The Mirror of the Basque Language

Since 1991, the Sociolinguistic Survey shows that the social evolution of the Basque language is unalike in the different territories.

by Nerea Azurmendi

The social evolution of the Basque language in recent decades does not fit into a single explanation. Despite being a single language spoken in several territories, the changes cannot be expressed in a common headline that is valid for the autonomous community of the Basque Country, the Foral community of Navarre or the Basque speaking areas of the French side, the Northern Basque Country, which has already taken the first steps toward institutional identity and its own judicial government.

Just because the Basque Country (Euskal Herria “the country of the Basque language”) is nestled into two different countries and managed by multiple governments, it does not mean that there haven´t been common areas of work related to the language and culture which have reached a considerable degree of collaboration. On the one hand, the social and cultural dynamics in favor of the Basque language do not look at borders, although its reality and its capacity for action is not the same in all the territories. But, on the other hand, the fact that these administrations are subject to their own legal frameworks and jurisdiction has placed conditions on the scope of governmental collaboration. In any case, it can be said that in recent years this collaboration is becoming more intense than ever.

basque school

School is an essential pillar for the recovery of the language. El Diario Vasco

One of the clearest examples of cooperation on this matter is the Sociolinguistic Survey, the mirror through which, since 1991, the Basque language is analyzed every five years. Based on thousands of surveys of people over 16, the image that is reflected invariably refers to three different sociolinguistic realities that require a triple headline: the Basque language is expanding in the autonomous community of the Basque Country, although it remains vulnerable; it remains stable with a rising tendency in Navarre and, despite encouraging signs, it continues to decline in Iparralde, the Northern Basque Country.

This way, the Survey offers the population, the social movements and public governing bodies valuable information for understanding the current reality as if it were a ‘blueprint’, as well as the social evolution of the language in an intergenerational and broader temporal perspective. As a side effect it shows that in order to design, develop and evaluate public policy, including linguistics, it is essential to have detailed and truthful information, and the same information is a reminder that different policies provide different results.

Fully Shared Survey

The Sociolinguistic Survey, which in 2016 reached its sixth edition, is currently an effort shared by the Basque Government through the Department of Language Policy; by the Foral Government of Navarre, through the Navarre Institute of the Basque language ‘Euskarabidea’, and by France, through ‘Euskararen Erakunde Publikoa,’ the governmental Office for the Basque Language, a governmental entity created by five different governments that represent almost the whole institutional network of France, which began operating in 2006.

In 25 years of collaboration, the promoters of the Study have been changing. The Northern Basque Country, for example, lacked an institutional partner until the establishment of the Office for the Basque Language, and for several years the Foral Government of Navarre left the project, carrying out their own studies. However, with the leadership of the Autonomous Basque Government, the participation of local partners and technical precision that has not been affected by the political ups and downs, the Sociolinguistic Survey has always been carried out.

basque language

‘If you’d like, speak with me in Basque’ – campaign to promote the Basque language in the relationship between citizens and government. El Diario Vasco

In the Sixth Edition, we can finally say that the Survey has been launched, performed and funded for the first time jointly by the public institutions of the three territories from the outset. “The Basque language is heritage of these three territories, and we work united precisely because we are convinced that the revitalization and promotion of the Basque language is a task that applies to citizens and their public powers, certainly respecting the features and individual skills of each,” said representatives of the three territories in the presentation of the part of the Survey corresponding to the Basque Autonomous Community, the first to be released.

Because, although the goal and methodology are the same, each territory has its own agenda. This is how the 6th Sociolinguistic Survey corresponding to the autonomous community of the Basque Country was presented in October 2016; the presentation of the results collected in Navarre were published in January of 2017, and the last coming in will be those from the Northern Basque Country, whose future release will give us a full picture of the situation of the Basque language in all the territories, along with the changes it may have experienced in recent years. In fact, the Northern Basque Region seems to be particularly anxious for the results, since this 6th Survey could confirm some positive signs that were pointed out in the 5th or convert them into merely a mirage.

What is measured and how is it done?

The Sociolinguistic Survey is not the only tool used to understand the knowledge of Basque social reality, although by its scope and its common nature to all territories it has special importance. At the institutional level (academic entities and universities, and social entities have also made important contributions in this field) we can say that extra-linguistic research on one sufficient scale as to be representative of the whole of society started in the autonomous community of the Basque Country with the publication of: “Socio-linguistic map. Demo-linguistic analysis of the autonomous community of the Basque Country.” This was published in 1989 by the General Secretariat of Linguistic Policy of the Basque Government, based on data from the Inhabitants Registry of 1986, which was the first to include questions about the knowledge of the Basque language.

Also in Navarre, the census of 1986 (precisely, the year the Foral law passed on Basque language, and three years after the Basque Autonomous Community passed its law of normalization for the use of Basque) was the basis of the first Sociolinguistic Study. In later years, both in the autonomous community of the Basque Country and Navarre, information drawn from censuses on the Basque language has continued to be used on maps, and in other tools.

Linguistic censuses, and the results derived from them, have the advantage of the extent of the survey, since data is collected from of all inhabitants over five years of age. Although in recent editions, the set of questions has been expanded considerably to extract the maximum information from a statistical operation as broad as the Census of Population and Housing, the questions related to the Basque language are still very basic. Until 1991, it was limited to asking for knowledge of the Basque language, offering three options in the four basic areas of knowledge and whether it is the mother tongue (the language used up to three years of age), and at this time, a question was added concerning the language uses in the home. Some clear quantitative lines can be drawn from the census, which, thanks to the nature of this operation can be dissected down to exhaustion, explained with complete precision and analyzed from a historical perspective. And it reflects the linguistic reality of a group whose members are not yet 16 years of age, so they do not have a voice in the survey, but it is the authentic future of the Basque language, because currently in the autonomous community of the Basque Country 81% of the population of minors under 16, around 240,000 individuals, are Basque speakers, a proportion well above the average.


Well-attended events in favor of the Basque language are important for bringing awareness to society. El Diario Vasco

The Sociolinguistic Survey is very different, while the results of both operations and of other studies complement and enrich each other mutually. The Survey has the same five-year period of censuses and registers, but in this case, the extent is determined by the questionnaire and not by potential population, and is comprised of 31 questions which are asked by telephone to respondents always older than 16 years of age. With some linguistic adaptation, the questionnaire is the same for the three territories. The questions make reference to the four major areas of focus of the survey with a considerable degree of detail: linguistic competence in Basque; its transmission in the family; the use in both formal and informal areas and attitude toward the promotion of the Basque language.

In addition, the Survey is available to society earlier. The 1st Sociolinguistic Survey of the Basque Country was carried out in 1991, but its results were not available until 1995, when it was published in ‘Euskararen Jarraipena’ (The Continuity of the Basque language). Since then, the time between fieldwork and the submission of the results has been progressively shortened. In this latest edition, in the Basque Country the fieldwork carried out by Siadeco took place between April and May, and the results were known by October.

On the other hand, the 6th Edition, for which we only know partial results, encompasses the greatest amount of surveys than any which have been carried out in the last 25 years. As demographic changes have not been substantial, it is still taking into account one group consisting of 2,650,000 people of over 16 years of age, among which 8,200 surveys were carried out, 300 more than in the previous edition: 4,200 were done in the Basque Autonomous Community, 2,000 in the Northern Basque Region and the other 2,000 in Navarre, which is where the number of surveys has increased.

In terms of overall results, the autonomous community of the Basque Country shows confirmed trends, but they have also provided a significant new aspect. According to expectations, the number of Basque speakers is showing a steady increase. Thus, 34% of the population over 16 years of age in the Basque Autonomous Community is Basque speaking, almost 10 points more than in 1991. This means that, without taking into account children under 16 years of age, Basque has gained more than 180,000 young speakers in a quarter century, the vast majority (between 16 and 24 years of age, 71% are bilingual). The use of the Basque language has also increased about 8 points, and in this latest survey, it has been confirmed that, for the first time, although only slightly, there are increases with the use of Basque in the home, which demonstrates significant changes in the use of the Basque language in relation to new generations who have acquired it mostly in school and as a second language. Young people who, at least in the case of the Basque Autonomous Community, are showing very profound changes in the profile of the Basque speaker.

Durangoko azoka

Literary production in the Basque language is an indispensable engine for the normalization of the language. El Diario Vasco

The results for Navarre, presented in January 2017, have also confirmed some positive trends with respect to previous editions of the Survey. If 25 years ago, only one of every seven people was able to speak or understand the Basque language, now, 23% of citizens manage to do it (13% speak it, and 10% more understand it). Similarly, in addition to the increase of knowledge there has been a rise in its use and in family language transmission. In a very similar way to the Basque Autonomous Community, this positive data is largely thanks to the young population. As expected, the differences in knowledge and use of the Basque language between the Basque speaking area of the North of Navarre, the mixed area of the Center and the non Basque speaking area of the South are immense. Adversely, the habitants of the last area have developed a negative attitude toward the Basque language, resulting largely from the political controversy that had been generated in the territory at the time of the Survey, May 2016.

As we have said, a public presentation of data from the Northern Basque Region still has not taken place, and there is much anticipation to see these results, because these are provinces where alarms have been sounding for some time. Basque Tribune readers will be informed once these results of the 6th Sociolinguistic Survey are released.

About the Author

Nerea Azurmendi
Nerea Azurmendi is a journalist

1 Comment on "The Mirror of the Basque Language"

  1. Jerry D. Smith | February 11, 2017 at 17:40 | Reply

    My grandfather came from the Spanish Basque side and I’ve been around the Basque’s all my life but was never given an opportunity to learn their language! It would be a real honor to learn so one could actually talk to their relatives in their homeland language or even have a English to Basque word book so one could try speaking their Basque language!

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