Language wars: Basque Indians vs Span(gl)ish cowboys

language.jpgWhen Kishore Budha posts the article Literary wars: Natives Vs Anglophones he also invites me to nose-dive right into the middle of another raging battle of the languages unfolding as we speak. As a Basque speaker, this is certainly not a topic I feel comfortable dealing with. However, since the whole (usually very local) debate is also taking a bit of a global dimension I sense it is worth giving it a shot or two. First I will report on what the fuss is all about. Then I provide a couple of quotes and remarks explaining why — on this one — I refrain from protesting in favour of my mother language. Finally, an explicit invitation to disengage is also addressed to the people with whom I personally feel most closely associated.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007: Madrid based North-American journalist Keith Johnson writes an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Basque Inquisition: How Do You Say Shepherd in Euskera? The article at the source of the row can only be partially accessed here. Partially because to access the full text one must subscribe to the newspaper. Having said this, I still think it is worth giving it a click, not least because at the bottom of the page, in the section ‘related articles and blogs’, access is provided to the full article by Christopher Rhodas (October 11, 2007) entitled: What’s the Hindi Word for Dot-Com? Incidentally, therefore, if somebody was perhaps a bit puzzled by the kind of unlikely stereograhic alliances taking place of late in this blog of the Subaltern Studies collective, then what can I say: there you are! Tough! For even the Wall Street Journal sees, and capitalises on the point that, after all it is not a particular national and/or cultural-linguistic identity that unites us. Instead it is a certainly ghostly, yes, but also all too Real class consciousness which helps give consistence to our critical approaches seeking both to describe and shake off the shared forms of subordination and subalternity we endure.

Now, following from the above and always enthusiastic about sharing too my cosmopolitan credentials with many universalistic liberals, a good idea occurs to me which would be to to set up a new hybrid web page double u, double u, double u sheperd dot-com forward slash esperanto. In the mean time, however, I will come back to the nitty-grity of our particular(ist) debate. If you are still interested in reading the full article by Johnson, you will find it here. When you access it, do not panic just yet… simply scroll a couple of paragraphs downwards. You will find it there and then a bit further down you can also read an expert-authoritative (linguistic) Response to the infamous WSJ article by Mikel Morris at the bottom of the page. If you are not particularly keen in using the mouse forwards and back several times over, then I will still give you a paragraph by Morris later on but first let me describe Johnson’s inflammatory rather than infamous piece as follows in three nutshells:

1. Johnson’a article on the legendary Spanish Inquisition begins precisely with the kind of well rehearsed old trick which consists of pick-n-choosing a fairly isolated case in order to describe Basque resistence to assimilation under the precise guise of its opposite; hence the defence of a minority, subordinate language becoming now the very source of oppression: ‘Basque Inquisition’ over the ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘marginalised’ Spanish speaking population (as if!).

2. Johnson’s position on the overall linguisitc debate favours the well-known instrumentalist approach whereby why should someone learn a language with less than a million speakers when Spanish is spoken by over 400 million all over the world; the obvious flipside being, needless to say, why don’t we then all speak Mandarin? A modest yet nonsense proposal, no doubt, but a proposal with a vengence since “left to our own devices”, as a well-known New Age/liberal motto goes, we would also rather choose to learn and speak English (In passing, this fact alone also makes Gordon Brown and Labour’s New English-centred neo-nationalist obsessions pretty ridiculous, quite frankly. Like many people further afield Polish migrant bricklayers do want to learn the language too!).

3. Johnson expands on several examples in order to show how the Basque language is not suited for modern life. From my part this old argument deserves no further comment, other perhaps than referring the reader to my own discussions with Kishore Budha on the sexy-ness of certain words in certain languages as compared to others (see here)

Saturday, November 11, 2007: On the opposite side of the linguisitc divide, in order to rebuke Johnson’s dismisal of the Basque language on the grounds, for instance, that there are “10 different words for shepherd,” Morris gives us all kind of lexicographic explanations about the issue:

Your observation on shepherd is an example of gross ignorance of not only Basque but of English as well. The origin of the word shepherd is sceaphierde, (From Old English) from sceap “sheep” + hierde “herder,” from heord “a herd” ( Cf. M.L.G., M.Du. schaphirde, M.H.G. schafhirte, Ger. dial. schafhirt.) The Webster dictionary defines “shepherd” as “1 : a person who tends sheep” Thus, you probably meant “herder” or “drover” rather than “shepherd”, but then again that term is too general in English and is usually combined with the animal being driven.

As you can note, Johnson certainly got it totally wrong on this one. But is that the issue really? And does Morris really think that the issue would be somehow sorted by Johnson accepting his invitation to “get your facts straight and talk to competent people who know something about languages”. This is indeed what happens when expert Bascophile scholars, and even grassroots campaigners self-appoint themselves as the guardians of ‘Basque language and culture’ (ancient, pristine, what have you…), a safe heaven to be protected from the hellish ‘ugly politics’ that irremediably accompany all things Basque in standard media reporting. I am afraid that like elsewhere in the world, this is impossible also in the Basque struggles over the political sign. You cannot have it all. You cannot have the enigma (mysterious language and people…) without the stigma (violence, ugly-nationalism, terrorism…). It is not in your hands. In other words: no matter how ‘wrong’ Johnson is, he also represents and holds a power that Morris will never have, regardless of how ‘right’ he might even be in his scholarly defence of an ‘endangered language’. Simple.

Now, in the heat of the debate I too was almost tempted to become a Beautiful Soul on the right-high ground of the moral divide and join in an e-mail campaign promoted by a well-known cultural organisation. This is the message one is invited to send to the Wall Street Journal:

I use Basque to laugh at work, to be annoyed, to be friendly, to reach agreements…to communicate with friends and family… to learn and research… to wake up, to sleep and to dream… to play with my children, to be happy, to love, to punish, to debate… to chat up, to make love, to enjoy… and to do anything else that can be done in any other language

If you want to participate in this campaign, please do so and click here. The instructions are easy to follow: name, country, e-mail address and then comes the quoted extract that I have translated from Basque plus two options in which you obviously agree with the message but choose to either send it or not to the American newspaper. As said, I have finally decided not to take part, but, really, nothing prevents you from doing so. After all, this is not about you speaking the language or not. It is rather about yet another nice folksy protest, about performing subaltern outrage, as it were, for the sake of feeling good expressing one’s deep ‘resentment’ against yet another unfair and incorrect treatment of a ‘minority language’. Do not get me wrong! I am also hurt by this lazy journalist writing silly things about my mother tongue, but put yourself in my position and consider that you were ever to face a situation where you had to assert and defend your language in the terms above. Would you really think that what you were saying is believable even to yourself? Then why would you need to assert it in the first place?

Sunday, November 18, 2007: More of the same but at at more sophisticated scale: 180 ‘concerned’ local and global Bascophile signatories including cultural and political celebrities worldwide such as the writer Bernardo Atxaga and Pete Cenarrusa, former Secretary of State from Idaho, demand that the Wall Street Journal rectify the article by Johnson and to publish on their front page a manifesto-like document rich in legal, semantic and historic corrections. I will not expand on it. If someone wants to read the full text (s)he can click here and, again, find the text and the full list of signatories by scrolling down the page.

To conclude: the problem is that if the already alluded to stereographic alliances taking place in this subaltern site may seem bizarre to some, to me, personally, the kind of across the board solidarity taking place around the Basque linguistic issue is far more strange. This is perhaps why my gut-feeling instructs me that I should invite the academics, cultural critics and media professionals with pro-independence and socialist leanings who have signed this bland post-political multiculturalist petition to politely withdraw from it. Far too many dodgy ‘tolerant’, ‘pragmatic’ and ‘pluralist’ characters in the list who only benefit, as we speak, from our permanent state of subordination and with whom we have nothing to share. Not even our concerns about the language that most of us (do or do not) speak!

Ps: I use the notion of “stereographic alliances” in the same way as Kobena Mercer (“Diaspora and Dialogic Imagination”, 1988) states that “there is a kind of stereographic writing … in which ideas and issues from one problematic reverberate with others put forward in seemingly incommensurate contexts”. Now, talking of “incommensurate contexts”, check this (can only be viewed on Internet Explorer. To see the video click here). There you will have the opportunity to see a rather silly mini-video clip I made together with a more serious explanation I give of the “Basque ethnic cow” you also see in this posting. The nicety of it all comes from the fact that the clip is mirrored in a web site dedicated to football, most particularly to the Barcelona FC player of Argentinean origin Leo Messi… Do not ask me how and why but I want to express my gratitude to whoever has taken the time to set it so nice and neat.

2 thoughts on “Language wars: Basque Indians vs Span(gl)ish cowboys

  1. I am intrigued by the idea of language wars conceived within the framework of Natives vs Anglophones, and at the risk of overly particularising the subject of language wars involving Basque, I am reminded of another issue currently trawling the educational system in the Basque Country. I will attempt to be as succinct as possible in describing the issue:

    In Navarre, a province and autonomous community in its own right (distinct from the Basque autonomous community) in the Spanish state that is also a (contested) part of the Basque Country, there were, since the implementation of autonomy in the early 1980s, three linguistic models to choose from for parents wishing to enrol their children in the public educational system: One where classes were predominantly taught in Spanish with Basque offered as a separate subject (model A); another where classes were predominantly taught in Basque with Spanish offered as a separate subject (model D); and, finally, a third model with a wholly Spanish curriculum (that is, where Basque had no presence whatsoever – model G). I should add that the predominantly Basque model was/is more readily available in some areas of Navarre than others.

    In recent years, Navarre has experienced a demographic transformation so that the immigrant population (principally from Latin America, but also from North Africa and Eastern Europe) now forms, I believe, around 10% of the province’s population as a whole, but significantly more according to certain areas. It would appear that these immigrants prefer to send their children to the predominantly Spanish-language model, a tendency with certain ramifications. According to the education minister of the Navarrese provincial government, Carlos Pérez-Nievas (my translation), “as a result of immigration, many parents are taking refuge in the state educational system in model D or in the state-assisted [private] system. Immigrants do not go to the model D, because the language is difficult. And some state schools with models A and G are becoming authentic foreign ghettoes” [interview at:

    In response to this, the provincial government of Navarre—dominated by the right-wing UPN party (a provincial party allied with the Spanish Partido Popular, PP or Popular Party), introduced a new linguistic option: the British (sic) model, ostensibly as a nod to the importance of English as a badge of being “cosmopolitan” or “important.” As a recently introduced option, enrolment for the 2007-08 academic year is still small at 1% of the total (56% – model G; 24% – D; and 19% – A), but clearly it is an option that the governing UPN wished to promote. For example, Mr. Pérez-Nievas’s own children attend the British (sic) model. For Mr. Pérez-Nievas and his wife, “it was clear that English was the best option . . . for me, speaking English has helped a lot and in terms of work has opened many doors.” Quite apart from the wonderfully misnamed title of the new model—to my knowledge at least, in linguistic terms “British” can only refer to the Celtic Brythonic languages spoken in the British isles prior to the Roman invasion, because people with British nationality or citizenship speak, surely, several languages besides English; or maybe Welsh and Urdu will be implemented into the Navarrese curriculum?—I have some other observations that potentially intersect with Imanol’s comments here.

    • Does the creation of the British (sic) educational model in Navarre evince an attempt by the governing UPN party, pursuing a sterographic alliance (?) between promoting Spanish and English to present a supposedly “plural” (cosmopolitan) and “instrumental” (rational) alternative to studying in Basque (non-rational, dangerous, exotic, violent, archaic, exclusive, etc. etc.) or studying in Spanish alone (with conflictive, dangerous, violent immigrants).

    • What scenario might this lead to? In the case of the rising demand for Basque in the state system of the Basque autonomous community (perhaps in part for many of the same reasons as in Navarre – the topic for another discussion), the original WSJ article made much of the fact that teachers were being “forced” to learn the language to meet the demand; and many were ultimately rebelling against this “imposition.” Yet if this is the case, then surely the same will be true in Navarre…that is, what will happen if teachers there are increasingly forced to learn English to a certain level that will enable them to teach in the language? Surely, they will have to protest at this “imposition” in the same way that they protest against Basque? English may be promoted as plural and cosmopolitan and important, but if these teachers are expected to learn it to a certain level, I can only see a similar kind of resistance that the WSJ journal describes to Basque. So, at root, language isn’t the issue, surely? It’s not about whether Basque is “difficult” or “useless” or even “wonderful” and “dreamlike,” it’s about something else.

  2. Cameron! Long time no see! I am so glad to hear from you! At the time I was not aware of what Kishora Budha and Tobi Miller tell us about the American (Yanqui) academia (, and most particularly in my own case about ‘ghostwriting’ (I wish I had someone writing for me in good, proper academic English) but you cannot imagine how much I still miss our conversations in the University of Reno, Nevada. Also: have you checked the explanations I give to the ‘Ethnic cow’ mini-clip? There I include a very interesting quote from your doctoral dissertation.
    As to your comments I appreciate the information you give us on the linguistic paradoxes taking place in that corner of the world where certainly, the ‘stereographic alliances’ you mention are of the dominant rather than subaltern kind. Still, the very fact that I have lost touch with the (definitely intricate) ins and outs of linguistic policy making around the Basque language issue etc does allow me nevertheless to operate a short-circuit that may be of some interest to the overall debate. I say of interest because there is also a twist that brings Basque together, here in Britain where I live, with the ‘British language’ you speak of. In fact, the whole issue refers to the kind of newly found urge to reassert something such as Britishness and British national identity, to the ways, in other words, in which over the past few years a new sense of patriotic pride is being promoted mostly by the Labour Party in its increasing descent, or to be more precise, regression into worrying forms of ugly nationalism.
    To substantiate this claim to my mind comes, for instance, David Blunkett’s (in)famous “Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill “some years ago; – including the Britishnness test in which the learning of such an ‘endangered’ language as English becomes key to ‘integration’. What do we have here? Is it the strange paradox that (unlike declining French, say, or German) the most prestigious and widely (in global terms) spoken, written, listen to and read language which millions of parents across Europe and beyond are willingly spending millions of euros for their children to learn, was imposed, as some may recall, on to a relatively tiny little group of poor Asian households for the sake of ‘re-skilling’ some Urdu speaking monolingual grandparents?
    It is also in this respect that when dealing with the specific British approach to national identity and the new forms of cultural / linguistic protectionism that are being put in place of late, Gordon Brown’s first public address as Prime Minister in waiting became to me symptomatically relevant and revealing. Certainly, what Gordon Brown did in the keynote speech delivered in the famous Fabian (Society’s) Future of Britishness Conference (14 January 2006) was quite remarkably simple. It was to lay the foundations of the now finally achieved career move by subtly trading on his managerial reputation as the most successful chief exec of the State to date (sound / tight fiscal policy, stability v boom and bust economy, compatibility of growth and social justice…). Yet Gordon Brown’s concrete reference to language is not only and again delivered with an explicit purpose: “to help integration”– for which “we should look at expanding mandatory English training”. By the same token, this (constraining) reference to language also constitutes a supplement to another constitutive buttress (i.e.: history) sustaining the whole ideological edifice of British national unity. As Gordon Brown put it in the speech: “We should not recoil from our national history – rather we should make it more central to our education. I propose that British history should be given much more prominence in the curriculum – not just dates, places and names, nor just a set of unconnected facts, but a narrative that encompasses our history [and teaches] what has emerged from the long tidal flows of British history – from the 2,000 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships; from the uniquely rich, open and outward looking culture…”
    …And as I mentioned earlier, this is where, we, silly Basque cows enter the arena as raging bulls! (or rhinos mind you) because come to this point I could not possibly continue without inserting a highly scholarly bibliographic reference in which it is systematically established that the roots of British identity lie over not 2000 but 6000 years ago. Certainly, Gordon Brown’s ignorance on the matter was exonerated at the time on the grounds of the publication of these findings being posterior to the Fabian speech. However, the ‘dramatic’ scientific findings that Oxford University professor Stephen Oppenheimer breaks in “The Origins of the British – A Genetic Detective Story” (London: Constable 2006) could be potentially, in practical- terms, less trivial than they would appear. In fact, what Oppenheimer suggests by way of establishing a synthesis of new genetic evidence with the more conventional fields of linguistics, archeology and history is that the origins of the British people are not to be found in the ‘Anglo-Saxon invasion’, as conventionally fictionalised, one would add, in history books, films, children literature etc. but, here comes the scoop, the origins of the British people lie instead with the Basques.
    Although it is understandable that Gordon Brown is more interested in detective stories whereby genetic research and findings are rather directed to catching Muslim villains and storing huge computerised databases, the very apparently undisputed fact that, paraphrasing the book cover overlap, “gene lines prove once and for all the continued existence of a discrete British Atlantic coast-based population that first spread north not from Iron Age Europe but the Basque country at the end of the last Ice Age”, could also prove the source of some unexpected consequences. Would it not be possible, for instance, that the next generation of post-cultural studies speech-writers and cultural advisors to Labour would consider the idea of recommending Basque, (non-compulsive but voluntary) lessons to be added to the curriculum? On the account of a renewed popular interest on family trees and search of origins that the numerous television programmes available at the moment suggest, it is certainly far from a misguided conjecture that at least some sections of the ‘indigenous’ population of Britain would willingly give themselves to learn the language of their ‘authentic’ ancestors. This, in turn, would greatly assist not only to spreading the highly commendable gospel of global, transnational interculturalism but also to defusing one of the main points of contention, language, that, as we can see, still fuels local ‘petty-nationalist passions’ in that particular corner of Europe..
    On a more serious note: of course the issue is not cultural but political and so again the legendary utilitarian pragmatism of the British establishment could be instrumental in promoting a meaningful peace process in the region. But as we also know there are much more important things going on in the world.

Leave a Reply