Euskara, the Basque language, became universally known with its printed word in 1545, quite late in relation to the two powerful neighboring languages, Spanish and French. It was printed in the French city of Bordeaux, under the request of Bernat Etxepare, a priest with an enigmatic biography, born in a small town which, at the time of his birth was part of the Kingdom of Navarre, and he himself witnessed his natal town become a part of France.
Unlike his contemporaries, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Francis Xavier, universal Basques by definition, Etxepare did not reach such heights. Nor did he have a particularly brilliant ecclesiastical career from what we know, but he had vision, and turned it into his mission: as he made it clear in his best-known poem, he wanted to bring to light, and to inform the world about a language that was not considered worthy of being printed, and much less, compete with widely respected Latin and the Romance languages derived from it.
He couldn’t be a better suited inspiration for the Etxepare Basque Institute, created by the Basque Government to promote the Basque language and culture. A discrete entity in terms of means but ambitious in its objectives which in just five years has positioned Basque at 38 universities on four continents and has, in addition to an extensive network of language assistantships, five chairs in various other prestigious American and European universities. Five chairs that bear the names of several other icons of Basque culture: Bernardo Atxaga (City University of New York); Jon Bilbao (University of Nevada-Reno); Manuel de Irujo (University of Liverpool), Koldo Mitxelena (University of Chicago) and Eduardo Chillida (Goethe University Frankfurt), with a sixth chair currently in the creation stage, the Eloise Garmendia Bieter chair (Boise State University).
With its general Director, Aizpea Goenaga and its Director for the promotion and dissemination of Basque, Mari Jose Olaziregi, Etxepare Institute’s challenge is quite similar to that assumed and anticipated by its inspirer. It is, basically adapting the phrase that Etxepare formulated in the 16th century ‘Euskara, jaldi hadi mundura.’ (Basque, Go forth into the world) to the 21st century.
Certainly the 21st century is suitable for the Basque language and culture because after having emerged from the darkness of the Franco dictatorship in the last decades of the 20th century, with social and creative momentum, has adapted very well to the new reality. The fact that a language with a very small community of speakers (not reaching 800,000 proficient speakers including all Basque territories of the French and Spanish states) being in the top 50 of the most used on the Internet gives the measurement strength for the Basque language, which, however, remains a minority in its own territory and still requires a great deal of promotion and support.
This apparent paradox is present in the question which Aizpea Goenaga frequently has to answer: In a world so globalized and increasingly more uniform in linguistic and cultural aspects, why are you interested in an ancient language that is unlike any other which only a few hundred thousand people speak in a pocket on the Atlantic? Why does this culture have the power to attract and seduce people?
Aizpea Goenaga shines light on the implicit paradox in the question: “To a great extent, it is precisely this which draws such interest, because in an environment increasingly more homogeneous and uniform we come to appreciate all the more, things that are genuine, different, and unique.” And the Basque language is definitely that. However, that curiosity is a driver and incentive at first, but it fades quickly if you do not back it with content and creators who maintain interest and enhance it.” In that sense, “We are at a time of great vitality, with people desiring to get moving and with admirable energy, along with high quality cultural production, both in regards to creators and cultural industries. The reason we are interested is, above all, because of the quality of the proposals of our creators,” Goenaga explains.
Therefore “It’s not about promoting something abstract, but working with and for cultural industries and creators,” whose main objective is “to create foundations, exchanges, and to support and create relationships, always with local agents, to achieve networks and alliances that can serve creators and cultural industries.” Creators and industries, Aizpea Goenaga explains, which in many cases already had a significant international presence, so consequently support for the Etxepare Basque Institute has been perceived more in the sense of a promotor and not protagonist, but rather facilitator, promoting all the cultural talent that has become so rich in the Basque territory. Given that in this bilingual community talent emerges both in Basque and Spanish, both languages are given similar consideration, although Aizpea Goenaga admits that, “Through the Spanish Cervantes Institute, with which we collaborate closely, and through other platforms, production in Spanish has many other channels for going abroad, often more powerful than what we can offer.”
The resources of the Etxepare Basque Institute, especially if compared to those of the large cultural institutes of the European Union Countries that the Etxepare Institute joined this past January, are very limited, but it is more difficult to establish limits to the imagination of those who, day by day, have positioned the Basque language and culture in all the areas that can become a springboard for its real reason for being: creators and Basque cultural industries. To do this, always in cooperation with the sector, the effort is focused on exposing the language and culture, both through aid and its own initiatives, at fairs, festivals, institutions and meetings that contribute to both the quality and capacity for growth. This doesn’t just happen automatically because, “Although it is more frequent to come look for us, we must make a great effort to be out there where we want to be. It means moving around a lot.”
It is not easy to establish where the boundaries are for one of the Institute’s major allies, the Basque diaspora. “Three diasporas” which Aizpea Goenaga refers to as, “The classical diaspora, especially in the Americas. The new diaspora of Basque youth who have left to work and study abroad and are practically all over the world; and a third circle of Basques of second or third generation who, despite not having a direct link with the dynamics of the Basque clubs (Basque Centers), often occupy strategic positions and are a great ally. Ultimately, this whole network is very powerful and has huge potential and even though our activities are not specifically directed at it but rather to the general public, it represents extraordinary support,” says the General Director of the Etxepare Basque Institute.
But the enthusiasm is kept in check with prudence, and both Mari Jose Olaziregi and Aizpea Goenaga are more supporters of controlled growth than explosive expansion. Olaziregi, in particular, has spent years carefully weaving the web of alliances which is placing Basque, a language which has always aroused the interest of linguists and philologists because of its peculiarities, in some of the most prestigious universities in the world.
The network of language assistantships which the Etxepare Basque Institute inherited when it was founded has continued to grow, and would grow much faster if it responded affirmatively to all requests but, as Olaziregi highlights, “It is something that should be planned with great care, looking for the appropriate departments and universities, balancing the map, training assistants well, etc. We could have many more language assistantships, but it is not just about being anywhere, but rather to be at the strategic places where we want to be, and to be where our hosts really want our presence.” This is how they have achieved what very few languages with the dimensions of Basque have achieved, and this is how they imagine the future to be. With humility and enthusiasm. Like Etxepare, the small-town priest who became a part of history, betting on a language of humble people, which today is a language perfectly adapted to meet the most demanding challenges.