The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 37

Euscarra — Basque not Irish — Sanskrit and Tartar Dialects — A Vowel Language — Popular Poetry — The Basques — Their Persons — Basque Women.

I now entered upon the year 1838, perhaps the most eventful of all those which I passed in Spain. The despacho still continued open, with a somewhat increasing sale. Having at this time little of particular moment with which to occupy myself, I committed to the press two works, which for some time past had been in the course of preparation. These were the Gospel of St. Luke in the Spanish Gypsy and the Euscarra languages.

With respect to the Gypsy Gospel I have little to say, having already spoken of it in a former work (The Zincali): it was translated by myself, together with the greater part of the New Testament, during my long intercourse with the Spanish Gypsies. Concerning the Luke in Euscarra, however, it will be as well to be more particular, and to avail myself of the present opportunity to say a few words concerning the language in which it was written, and the people for whom it was intended.

The Euscarra, then, is the proper term for a certain speech or language, supposed to have been at one time prevalent throughout Spain, but which is at present confined to certain districts, both on the French and Spanish side of the Pyrenees, which are laved by the waters of the Cantabrian Gulf or Bay of Biscay. This language is commonly known as the Basque or Biscayan, which words are mere modifications of the word Euscarra, the consonant B having been prefixed for the sake of euphony. Much that is vague, erroneous, and hypothetical, has been said and written concerning this tongue. The Basques assert that it was not only the original language of Spain, but also of the world, and that from it all other languages are derived; but the Basques are a very ignorant people, and know nothing of the philosophy of language. Very little importance, therefore, need be attached to any opinion of theirs on such a subject. A few amongst them, however, who affect some degree of learning, contend, that it is neither more nor less than a dialect of the Phoenician, and, that the Basques are the descendants of a Phoenician colony, established at the foot of the Pyrenees at a very remote period. Of this theory, or rather conjecture, as it is unsubstantiated by the slightest proof, it is needless to take further notice than to observe that, provided the Phoenician language, as many of the TRULY LEARNED have supposed and almost proved, was a dialect of the Hebrew, or closely allied to it, it were as unreasonable to suppose that the Basque is derived from it, as that the Kamschatdale and Cherokee are dialects of the Greek or Latin.

There is, however, another opinion with respect to the Basque which deserves more especial notice, from the circumstance of its being extensively entertained amongst the literati of various countries of Europe, more especially England. I allude to the Celtic origin of this tongue, and its close connexion with the most cultivated of all the Celtic dialects, the Irish. People who pretend to be well conversant with the subject, have even gone so far as to assert, that so little difference exists between the Basque and Irish tongues, that individuals of the two nations, when they meet together, find no difficulty in understanding each other, with no other means of communication than their respective languages; in a word, that there is scarcely a greater difference between the two than between the French and the Spanish Basque. Such similarity, however, though so strongly insisted upon, by no means exists in fact, and perhaps in the whole of Europe it would be difficult to discover two languages which exhibit fewer points of mutual resemblance than the Basque and Irish.

The Irish, like most other European languages, is a dialect of the Sanskrit, a REMOTE one, as may well be supposed. The corner of the western world in which it is still preserved being, of all countries in Europe, the most distant from the proper home of the parent tongue. It is still, however, a dialect of that venerable and most original speech, not so closely resembling it, it is true, as the English, Danish, and those which belong to what is called the Gothic family, and far less than those of the Sclavonian; for, the nearer we approach to the East, in equal degree the assimilation of languages to this parent stock becomes more clear and distinct; but still a dialect, agreeing with the Sanskrit in structure, in the arrangement of words, and in many instances in the words themselves, which, however modified, may still be recognized as Sanskrit. But what is the Basque, and to what family does it properly pertain?

To two great Asiatic languages, all the dialects spoken at present in Europe may be traced. These two, if not now spoken, still exist in books, and are, moreover, the languages of two of the principal religions of the East. I allude to the Tibetian and Sanskrit — the sacred languages of the followers of Buddh and Bramah. These tongues, though they possess many words in common, which is easily to be accounted for by their close proximity, are properly distinct, being widely different in structure. In what this difference consists, I have neither time nor inclination to state; suffice it to say that the Celtic, Gothic, and Sclavonian dialects in Europe belong to the Sanskrit family, even as in the East the Persian, and to a less degree the Arabic, Hebrew, etc.; whilst to the Tibetian or Tartar family in Asia pertain the Mandchou and Mongolian, the Calmuc and the Turkish of the Caspian Sea; and in Europe, the Hungarian and the Basque PARTIALLY.

Indeed this latter language is a strange anomaly, so that upon the whole it is less difficult to say what it is not, than what it is. It abounds with Sanskrit words to such a degree that its surface seems strewn with them. Yet would it be wrong to term it a Sanskrit dialect, for in the collocation of these words the Tartar form is most decidedly observable. A considerable proportion of Tartar words is likewise to be found in this language, though perhaps not in equal number to the terms derived from the Sanskrit. Of these Tartar etymons I shall at present content myself with citing one, though, if necessary, it were easy to adduce hundreds. This word is Jauna, or as it is pronounced, Khauna, a word in constant use amongst the Basques, and which is the Khan of the Mongols and Mandchous, and of the same signification — Lord.

Having closely examined the subject in all its various bearings, and having weighed what is to be said on one side against what is to be advanced on the other, I am inclined to rank the Basque rather amongst the Tartar than the Sanskrit dialects. Whoever should have an opportunity of comparing the enunciation of the Basques and Tartars would, from that alone, even if he understood them not, come to the conclusion that their respective languages were formed on the same principles. In both occur periods seemingly interminable, during which the voice gradually ascends to a climax, and then gradually sinks down.

I have spoken of the surprising number of Sanskrit words contained in the Basque language, specimens of some of which will be found below. It is remarkable enough, that in the greater part of the derivatives from the Sanskrit the Basque has dropped the initial consonant, so that the word commences with a vowel. The Basque, indeed, may be said to be almost a vowel language; the number of consonants employed being comparatively few: perhaps eight words out of ten commence and terminate with a vowel, owing to which it is a language to the highest degree soft and melodious, far excelling in this respect any other language in Europe, not even excepting the Italian.

Here follow a few specimens of Basque words with the Sanskrit roots in juxtaposition:—

Ardoa Sandhana Wine.
Arratsa Ratri Night.
Beguia Akshi Eye.
Choria Chiria Bird.
Chacurra Cucura Dog.
Erreguina Rani Queen.
Icusi Iksha To see.
Iru Treya Three.
Jan (Khan) Khana To eat.
Uria Puri City.
Urruti Dura Far.

Such is the tongue in which I brought out Saint Luke’s Gospel at Madrid. The translation I procured originally from a Basque physician of the name of Oteiza. Previous to being sent to the press, the version had lain nearly two years in my possession, during which time, and particularly during my travels, I lost no opportunity of submitting it to the inspection of those who were considered competent scholars in the Euscarra. It did not entirely please me; but it was in vain to seek for a better translation.

In my early youth I had obtained a slight acquaintance with the Euscarra, as it exists in books. This acquaintance I considerably increased during my stay in Spain; and by occasionally mingling with Basques, was enabled to understand the spoken language to a certain extent, and even to speak it, but always with considerable hesitation; for to speak Basque, even tolerably, it is necessary to have lived in the country from a very early period. So great are the difficulties attending it, and so strange are its peculiarities, that it is very rare to find a foreigner possessed of any considerable skill in the oral language, and the Spaniards consider the obstacles so formidable that they have a proverb to the effect that Satan once lived seven years in Biscay, and then departed, finding himself unable either to understand or to make himself understood.

There are few inducements to the study of this language. In the first place, the acquisition of it is by no means necessary even to those who reside in the countries where it is spoken; the Spanish being generally understood throughout the Basque provinces pertaining to Spain, and the French in those pertaining to France.

In the second place, neither dialect is in possession of any peculiar literature capable of repaying the toil of the student. There are various books extant both in French and Spanish Basque, but these consist entirely of Popish devotion, and are for the most part translations.

It will, perhaps, here be asked whether the Basques do not possess popular poetry, like most other nations, however small and inconsiderable. They have certainly no lack of songs, ballads, and stanzas, but of a character by no means entitled to the appellation of poetry. I have noted down from recitation a considerable portion of what they call their poetry, but the only tolerable specimen of verse which I ever discovered amongst them was the following stanza, which, after all, is not entitled to very high praise:—

“Ichasoa urac aundi, Estu ondoric agueri — Pasaco ninsaqueni andic Maitea icustea gatic.”

i.e. “The waters of the sea are vast, and their bottom cannot be seen: but over them I will pass, that I may behold my love.”

The Basques are a singing rather than a poetical people. Notwithstanding the facility with which their tongue lends itself to the composition of verse, they have never produced among them a poet with the slightest pretensions to reputation; but their voices are singularly sweet, and they are known to excel in musical composition. It is the opinion of a certain author, the Abbe D’Ilharce, who has written about them, that they derived the name Cantabri, by which they were known to the Romans, from Khantor-ber, signifying sweet singers. They possess much music of their own, some of which is said to be exceedingly ancient. Of this music specimens were published at Donostian (San Sebastian) in the year 1826, edited by a certain Juan Ignacio Iztueta. These consist of wild and thrilling marches, to the sound of which it is believed that the ancient Basques were in the habit of descending from their mountains to combat with the Romans, and subsequently with the Moors. Whilst listening to them it is easy to suppose oneself in the close vicinity of some desperate encounter. We seem to hear the charge of cavalry on the sounding plain, the clash of swords, and the rushing of men down the gorges of hills. This music is accompanied with words, but such words! Nothing can be imagined more stupid, commonplace, and uninteresting. So far from being martial, they relate to everyday incidents and appear to have no connexion whatever with the music. They are evidently of modern date.

In person the Basques are of the middle size, and are active and athletic. They are in general of fair complexions and handsome features, and in appearance bear no slight resemblance to certain Tartar tribes of the Caucasus. Their bravery is unquestionable, and they are considered as the best soldiery belonging to the Spanish crown: a fact highly corroborative of the supposition that they are of Tartar origin, the Tartars being of all races the most warlike, and amongst whom the most remarkable conquerors have been produced. They are faithful and honest, and capable of much disinterested attachment; kind and hospitable to strangers; all of which points are far from being at variance with the Tartan character. But they are somewhat dull, and their capacities are by no means of a high order, and in these respects they again resemble the Tartars.

No people on earth are prouder than the Basques, but theirs is a kind of republican pride. They have no nobility amongst them, and no one will acknowledge a superior. The poorest carman is as proud as the governor of Tolosa. “He is more powerful than I,” he will say, “but I am of as good blood; perhaps hereafter I may become a governor myself.” They abhor servitude, at least out of their own country; and though circumstances frequently oblige them to seek masters, it is very rare to find them filling the places of common domestics; they are stewards, secretaries, accountants, etc. True it is, that it was my own fortune to obtain a Basque domestic; but then he always treated me more as an equal than a master, would sit down in my presence, give me his advice unasked, and enter into conversation with me at all times and occasions. Did I check him! Certainly not! For in that case he would have left me, and a more faithful creature I never knew. His fate was a mournful one, as will appear in the sequel.

I have said that the Basques abhor servitude, and are rarely to be found serving as domestics amongst the Spaniards. I allude, however, merely to the males. The females, on the contrary, have no objection whatever to enter houses as servants. Women, indeed, amongst the Basques are not looked upon with all the esteem which they deserve, and are considered as fitted for little else than to perform menial offices, even as in the East, where they are viewed in the light of servants and slaves. The Basque females differ widely in character from the men; they are quick and vivacious, and have in general much more talent. They are famous for their skill as cooks, and in most respectable houses of Madrid a Biscayan female may be found in the kitchen, queen supreme of the culinary department.

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