About Basque language, poetry and the art of verse improvisation

The Basque language is a mystery to linguists. A language spoken in a small part of the north of Spain and south of France, that despite many attempts has not been linked with any other language in the world. In fact, Basque is the only surviving pre-Indo-European language of Western Europe; older than the Roman Empire, Latin and Greek. 

It’s easy not to analyse one’s own language but since my wife started learning it, I’ve discovered that the Basque language is at times quite poetic. 

I remember explaining to my wife that to be ‘in love’ in Basque is to be ‘maiteminduta’, literally to be ‘stricken by love’. A cemetery, is an ‘hilerria’, literally a ‘village of the dead’. A volcano, is ‘sumendi’, ‘su’ for fire and ‘mendi’ for mountain, literally a ‘fire-mountain’. But perhaps, the most beautiful and poetic example is one that I took for granted and my wife pointed out to me. The word for heart is ‘bihotz’, literally ‘two voices or sounds’, referencing the sound of the beating heart. 

Now, that’s poetry packed into one word with six letters, one of which (h) is silent.

Having been invaded by every European superpower, it’s a miracle that the language survived at all, but even more so that it survived 40 years of dictatorship, between 1936 to 1976, where the language and expressions of Basque culture were actively banned and suppressed.

There have been changes since 1976. Whilst my parents were repeatedly humiliated and punished at school for speaking their language by ruthless friars and nuns who supported Franco’s fascist government, I received my whole education in Basque. The language was at risk of dying, but since Franco’s death in 1975 and the subsequent transition to democracy, public school students are exposed to the language everyday and our culture has flourished.

The writer who opened the floodgates was Gabriel Aresti (1933-1975). Born into a nationalist non-Basque-speaking family in Bilbao, at fourteen he began to study Basque on his own, reading the classics in the City Library and listening to popular verse improvisers, bertsolaris. His poetry evolved from the symbolism of his youth to the social criticism of his later years and he exerted an enormous influence on the youth of the 1960s and 1970s.

His work Harri eta Herri (Stone and Country, 1964) has been touted as the foundational book of Basque modern poetry. Aresti was critical and indulged in controversy. He openly stated his left-wing ideas, and also contributed to new singer songwriters as well as dramas. His death, which coincided with the end of Franco’s regime, closed a period of Basque literature. Here's one of his poems: Egia bat esateagatik (If for telling the truth)

Egia bat esateagatik,
hil behar bazaizkit,
bortxatu behar badidate,
berdindu behar bazait;
Egia bat esateagatik,
ebaki behar badidate
nik eskribitzen
nik kantatzen
Egia bat esateagatik,
nire izena
kenduko badute
euskal literaturaren


If for telling the truth
they must kill
my daughters,
rape my wife,
pull down
the house
where I live;
if for telling the truth
they must cut
off the hand
I write with,
the tongue
I sing with;
if for telling the truth
they must rub
out my name
from the golden pages
of Basque literature,
never in any way
nor in any place
will they be able
to make me shut up. 

(Egia Bat Esateagatik, Gabriel Aresti, 1963, translation by Toni Strubell sourced from www.basquepoetry.net) 

Inspired by Aresti, the awakening of Basque culture happened in the 1960s and 1970s when a new wave of artists, challenging the fascist prohibition, set out to recover the language and the culture. A young poet called Josanton Artze, said “hizkuntza bat ez da galtzen ez dakienak ikasten ez duelako, dakienak hitzegiten ez duelako baizik”, that is “a language doesn’t die because the one who doesn’t know it doesn’t learn it, but because the one who knows it doesn’t speak it”.

His words may be obvious but it was a timely reminder at a time when many families were abandoning the language. My own grandmother, who came from a farm in a small coastal town and whose Spanish was poor in comparison to her Basque, encouraged my father and my uncles to only speak in Spanish. Thankfully, a new conscience awakened and the realisation that without the language, a large part of the Basque identity and culture would vanish, brought about a flurry of activity and numerous works in all fields of art.

The most celebrated and international Basque writer is Bernardo Atxaga. He has several novels published in English, which I highly recommend, but his most interesting body of work, in my view, has always been his poetry. In the introduction to his most celebrated novel, Obabakoak, Atxaga wrote some notes about the Basque language.

I write in a strange language. Its verbs,
The structure of its relative clauses,
The words it uses to designate ancient things
-rivers, plants, birds-
have no sisters anywhere on Earth.
A house is etxe, a bee erle, death heriotz…

Born, they say, in the megalithic age,
It survived, this stubborn language, by withdrawing,
By hiding away like a hedgehog in a place,
Yet its isolation could never have been absolute
-cat is katu, pipe is pipa, logic is lojika-…

The language of a tiny nation, so small
You cannot even find it on the map,
It never strolled in the gardens of the Court
Or past the marble statues of government buildings;
In four centuries it produced only a hundred books…

Its sleep was long, its bibliography brief
(but in the twentieth century the hedgehog awoke)

(excerpts of The Hedgehog, Bernardo Atxaga 1988 from Obabakoak translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Most of my favourite poets, started their work in the 1970s, Bernardo Atxaga, Xabier Lete, Josanton Artze and Joseba Sarrionaindia. They didn’t just open the floodgates and recover a language and a culture. They also laid out the path for other writers. A recent poet of note would be Kirmen Uribe, whose first poetic work was published in English as ‘Meanwhile Take My Hand’ in 2007.

However, my personal favourite poet in Basque would have to be Josanton Artze, a writer who is always poetic and profoundly philosophical, mysterious yet approachable. He explored the rhythm and sound of our language like no other, at the same time that he infused a sense of spirituality into the social and political turmoil of the country.

One of Artze’s micropoems, turned into song by Mikel Laboa. As the story goes, they were gathered at a bar when suddenly Artze wrote the words in a napkin. Laboa’s wife took the napkin home and next day Mikel Laboa wrote the song. From such humble beginnings, the words and the song became a sort of unofficial anthem for the Basque people yearning for freedom from Franco’s regime, and is still one of the most iconic songs ever written in Basque. Not many have the talent to say so much, with such few words, while avoiding censorship.

Hegoak ebaki banizkio
nerea izango zen
ez zuen alde egingo
bainan horrela
ez zen gehiago txoria izango
eta nik txoria nuen maite


If I had clipped its wings
it would have been mine
it wouldn’t have flown away
but then
it would no longer have been a bird
and I loved the bird

(Txoria Txori, Josanton Artze 1968, translated by Iurgi Urrutia)

Another interesting tradition in the Basque Country is that of ‘bertsolariak’ (verse improvisers), who inspired Gabriel Aresti in his poetry. Bertsos are not poems in the strict sense. They are improvised and they are simpler and more direct than poems, but the improvised back and forth between bertsolaris has created truly memorable verses that have become traditional songs.

The way it works, bertsolaris are given set poetry forms (including rhythm and length), as well as a theme. Then they have to improvise and sing the verses on the spot. Even though there are signs of improvised verse singing at earlier dates, it seems the practise became widespread during the 19th century. 

Bertsolaris are still in high demand in public festivals today and they are an important part of the Basque culture. In fact, a lot of towns have bertsolari schools where people learn the art of improvising verses from a very young age and there’s a national competition every four years (see the video above).

But despite their improvised nature and directness, bertsos can still tackle complex issues in an extraordinary way. Xalbador, one of the greatest bertsolaris ever, discussed the issue of language and identity in one his most famous set of bertsos that end with this conclusion.

Konparatzen baitut izate bateri
Anai-arrebak, entzun ene aho-otsa
Izaite bat ez daike hezur hutses osa.
Herri da gorputza, hizkuntza bihotza,
Bertzetik berextean bitarik bakotxa
Izate horrendako segurra hil hotza.

Batzuk herriaz oroit, euskaraz ahantzi
Bertzek euskara maite, herria gaitzetsi.
Hizkuntza ta herria berex ez doatzi,
Berek nahi daukute konpreniarazi
Bata bertzea gabe daizkela bizi.


If I compare language to a being
Brother and sisters, listen to me
You can’t create a human being just with bones.
The land is the body, the language the heart
If they both get separated
They will both die

Some are concerned with the land but forget the language
Others love the language and disregard the land.
The language and the land can’t go apart
They both want us to understand
That they they can’t live without each other.

(Herria eta Hizkuntza, Xalbador, date unknown, translated by Iurgi Urrutia)

There are still obstacles. There are still difficulties. 

While Basque is a co-official language in the Spanish side of the Basque Country and public education is in Basque, accessing movies, television and art in Basque can often be difficult. There is still a lot of prejudice and there are difficulties when it comes to dealing with government departments and businesses in the Basque language. Both Spanish and Basque may be official, but they're certainly not treated the same way.

In the French side of the Basque Country, the situation is worse still. The French government and parliament have declared that the only language of the republic is French. This means that all other languages have been denied. In contrast to the Spanish side, Basque speakers in the French side cannot send their children to public schools if they want them to learn and develop as children in the Basque language. As it is not an official language, the only option is private schools. Basque private schools are under resourced and under funded, but it's the only way to keep the language going.

Despite the difficulties and obstacles, there's no doubt that the Basque language will survive. As it has survived the long and troubled history of Europe for thousands of years. Best of all, new writers and artists keep emerging, but that's a post for some other time.