Euskaltzaindia, an Academy Turning One Hundred Years Old

By Juan Luis Zabala

After multiple celebrations lasting more than a year, on October 5th Euskaltzaindia, The Royal Academy of the Basque Language, culminated the events of its centenary in San Sebastian, at the headquarters of the provincial government. It was recalled there that on October 7th of 1919, the first twelve members met there and the Academy acquired a life of its own, moving on from being a part of Eusko Ikaskuntza.

Some of the pioneers at a 1908 meeting. Euskaltzaindia
Some of the pioneers at a 1908 meeting. Euskaltzaindia

The idea of creating a Basque language academy had seen previous attempts. As of 1832, the writer José Pablo Ulibarri wrote about the need to create such an institution. Subsequently, renown people like José Francisco Aizkibel, Anton Abadia, Jean Duvoisin, Pablo Ilarregi, José Manterola, Aristides Artiñano and Cosme Txurruka continued with the same drive. In 1897 Resurrección María de Azkue published in the Euskalduna magazine the basis of what should be an academy. Azkue was a young priest who nine years earlier, in 1888, had obtained the first Chair of Basque Language in Bilbao, beating Sabino Arana Goiri and Miguel Unamuno, people who would later acquire great prominence in other fields.

For the next few years Azkue persisted with the idea, but did not succeed until 1919, that is, until Basque nationalists managed to win the government of the province of Bizkaia. While Ramón de la Sota Aburto was president of the Provincial Council (government), three nationalist deputies presented the proposal to create an academy of the Basque language. This happened on January 12, 1918 and the drivers of the proposal were Felix Landaburu, Cosme Elgezabal and Ramón María Rotaetxe. After the proposal was accepted, it also received support from the rest of the provincial governments of the Basque Country. Thus, at the founding congress of Eusko Ikaskuntza in Oñati, it was decided, on September 5th of 1918 to launch the creation of the academy with two sections within it: Iker Saila, dedicated to the research of the Basque language in all areas of linguistics; and Jagon Saila, in charge of the protection and promotion of language in all social fields (publications, teaching, translations…) At the first official meeting held on October 7, 1919, in San Sebastian, Resurrección María de Azkue was appointed President, Joxe Agerre, Treasurer, Julio Urkixo, Librarian and Luis Eleizalde, Secretary. It was also decided to establish the headquarters in Bilbao

The historical 1968 meeting in Arantzazu
The historical 1968 meeting in Arantzazu. Euskaltzaindia

The Unification of the Language as an Initial Objective

One of the main objectives of this new academy led by Azkue was to achieve the unification of the language, to achieve a model as unified as possible so that it could be used by all Basque speakers for reading and writing. That is what point six of Euskaltzaindia’s first statutes set out to do. It was intended to make the leap from the spoken use of the language to its cultured use, in such a way that it would be useful for literature and teaching, but also for culture and science. But academics found it very difficult to fulfill that wish. On the one hand, it encountered the opposition of many Basque speakers, especially the purist followers of Sabino Arana, founder of Basque nationalism. Leading all of them was Ebaristo Bustintza, nicknamed Kirikiño, a writer with many followers. On the other hand, the fact that the nationalists lost the government of Bizkaia to the Spanish Monarchist League caused a great reduction in economic aid. Therefore, the Academy was forced to focus on other issues, one in particular was a survey called Erizkizundi Irukoitza and the creation of projects related to linguistics.

Economic aid was even further reduced when, in 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera established a dictatorship in Spain. Subsequently, the situation in the Second Spanish Republic did not improve from 1931 onward and the Spanish Civil War of 1936 brought with it the total closure of all activity.

During that war, some of the members had to go into exile and those who stayed in the Basque Country did not have the opportunity to work together. However, Azkue managed to keep the academy alive, working on his trilingual dictionary with the invaluable help of Nazario Oleaga. Finally, in 1941 they were able to hold the first post Spanish Civil War meeting. From then on, members gradually began to meet and work together, always under the presidency of Azkue. Under Franco’s harsh dictatorship, Euskaltzaindia’s work was very limited and strictly guarded.

In 1949 the young academic Federico Krutwig presented a proposal to revitalize the academy and some essential points of such a proposal were approved. The same year, representatives of the Northern Basque Country joined, as they had been before the war. This way they broke a tacit ban on Franco’s dictatorship.

During the following years, the Academy received two large blows. In 1951 President Azkue died and in 1952, Krutwig fled into exile as a result of a statement made against the Catholic Church. That same year Inazio María Etxaide was named president. As the stance of Francoism was very clearly against the Basque language, the Academy could not make great strides during those years, but from 1954 it began to publish the journal Euskera again and in 1959 an important document was published about vocabulary loaned to Basque from other languages. Etxaide died in 1962 and the following year was replaced by José María Lojendio. Lojendio, like Etxaide, had to lead the Academy under the threat of Francoism, with his hands tied. He left the presidency in December 1963, although he continued to collaborate with the Academy.

Azkue, Villasante and Mitxelena, three of the protagonists of the history of the Academy. Euskaltzaindia

The Path of Unification: Bayonne-Ermua-Arantzazu-Bergara

In 1963, in the Basque territory under French rule, trying to bring about what could not be done in the Basque territory under Spanish rule, a group of Basque language lovers from both sides of the border began a new pathway in Bayonne. Led and driven by the corresponding member of Euskaltzaindia José Luis Álvarez Enparantza, Txillardegi, the group named Euskal Idazkaritza began to meet to make decisions about the unification of the language. These decisions were presented in August of 1964 at the municipality of Bayonne and sent to the Academy for analysis. A commission of Euskaltzaindia which among others, Koldo Mitxelena and Luis Villasante were a part of, analyzed and approved them.

In 1966, Manuel Lekuona was elected president. By then the new generations of writers were already calling for unification. In the words of Txillardegi, they requested that members be more concerned with the vitality of Basque than its peculiarity. The meetings held by these Basque writers in Ermua in 1968, organized by the Gerediaga cultural association, were a reflection of the atmosphere of those times.

Finally, in 1968, at a historic meeting held in Arantzazu (Oñati), the Academy approved the document prepared by Koldo Mitxelena, which was largely based on what was approved four years earlier in Bayonne by Eusko Idazkaritza. Thus, the Academy set a period of ten years to assess the acceptance of the decision in favor of unification.

Discussions were very intense both at the Arantzazu meeting and in the years following. The decisions were far from everyone’s liking. The most conservative linguists and writers were opposed to unification and were especially opposed to the use of the letter H. But, as Koldo Mitxelena said, the acceptance of the younger ones gave the cause of unification the “biological reason.” This is why Euskaltzandia, at its 1978 Bergara meeting, ratified what had been decided a decade earlier in Arantzazu.

By then, since 1970, President Luis Villasante was one of the main advocates and theorists of Euskara Batua (unified Basque). Despite his illness, Jean Haritxelhar took over.

Celebration of the centenary in Arantzazu. Euskaltzaindia

An Ever-Growing Acceptance

Over the past four decades, from 1978 to the present day, the standardization of Basque has been widely accepted and used on a regular basis in literature and teaching, as well as in all fields of science and culture. In addition to working more and more in its two sections, the Academy has also had increasing governmental recognition, not only in the governing bodies of the Basque Country, but also in those of Spain and France.

Since 2005, when Andrés Urrutia replaced Jean Haritxelhar in the presidency, the Academy has sought more effective working methods and a greater connection with society, but without forgetting its academic and scientific work. It has also attached great importance to the provision of direct services to citizens about the language, promoting the use of new technologies. The Euskaltzaindia website and the How-to Manual on unified Basque are evidence of this.

“We must work with the social agents of the Basque Country as openly as possible, as we have done in the centenary celebrations,” President Urrutia said at the 100th anniversary finale. He further recalled that this centenary served the Academy to “reaffirm its commitment to the Basque language, Basque culture and Basque society as a whole.” He ended it encouraging society “to move forward with renewed hope for the Basque language in this tumultuous but promising 21st century.”

About the Author

Juan Luis Zabala
Juan Luis Zabala is a writer, journalist and translator. For many years he was Editor of the Culture Section of the newspapers Euskaldunon Egunkaria and Berria. E-Mail | Blog | @JuanLuisZabala

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