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The Basque language, an object of study in Europe


Throughout the nineteenth century, the use of Basque declined greatly, especially in rural areas of Navarre and especially in Alava. The factors behind this decline, which was also seen in cities such as Pamplona and Bilbao, included the centralism of Madrid and Paris, the indifference of the incipient urban and industrial bourgeoisie to the Basque language and the outcome of the Carlist Wars (1833- 1876) with the abolition of the liberties in 1876. In the Northern Basque Country, although the number of Basque-speakers remained constant, the social prestige of the Basque language also declined significantly. Paradoxically at the height of European Romanticism, Basque became an object of interest among Europe's cultural intelligentsia, who saw it as a linguistic treasure worthy of research.

146. This was the period of greatest literary fragmentation of the language; with no established rules, each author used his or her own dialect. Martín Duhalde in his Meditacioneac (1809) was one of the first to propose adopting orthographic rules to the characteristics of Basque. 147. The German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, (Potsdam, 1767- 1835) was the first to give a precise account of the Basque language among Europe cultural circles, thus initiating the scientific study of the language. During the same period, Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte also devoted time to researching the Basque language, especially its dialects. 148. The French writer Victor Hugo, (Besançon, 1802-1885) was a regular visitor to the Basque Country and always showed great sensitivity to the condition of its language and culture: A secret and profound tie (…) bonds together, in spite of treaties (…), in spite even of the Pyrenees. (…) all the members of the mysterious Basque family. One is born Basque, one speaks Basque, one lives Basque and one dies Basque. The Basque tongue is a fatherland; I had almost said a religion. 149. Joseph Agustín Xaho (Atharratze, 1811-1858). Journalist, historian and philologist, he studied in Paris, where he published his first works in French and Basque. A republican and atheist, he returned to his homeland where he became involved in politics and joined the Carlists. His creation of the myth of the patriarch Aitor became famous, and his writings cover a great variety of themes from grammatical studies to history, philosophy and the novel. In 1848 he set up the first newspaper in Basque Uscal-Herrico Gaseta. 150. The two protagonists of Bizet's famous opera Carmen (1895), based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée, were both Basques: Carmen, the gypsy cigarette girl was from Etxalar and José Lizarragabengoa was from Elizondo, Baztan 151. Antoine Thompson d'Abbadie, a scientist, explorer, astronomer and philologist (b. Dublin, 1810-1897), was a tireless traveller and a promoter of Basque culture. From his estate in Hendaye, he launched the celebrated annual Basque fêtes in Urruña in 1853, combining literary and musical events, improvised verse (bertso) challenges, Basque sports, a market, a banquet and choral singing. The Basque Fêtes were held very successfully in various locations until 1899, and d'Abbadie manage to get many of the Basques intellectuals of the time involved. 152. From 1996, the Provincial Government of Gipuzkoa has awarded the Abbadia Prize each year, to honour individuals and institutions who have played a leading role in promoting the Basque language socially. 153. Juan Inazio Iztueta, (Zaldibia, 1767-1845) wrote one of the first books of folklore in Europe, Gipuzcoaco dantza gogoangarriak eta Gipuzkoaco condaira (1824), containing traditional songs and dances. A writer, poet, student of folklore and bertsolari, he was characteristic of the spirit of many lovers of the Basque language of the time who were disturbed by its decline and persecution. 154. Pierre Loti and his Basque universe. Loti's life and literary work reflected a romantic spirit, enamoured of an idyllic image of Basque culture. 155. 155. In the nineteenth century, Basque emigration to the Americas, especially from Iparralde, the Northern Basque Country, grew to major proportions. Some were driven by economic motives, others were fleeing conscription into the Napoleonic campaigns. It has been calculated that between 1832 and 1907 around one hundred thousand people left Iparralde. The first Basque Centres were opened as a result of large scale emigration to the Americas: Laurak Bat in Montevideo (1876), in Buenos Aires (1877) and Havana (1878), and Euskaldunak Orok Bat in Río de Janeiro (1881). 156. During this period it became common to print bertso-paperak, or sheets containing the most popular verses from the improvised verse competitions. These were in great demand at fairs, fiestas and markets and helped ensure the survival of many of the compositions; twentieth century bertsolaris such as Xenpelar and Bilintx have revived them with unparalleled success. 157. The English and French armies both used Basque to promulgate their edicts in the Basque-speaking territories they occupied; the Duke of Wellington in Baigorri and Bidarrai (1814) and the French General Reille in Iruñea. In 1811, the latter offered sei milla duro, hagradezimentutako edo preziotako [six thousand duros in thanks or payment] for the capture of the guerrilla fighter Espoz y Mine. 158. One of the poetic figures of the late Romantic period to visit the Basque Country was Pierre Topet Etxahun (Barkoxe, Soule, 1786- 1862), author of several great lyrical songs narrating his chequered life, including a spell in prison, betrayal and pilgrimage: Mundian malerusik, Bi berset dolorusik, Etxahunen bizitziaren khantoria and Ahaide delezius huntan. 159. In 1811, Dominique Joseph Garat (1749-1833), Napoleon's advisor, submitted a proposal to the Emperor for the creation of a National Basque State that would unify the 7 provinces under the figure of Napoleon, with Basque as the sole language. The project for this "New Phoenicia", as he called it, went no further. 160. After several bans, the novel Peru Abarca, by Juan Antonio Moguel, was published in 1880. It was the first work of literature to be printed in the western dialect of Basque.
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