Basque continuing to flourish in spite of the presence of English and Spanish

Monday, February 23, 2009

Euskal Herria Europako herrialdea da. Historikoki euskaldunen eta euskararenlurraldea da, Pirinio mendien mendebaldean kokatua, Frantzia eta Espainiaren arteko muga egiten duen mendilerroan, eta Bizkaiko golkorantz zabaltzen dena. <-- I only recognize a few words from this.

So it looks like Basque is continuing to do quite well, putting the lie to the theory that smaller languages necessarily get consumed by larger languages. What actually causes a language to die is (besides outright suppression by unfriendly governments and groups) the inability for a language to provide people the ability to live their lives in it, which includes using it on the street, listening to the radio, tv, internet, using it at school, and all the rest. If a language is able to provide this to people living in a certain region however small, chances are that it will be able to survive. Basque actually probably does well just for being so different from other languages surrounding it, whereas a lot of small Romance languages are commonly thought of as simple dialects of a larger continuum which probably makes their preservation harder to achieve.

Here's what the situation is like compared to before:

In St. Jean de Luz, a seaside town near the Spanish border at the western edge of the Pyrenees, efforts are under way to revitalize the Basque language, which 30 years ago was rarely heard outside mountain villages. Among a population of about 3 million in the Basque region, which comprises seven provinces in Spain and France, an estimated 700,000 people speak Basque today.

Bilingual signs dot the roads and mark storefronts, and an annual festival celebrates the Basque language, music and culture. Public and private schools full of children and adults learn Basque.

Every Sunday, a Mass is celebrated entirely in Basque - complete with Basque music - at the local church, Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste.

At the week's major food market here, Bixente, a 32-year-old man in jeans, tennis shoes and a tight wool cap, was selling such regional specialties as ewe's milk cheese, black cherry jam and spicy pimento powder from his stand to a steady stream of customers in the early morning chill.

"I grew up speaking Basque, and did all my baccalaureate exams, even biology and philosophy, in Basque," said Bixente, who hails from Bayonne and declined to identify himself further. "My parents' generation built private Basque schools in the 1980s. They gave their money, their energy, their efforts to make it happen."

In contrast, he said, when his mother was young, she "was punished at school for speaking Basque."

The success of languages like Basque and Welsh of course is a good sign for IAL users (Occidental, Ido, Esperanto, Interlingua, etc.) too, because:

  • Natural languages are able to revive themselves through enough willpower thanks to the desire to preserve one's history and culture in spite of their complexity and irregularities, while
  • IALs, though lacking the same deeply ingrained reasons to keep them alive, are easy enough to learn that it doesn't take all that much effort to join the community, after which one begins to feel a natural desire to keep the language alive

For those reasons above, assuming there's no apocalyptic event that reverts us to mediaeval technology, I don't see at least the three big IALs (Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua) ever dying out. They're simply too easy and fun to use, and there's too much written content in these languages too for that to happen.

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