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  • Social Features Of Bertsolaritza
  • Jon Sarasua

Social Features of Bertsolaritza

The Bertsolaritza Setting:1The Basque Language Community

Sung, extempore verse-making in Basque (hereafter referred to as bertsolaritza, as it is known in the Basque language) holds an important place in the culture of the Basque language, a speech community of about 600,000 people. This community is divided among four territories inside the Spanish state and three inside the French state; the population in these territories put together is around three million. The Basque language community is a small speech community and finds itself in a minority in its native land.

Nevertheless, we are talking about a community that goes back a long way in history. The most recent findings by a number of scientific disciplines appear to confirm its Pre-Indo European origin, since the community of Euskara, the Basque language, is regarded as one of the oldest in Europe. It is important to bear in mind the key characteristics in the development of our speech community: a firm determination to maintain its roots and its ability to adapt unceasingly in so many eras and contexts by preserving its essential nature in difficult balances. These key characteristics and behavior are linked to the way the present and future of bertsolaritza is understood and, in general, to the way that the evolution of the Basque language is experienced.

Right now, the Basque language finds itself at an especially critical moment; on the one hand it is on the point of losing the battle for revival in some of its territories, and on the other it is going through a difficult normalization or development process. For the bertsolaritza movement, however, this situation tends to be more stimulating than dramatic and desperate. In the last 20-25 years, bertsolaritza has been organizing itself and adopting a sociocultural strategy; it is not possible to understand that sociocultural strategy outside of the context of the minority situation of the Basque language and the efforts being made to revive it. If it were not for this context, the whole movement might never have come about, since it is unlikely that it would have arisen through the power of improvised sung verse alone.

Bertsolaritza is one of the manifestations of traditional Basque culture that is still very much alive. A sociological survey conducted in 1993 painted a general picture of the position held by bertsolaritza in our speech community, while a study conducted in 2006 confirms that [End Page 33] view with updated figures. In 1993, 15% of Basque speakers regarded themselves as great devotees of bertsolaritza, 35% regarded themselves as devotees, and another 28% expressed a certain devotion to it. The 2006 survey provides similar figures, despite not using exactly the same categories or methods. According to these latest figures, 40% of Basque speakers are devotees of bertsolaritza. A further 25%, more or less, are peripheral devotees––that is, they generally keep abreast of this cultural activity from a distance, but are in direct contact with it, for example, during the championships. Finally, a third of Basque speakers, 33%, said they had no interest whatsoever in bertsolaritza (the survey defines this group as non-devotees of extempore verse-making in Basque). The devotees, 40% of the Basque-speaking population, are divided into two groups: those classified as strong devotees of extempore verse-making in Basque account for between 10% and 15% of all Basque speakers. The rest, those with an average interest or those who are less enthusiastic, account for the other 25-30%.

According to these surveys, devotion to bertsolaritza in the Basque speech community can be divided into three concentric circles. The innermost circle (the most enthusiastic one) provides a sufficient critical mass to ensure the future survival of bertsolaritza. In other words, the revival or transmission involving all the participants (bertsolaris, theme-prompters, critics, judges, teachers, organizers, committed devotees) required by bertsolaritza in the future takes place within this 15%. So there is a nucleus in this cultural activity that will guarantee its future.

However, it is no coincidence that in today's Euskal Herria (as the Basque Country is known in the Basque language) there is a group strong...

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