follow the path of modernity in order not to fall behind.” “These infrastructure developments will bring prosperity to this country.” These are some of the mantras reflected in the mainstream media.
So far, these projects have brought some prosperity, but just for the pockets of the development companies and their handmaidens, the politicians. The initial budget is being constantly exceeded. Several reports have begun to challenge the usefulness of “modernity.” For example, the journey from Gasteiz (Vitoria in Spanish) to Bilbao will last about 40 minutes by train, when these days it can take no more than 45 to 50 minutes by bus! Moreover, the journey from Gasteiz to Donostia (San Sebastian in Spanish) can now be completed in 1:10 hours if the driver takes the new AP-48 highway, while by using the old N-1 route the “boring and never-ending journey” was 1:25 hours long! Prosperity will change our lives, right? It is true that the train could alleviate the high congestion of trucks on the main roads of Basque Country, but governments have chosen the most expensive and damaging alternatives. Why?
Now fracking is emerging as the most recent enemy of our land: ninety-one percent of the territory of the Basque Autonomous Community (one of the three components of Basque Country) will be subjected to fracking for gas. Fracking meets strong opposition all over the world, as it has proved to be lethal for the environment. Why should we risk our future? We could take advantage of windmills, solar panels, biomass centrals, wave-energy centrals . . . Do we seriously want to “perforate the veins of our Mother Earth”? That was the motto of an anti-fracking NGO in Basque Country, and I feel it is a powerful call to awakening.
And here is the crux of the matter: many of these infrastructure developments will directly and indirectly affect the heartlands of the Basque language, so they will have detrimental influences on both the environment and the language. As in the Irish Gaeltacht towns where the Irish-speaking municipalities are protected by law, there is a similar initiative in Basque Country: the Federation of Basque-speaking Municipalities (UEMA). In order to become a member, over seventy percent of the population needs to have a solid knowledge of Basque. As in Ireland, generally these municipalities are small rural towns with little industry and a relatively strong capacity to integrate newcomers, due to both their linguistic and their cultural integrity. However, these heartlands are now getting weaker, as many of the newcomers are non-Basque-speaking people, looking just for relaxation and a green landscape.
Many social and cultural actors are concerned with this issue, and a number of scholars and professionals from different disciplines have created a working group called Lurraldea eta Hizkuntza, that is, “Territory and Language.” This group’s aim is to acknowledge that the future of Euskara depends not only on social, political, or linguistic factors, but also on economic, industrial, and urbanization factors. In a manner similar to what Wales and the Åland islands did, this group is lobbying for legislative change and proposing potential measures to stop the rampant, uncontrolled urbanization and the shift of the Basque language.
I study for a master’s degree in Language Support and Revitalisation at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. From Day 1, we were told that interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial in order to get things done. As I said earlier, linguistic and ecological diversity can be closely interlinked, and the combination of linguistic and “green” fights can be nothing other than beneficial. It is inspiring to see that in Basque Country feminist NGOs are allying with pro-Euskara causes, and vice versa, since the oppression of a language can be in some ways linked to the oppression to women. The key aspect here is EMPOWERMENT. It was encouraging that in 2012, when my city, Vitoria/Gasteiz, was named European Green Capital of the year, some scholars, especially sociologist Iñaki Martínez de Luna and linguist Albert Bastardas, tried to achieve the signing of a “Linguistic Ecology Declaration” — a document that would have stressed the importance of addressing both issues and the benefits of combining them.
Unfortunately, that effort did not go very far. But I would like to pick up that thread and continue insisting on the usefulness of this collaboration. Aside from any practical reasons, I must keep stressing the point simply because I believe in this diverse and rich world: this is the world I want to live in. But, as I have just said, this new joint fight could be really practical. In a region with a high political fragmentation and a covert linguistic conflict (Basque has been a strong identity marker for the mainly left-wing pro-independence inhabitants), both our land and our language need a stronger foundation to have a bright future.
Both our land and our language need a stronger foundation to have a bright future.
Lately, the strictly environmentalist movement (including some political parties such as the newly born Equo) has not been particularly favorable to the revitalization of the language, and some of the associations involved in “green” fights use Spanish (or French) as their vehicular language.
On the other hand, the pro-independence left-wing EH Bildu coalition — the largest party trying to revitalize the language, or at least the largest party having an overt and brave pro-Basque language policy — has adopted in its manifesto some of the ideas from environmentalist NGOs, such as food sovereignty, local consumption, end of big infrastructure projects (including fracking and the High-Speed Train), a sensible urbanization plan, a focus on renewable energy, and so forth. Moreover, the idea of writing this article came to me when I read, in the manifesto of Desazkundea, the de-growth collective of Basque Country (de-growth: we live in a finite world but are supposed to grow indefinitely, so we need to reverse that trend in order to live harmoniously on this planet), that since we were trying to go local, then the use and promotion of the Basque language was an obvious choice.
So why don’t we try and take the language out of the political fight and offer it to those who are closer to us — that is, those who are sympathetic to the Basque language but do not want to question their national identity at this time? And at the same time, why don’t we ignite the “green fighting” fire of language activists and become associated with a more general, stronger support group for diversity?
The mainstream parties won’t go any farther in both their linguistic and ecological ideas until they are under pressure from society, so we’d better listen to that call and start putting our ideas into the political agendas of our friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and so on. The first steps are already made: the attempt to sign the Declaration, Desazkundea’s proposal . . . We just need to start following the path.
The author would like to thank Caoife Garvey and Txetxu Garaio (“aitte”) for their support and friendship. Urte askotarako!
Beñat Garaio Mendizabal is studying for a master’s degree in Language Support and revitalization at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK. He is particularly interested in the Basque language, endangered languages, language rights, and language conflicts. He is also a person with deep ecological concerns.
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