As the world's languages disappear, Basque revives


ST. JEAN DE LUZ, France — The world is losing languages at an alarming rate, a United Nations agency reported Thursday, with thousands of tongues expected to disappear by the end of this century.

Yet amid the losses, one community — the Basque people, who live in the mountainous region of southern France and northern Spain — is reviving a language that many once feared would die out.

In St. Jean de Luz, a seaside town near the Spanish border at the western edge of the Pyrenees, efforts are under way to revitalize the Basque language, which 30 years ago was rarely heard outside mountain villages. Among a population of about 3 million in the Basque region, which comprises seven provinces in Spain and France, an estimated 700,000 people speak Basque today.

Bilingual signs dot the roads and mark storefronts, and an annual festival celebrates the Basque language, music and culture. Public and private schools full of children and adults learn Basque.

Every Sunday, a mass is celebrated entirely in Basque — complete with Basque music — at the local church, Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste.

At the week's major food market here, Bixente, a 32-year-old man in jeans, tennis shoes and a tight wool cap, was selling such regional specialties as ewe's milk cheese, black cherry jam and spicy pimento powder from his stand to a steady stream of customers in the early morning chill.

"I grew up speaking Basque, and did all my baccalaureate exams, even biology and philosophy, in Basque," said Bixente, who hails from Bayonne and declined to identify himself further. "My parents' generation built private Basque schools in the 1980s. They gave their money, their energy, their efforts to make it happen."

In contrast, he said, when his mother was young, she "was punished at school for speaking Basque."

Fabienne Perrin, a 37-year-old woman employed by the local tourism office, grew up speaking Basque in a small mountain town a half-hour's drive from St. Jean de Luz. She recalled that her grandfather spoke only Basque, never French. Now, though, "the generation that spoke only Basque is gone," she said. "To work, you have to speak French."

France recognizes Basque as a distinct regional language — the departmental government has an office dedicated to the Basque language — but Basque doesn't have official status in France, meaning that it can't be used in a court of law, for instance. On the Spanish side of the border, Basque has been one of two official languages in the Basque autonomous region since 1979.

Many locals acknowledge that foreigners mistakenly associate all Basques with the extremist group ETA, whose members are known to slip back and forth across the rugged mountain border.

"There are lots of cliches," Perrin said. "But when people get here, they find we're really interested in something authentic. This isn't just folklore."

As successful as this region has been in preserving its unique language, however, others aren't as lucky.

The language report, released by UNESCO, the U.N. agency based in Paris, provides vivid detail of the linguistic diversity that still exists in the world — more than 6,000 languages are spoken on the planet — and the threats that it faces.

India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico have the greatest linguistic diversity, it says, but also the greatest number of languages at risk.

Among 2,500 endangered languages in the agency's online atlas, 538 are classified as "critically endangered." Seventy-five of these are in the United States, many of them obscure American Indian tongues found in the Western states. They include Tubatulabal, spoken by just three elders in California's Kern River Valley in the southern Sierra Nevada, and Lushootseed, spoken by fewer than five people on reservations in Washington state.

Beyond Basque, which UNESCO labeled "unsafe," the agency notes that some endangered languages can be saved through a combination of government intervention and community will.

Welsh, for instance, has made a comeback in the past few decades after nearly dying out when Wales was exclusively under English rule.

UNESCO's most recent estimate of Welsh speakers: 750,000.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger


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