The Stone-age Roots of the Basque Language.
Many linguists agree that the Basque language is the oldest in Europe and that its origins clearly date back to the Neolithic period. However, certain sources seem to indicate that their roots go even further back in time. An example that seems to support this hypothesis is the interesting collection of Basque words used to describe prehistoric work tools.
The building blocks of the Basque Language
Stone – ‘haitz’
In Basque, the word ‘haitz’ means stone and this word can be traced as the root of many words for work tools such as aizkora (axe), aizto (knife), aitzurra (hoe) and zulakaitz (chisel). Although the material to make these tools has changed over time, the names have not revealing, etymologically, a direct reference to their stone-age origins.
Water – ‘ura’
Another Basque word with ancient roots is the word ‘ura’. Today ‘ura’ means water but in the past it seems also to have meant ‘living matter’ as well. From the word ‘ura’ we have lur (earth), elur (snow), zur (wood), egurra (fire wood), haur (child), hezur (bone) and euri (rain).
Energy or light – ‘iz’
From the Basque word ‘iz’, which denotes the concept of energy or light, we get the words izar (star), izan (to be), izadi (nature), izaki (living being), izaera (personality or way of being), izorra (pregnant) and izotz (ice or cold energy). The use of such Basque vocabulary as the building blocks for other objects or concepts has led scientists to believe that a form of Basque was spoken by the inhabitants of the caves in Altamira, Ekain or Lascaux about 15 000 years ago. In the words of the famous Spanish Anthropologist, Julio Caro Baroja:
‘The origin of these people is that of their language which many believe goes back as far as Cro-Magnon man’. This idea is also supported by Professor Luigi Luca Cavalli Sforza of Stanford University.
The Origins of the word Iberia – is it also Basque?
If modern day Basque appears to date back to the pre-historic language spoken in south western France and the north of the Iberian Peninsula, a question that naturally follows, is where exactly does the name ‘Iberia’ derive from? Is it also of Basque origin?
It seems that the word Iberia derives its name from the Ebro ( the second largest river in Spain). Is it just a coincidence that the word in Basque for river is ‘ibai’ – or that the word for fertile lowlands or flood plains is ‘ibar’? Throughout Europe we find a surprising number of river names which show a possible Basque origin too:
River – ‘ibai’ and flood plains – ‘ibar’
In Serbia and Montenegro we have the river Iban, in Hessen the river Ibra, in the south of Germany we have the rivers Ebrach and Eberbacha, in the Alps the river Ebersberg, and in Austria there is both a town and river called the Ybbs. In France we have the rivers Iverny, Ivergny, Yvre l’Évéque, Ebreon, Evrune, Ebersheim and Yvry-en-montagne. In the Basque Country (apart from the Ebro running through the south of Navarre) we have Ibarra, Ibarrola, Ibarrekolanda, Ibardin and Aranibar.
Valley – ‘haran’
Taking the Basque word ‘haran’ which means valley, we find Arundel in England, Arendal in Norway and Sweden. In Germany we find Arnach, Arnsberg, Arnstern and Ahrensburg. We also have the Valle de Aran in the province of Lleida in northern Spain. These similarities, which have been collected by the linguist, Theo Venneman from the University Ludwig-Maximillian, seems to suggest that the Basque language is the oldest language in Europe …that it was here when all other languages arrived.
The Basque Language – A heritage to be proud of
Although none of this research is all-conclusive I share Juan Goni’s feelings that we have a living treasure here in Navarra and the Basque Country, namely, the Basque language. Unfortunately, it has far too often become entangled with political tensions and cultural divides. We should put these differences aside and protect and nurture this jewel of our inheritance – we may all have much more in common than we think!
This article is based on an article written by Juan Goñi, fellow guide and lover of the breathtakingly beautiful Basque valleys of northern Navarra. His website is full of fascinating and well-documented information about the culture and nature of these parts and well worth visiting. He also runs inspiring tours in Bertiz Natural Park