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  • A Sociological Study of Sung, Extempore Verse-Making in Basque
  • Alfredo Retortillo and Xabier Aierdi

Bertsolaritza: From Oral Tradition to Community Position

This article is based on a project commissioned in 2005 by the Euskal Herriko Bertsozale Elkartea and conducted by researchers from the Sociology and Political Science Departments of the University of the Basque Country. Four main surveys were developed through the course of this research, and two field studies of a quantitative nature were conducted: one with the participants of the semifinals of the bertsolari championship and the other with those performers who went on to the finals. In spring 2006, two further quantitative surveys were completed: one with an audience of ordinary bertsolari events and another with the Euskaldun population (that is, speakers of the Basque language, Euskara). The latter survey is the one upon which the present article is based because an analysis of this study enables us to better discern the relationship that exists between bertsolaritza—improvised Basque oral verse7mdash;and its real basis: the Basque speakers themselves. Since the spring of 2006, two further studies of a qualitative nature have been conducted: one Delphi analysis with both experts and bertsolaris (performers) and another based on discussion groups with different social typologies—Euskaldun and non Euskaldun—in order to better understand how the tradition of bertsolaritza is regarded in the Basque community.

The Linguistic Community of Euskara: The Miracle and the Numbers

In order to put the phenomenon of bertsolaritza in context, it seems helpful to us to give a brief description of Basque culture and language. The Basque Country is a territory that straddles both Spain and France. Its name is derived from the fact that it possesses its own language, Euskara; Euskal Herria, then, means "the country of those who speak Euskara." Three of its territories (Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea, and Zuberoa) are situated in the French Basque Country, or Iparralde; and four of them (Araba, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Nafarroa Garaia) are located in Hegoalde, within the Spanish State.1 [End Page 13]

As of January 2005, around 270,000 people were living in the Northern Basque Country, Iparralde, while about 2,720,000 people resided in the Southern Basque Country, Hegoalde. The development models on either side of the border have been influenced by the events of the respective states. Thus the South has experienced major economic development and a large influx of Spanish population,2 and the North has seen minimal development and a high level of dependency, along with great waves of emigration, either to other areas of France or to the Americas.

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Map 1.

Map of the Herrialdes

Table 1

Distribution of the population of the Basque Country (2005)

Population (2005) %
Southern Basque Country
Araba 301.757 10,1
Bizkaia 1.136.569 38,0
Gipuzkoa 688.708 23,0
Navarre 593.472 19,8
Northern Basque Country
Lapurdi 227.754 7,6
Nafarroa Beherea 28.835 1,0
Zuberoa 15.514 0,5
Total 2.992.609 100

[End Page 14]

To continue with our brief summary, the main issues we must keep in mind are the following:

  1. 1. The emergence of Basque nationalism in the south of the Basque Country (in Bizkaia) in the late nineteenth century and its differing level of development (intense in the South and very weak in the North). This development bred strong nationalistic sentiment and therefore politicized the cultural landscape.

  2. 2. Basques are a national minority and lack a governmental body—or even State status. This has meant that the population has not been able, as a unit, to establish its own political and linguistic systems.

  3. 3. The high degree of administrative fragmentation (seven provinces in two states and three administrative units) and the differing political autonomy of its territories make the situation very complex. The portion of Basque country that is in Spain currently enjoys a notable degree of political autonomy and is divided into two administrative units: the Basque Autonomous Community (with its three provinces, Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa) and the Navarrese Comunidad Foral, which comprises the province of Nafarroa. In France, the Basque territory has been subsumed into a higher administrative unit and...

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