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  • Basque Oral Ecology
  • Joxerra Garzia

Overview of Basque Oral Ecology1

In today's world, where so many languages disappear every day, the survival of Euskara, the Basque language, is extraordinary. In fact, until just a few decades ago, Euskara was never used in any official context, confined to mere private use by the Basque-speaking community. Furthermore, it has suffered diverse periods of explicit repression, such as the 40 or so years of Franco's dictatorship. In addition to this external repression, however, we must also take into account the indifference shown to the language until very recently by the ruling classes of the Basque County itself.

By a twist of fate, this situation of marginalization is perhaps one of the key factors behind the extraordinary revival of oral genres in contemporary Basque society. Indeed, although the first book written in Euskara was published in 1545,2 the Basque-speaking population has largely been illiterate in their native tongue, since teaching was always done in one of the dominant languages (Spanish or French). Until well into the twentieth century, written Basque literature was essentially religious, and consisted for the most part of voiced texts (sermons and texts intended to be spoken or sung), rather than written literature intended to be read in silence.

The standardization of Euskara, an essential process for any advancement of the language, officially began with the Congress of Aranzazu in 1968, although the initial steps had already been taken as early as 1919 with the creation of Euskaltzaindia, the Basque Language Academy.3

However it happened, I can safely say that Euskara has survived as an oral language, and until recently its only area of use was in the private, everyday life of native Basque-speakers. As far as I know, nobody has ever studied this topic in depth, and what I set out here are therefore mere intuitions, and should be taken as such.

The vitality of oral genres among Basque-speakers is remarkable. Voltaire described the Basques as "a people who sing and dance at the feet of the Pyrenees," and it is no coincidence that Basque improvised contest poetry—bertsolaritza, as it is known in Euskara—is one of the [End Page 47] best-known examples of sung improvisation in the world, in regard to both the quality of the compositions and its social roots. Why has a genre that was once common to all cultures disappeared from the majority, while it has flourished among the Basques with such vigor? It is reasonable to speculate that the late advent of written Basque is a key factor.

The widespread campaign to ensure literacy among the Basque population, which has been extremely successful over recent years, has nevertheless had an undesired side effect: younger generations' basic ability to express themselves orally in Euskara has declined noticeably. Those who have attended Basque-language schools generally have no trouble expressing themselves in that language when talking about academic matters, but it seems that Euskara is now insufficient for many basic and vitally important speech-acts, such as expressing enjoyment, sublimating feelings, teasing or insulting, and so on. In short, the problem now is exactly the opposite of what it was a few decades ago: Euskara is now used for studying and working, but is proving unsatisfactory for living.

Leaving conjectures aside for the moment, however, I now turn our attention to a somewhat superficial and provisional description of the set of genres that make up the admirable ecosystem of the Basque oral tradition.

Methodology and Corpus

First, it is necessary to define as precisely as possible the objective of this present study on the corpus of Basque oral poetry and the methodology that will be used for our description. In all basic matters we will, once again, be following the criteria established by John Miles Foley.4 I will therefore try to specify those oral manifestations that, within the Basque oral tradition as a whole, constitute separate genres. In order to characterize, classify, and present each genre, I will primarily use non-textual criteria, that is, the way in which each genre is produced, transmitted, received, performs its social function, and so on. This is no...

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