Inhabitants of the hilly Basque region of northern Spain were once banned from speaking or writing their national language.
But Euskera is now being revived with an official stamp of approval. The language, grammatically complex and far removed from Spanish, is at the core of the Basque identity.
Although Euskera’s ancient roots are disputed, linguists suggest its speakers migrated from Asia centuries ago to settle in the hilly Atlantic region where Spain joins France.
But the language was hard hit by waves of Spanish-speakers who immigrated to the rapidly industrializing Basque country in the 19th Century and by the centralist policies of successive governments. It was banned by former dictator Francisco Franco.
A pro-government newspaper advertisement in the 1940s told Basques that “to speak Euskera is to be as bad-mannered as putting your hands in the soup bowl.
“If you are Spanish, speak Spanish,” said another slogan.
Under Franco, who died in 1975, “the government threw all its efforts into enforcing Spanish at the expense of Euskera,” said Carmen Garmendia, director of the regional Basque government’s linguistic policy department.
Socially, Euskera was viewed as the language of peasants and fishermen. Publications, including prayer books, and broadcasting in Euskera were illegal and speaking the language was discouraged.
Euskera names were forbidden and Garmendia had to push hard to get her local lawyer to register her son, born in 1971, as Mikel, rather than the Spanish Miguel.
The language is also spoken by a minority in the French part of the Basque region.
Basque separatists in Spain fight for a separate Basque state extending over both sides of the border.
The language survived, partly because it was still the natural idiom in hill villages and partly because professionals like doctors and lawyers with nationalist pride organized semi-clandestine Euskera schools in their homes.
Since 1980, when the Basque country was given a regional government, official policy has been to encourage Euskera.
Garmendia said about 25% of the region’s population of around two million now speak the language correctly and a further 43% have at least some knowledge.
“There are no statistics for the situation, say, 20 years ago. But the increase is spectacular,” Garmendia said.
Euskera is now a compulsory part of all Basque children’s education. Even adults are going back to school by the thousands to learn their native language.
Habe, the Basque government program to teach adults Euskera, subsidizes classes for about 50,000 people a year.
Most people attending are young--often students or unemployed--hoping Euskera will increase their job prospects.
They also have plenty of free time to master its complexities.
Verbs in Euskera vary not just according to the subject but also the object. Syntax further complicates matters by putting the object of an action at the beginning of a sentence and the subject at the end.
“The village is near the sea” translates to herria itsas-baeterrean dago , which hardly rolls off the tongue of a Spanish speaker.
Habe reckons that it takes about 20 hours a week for a year to achieve a good level of speech and comprehension.
“There is a generation here of people who missed out on the tradition of the language being passed on by their parents. They didn’t dare or they didn’t want to. Euskera had lost its status,” said Antton Inurritegi, a planner at Habe.
“Now it is regaining prestige,” he said.