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The Nature of the Basque Language

The Basque language is often cited as an example of a strange, exotic language. However this depiction of Basque is not objectively valid. Basque is only strange and exotic because it is not an Indo-European language. For example, the typical word order of Basque is Subject-[Object-Verb] (SOV) in contrast to the Subject-[Verb-Object] (SVO) of English. But among the world languages the SOV word order is common. In fact, it is the word order of 45% of the languages of the world whereas SVO is the word order of only 42%. See Typology of Language Grammars. Japanese and Turkish are two other well-known languages which have the SOV word order.

Most importantly Basque is an agglutinative language. This means that multiple prefixes or suffixes can be added to a root word to create phrases or even sentences. Turkish and Mongolian are agglutinative, as are Japanese and Korean generally. The Finno-Ugric languages such as Hungarian and Finnish are other agglutinative languages. The language of the Inuit (Eskimos) is agglutinative, as are the languages of the Apaches and Navajos. There are many, many more. So Basque is not unusual in being agglutinative.

Basque does have some features that are less common among languages. It is, for example, an ergative language, which means there is a special case marker for the subject of transitive verbs. Few languages have this feature. One other language which is ergative is the language of the Inuit people of Greenland. There is some speculation that in ergative languages the distinction between subject and object is not significant.

Some of the other special (and less fundamental) features of Basque are:

The reason these features are notable is that they were incorporated into Castilian Spanish. Castilian developed in the Cantabria region of northern Spain which is next to what is now the Basque-speaking area. The inhabitants of Cantabria spoke a Basque-like language at the time of Romanization. Since their language did not include the sound of f they substituted the aspirant h and later this h became silent. Thus a name such as Fernando became Hernando and later [h]Ernando. Portuguese arose in northwest Spain as Galician and was not subject to this substitution. So, in a sense, Castilian is like Basque-flavored Portuguese.

Although Basque influenced the pronunciation of Castilian and Castilian incorporated some Basque words, the special grammar of Basque had little influence on Castilian.

Some of the Basque words or Basque-related Iberian words that have been assimilated into the Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula are:

woods near river)
woods near river)
(channels used in mining)

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