How speakers of Basque’s many dialects agreed on a standardized version to pass on to their children

22 min readApr 16, 2024


Participants in a relay ‘marathon’ in support of the Basque language in Spain’s Basque Country. (Photo: Tintxarri via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet and Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them.

What do you know about (speaking with a British accent) Basque? Or (American accent) Basque? I don’t really naturally say it the American way. I know very little about it, except that it’s an ancient language spoken in northern Spain, mainly also a little bit in the Southwest of France. And a bit like with Irish from a couple of episodes ago, the language is a survivor. Basque has been discouraged, sometimes actively suppressed, but it’s still around, and now it’s protected. Whether that’s enough to assure its future — well, that’s what this episode of Subtitle seeks to find out. And when I say “this episode,” I mean, Nina Porzucki. As well as asking about the future prospects for Basque she learned some of its epic backstory. So here’s Nina at her first port of call, not a place that you might expect to be on the Basque trail — unless you know more about it than I do. That place is the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Nina Porzucki: Hi, I’m looking for Professor Irujo.

March 12 1942. Bingen Ametzaga was on a ship and route to South America.

Hello, nice to meet you!

Xabier Irujo: Nice to meet you.

Bingen was fleeing Europe fleeing Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, and the ship was packed with other exiles, Jews and Spaniards and Basques escaping occupied Europe.

Xabier Irujo: Oh, do you want me to start? It has already started.

Nina Porzucki: It had been a long journey more than a year actually. Bingen had been caught once already and held in a camp in Morocco. And then he escaped again on this ship headed to somewhere in South America. He wasn’t quite sure where, and they were just past Cuba when the ship suddenly stopped.

Xabier Irujo: My name is Xabier Irujo and I am the director of the Center for Basque studies here at the University of Nevada Reno.

Nina Porzucki: Xabier Irujo directs the Basque Studies Department. And he’s also Bingen Ametzaga’s grandson.

Xabier Irujo: They were stopped in the middle of the ocean by a German U-boat.

Nina Porzucki: A German U-boat, he said. The German U-boat was pointed directly at the ship. This was the height of the war. U-boats had been sinking merchant ship after merchant ship. Xabier’s grandfather and the other exiles on the ship were ordered by the captain to put on their life jackets and come to the main deck, where they met the German submariners.

Xabier Irujo: And then the Germans came, and they started to take from the people things like gold, but also food, a lot of food.

Nina Porzucki: On the deck in his life jacket, unsure if this was the end, all that Bingen could think about was a manuscript sitting on a small desk down below — a manuscript that had kept him busy during the long days at sea. It was part of a larger project. Yes, it was saving his sanity during the monotonous voyage, but it was also saving the Basque language. What would happen to it? The Germans took the food and miraculously they let the exiles go.

Xabier Irujo: They ran out of food. So they needed some and they took it from the world. And that’s why they didn’t sink it.

Nina Porzucki: And so Ametzaga’s life was saved. Also saved was the first translation of Macbeth into Euskara. That’s Basque for the Basque language.

(Speaking to Xabier Irujo) You want me to read it in English and then you can read it in Basque?

Xabier Irujo: Okay.

Nina Porzucki: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble.”

Xabier Irujo reads the Basque translation.

Nina Porzucki: “Fillet of a fenny snake, In the caldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Xabier Irujo reads the Basque translation.

Nina Porzucki: It rhymes!

Nina Porzucki: I have dragged my co host, Patrick Cox into the studio to talk About Basque.

Patrick Cox: Hi Nina! Basque, the mysterious language.

Nina Porzucki: It is a mystery. It is a language isolate. So Basque, you know, is spoken in a region that spans northern Spain across the border into southern France. There are six or more dialects depending on who you talk to. And the origins of the language are a bit of a mystery. Basque is not part of the Indo-European language family. So

Patrick Cox: So it’s not related at all to any European languages?

Nina Porzucki: No, none. Not Spanish, not French, not Swedish, not German, not Icelandic. Basque is what is known as pre-Indo-European. In fact, you can almost hear the history of the European continent, in the language itself.

Xabier Irujo: This is part of the history of the language. The Basque language has words coming from all languages that have been in Europe since prehistory — from Celtic languages and from Latin, and probably from languages before the Celtic languages. Who knows what was spoken in Europe at the time?

Nina Porzucki: So this is Xabier Irujo again.

Patrick Cox: Ah right, the guy whose grandfather translated Macbeth into Basque.

Nina Porzucki: Exactly. And he also translated Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, among many other texts. So his grandfather, Bingen Ametzaga, was part of an early movement to standardize the Basque language. Bingen a group of fellow Basque intellectuals and nationalists believed that one way to strengthen the Basque culture and the nation, and to save it from extinction, was to standardize the language. Translation was a part of this strategy to create a Basque standard.

Xabier Irujo: By translating you get a political goal and also a linguistic goal. If you translate Hamlet, for example, from English into Basque, you have to choose the dialect in which you are going to be translating into.

Nina Porzucki: The train interrupted our chat there. We were sitting in his office at the university campus.

Patrick Cox: That sounds like a really bold act like using translation to essentially set one dialect as a standard.

Nina Porzucki: Yes, and somewhat controversial to choose the Gipuzkoan dialect, which is a dialect from the central part of Basque Country. So incidentally, wasn’t even his grandfather’s native dialect. His grandfather was a native speaker of Biscayan, which is the Western dialect.

Xabier Irujo: Some people thought that that was going to be the dialect to standardize. But my grandfather with other people thought that it was not a good idea. It was much better to take as the base for the standardization of the language, the language just in the middle.

Nina Porzucki: Using a version of the Gipuzkoan dialect as a standard goes back actually a long time. It was the proposal of the first president of the Basque Language Academy. He was a priest by the name of Resurrección María de Azkue. Yeah, we’re just gonna go with Azkue for now.

Patrick Cox: Your pronunciation. Non-standard.

Nina Porzucki: Non-standard! So the Basque Language Academy was formed in 1919. And at the time, as you can imagine, there were many heated discussions about which dialect to rely on for a standard and Azkue chose Gipuzkoan, the central dialect. And translation was used as almost a tool to kind of codify which dialect should be the standard.

Patrick Cox: Nice, just translate enough books and into one dialect new got the standard.

Nina Porzucki: Exactly. Translation was also fairly political act.

Xabier Irujo: If you translate Hamlet into Basque, the message is that all languages are equal, that no culture is more or less than others, to fight that theory that some languages are much more perfect — and that if you want to be a person of culture, you have to speak one of the big languages: French, Spanish or English or whatever.

Patrick Cox: So did Bingen and Azkue, did all these Basque intellectuals succeed in standardizing Basque?

Nina Porzucki: Well, it is a much more complicated story. You have to remember a few important things. One, there’s a huge civil war in Spain, and Spain was then under the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco, from 1939 until Franco’s death in 1975. And during that time, speaking Basque, teaching in Basque, publishing in Basque, basically doing anything a Basque — I mean, naming your child a name in Basque — was technically illegal under Franco.

Patrick Cox: Wow, no wonder it gave rise to those extremists ETA. I grew up listening to all of these news stories about ETA, the Basque separatist group, and their car bombings.

Nina Porzucki: There’s a lot of headlines and ETA made headlines by disbanding. But we’re not talking about ETA in this podcast and ETA wasn’t supported by a lot, like a huge majority of Basques, didn’t support kind of the activities of ETA. And during Franco’s dictatorship, many, Basque leaders, intellectuals — folks like Bingen Ametzaga — were living actually in exile.

Xabier Irujo: When they went to exile for the first time, they thought it was going to be a shorter time, that Franco was going to be beaten by the allies in the course of World War Two, that it was going to last only five years — and then 10, then 15.

Nina Porzucki: And then 30. So Basque leaders were organizing from exile. Basque centers were formed around the world and Basque schools. Bingen Ametzaga wound up in Uruguay and then Venezuela, where he continued translating works of Shakespeare.

Xabier Irujo: You know, these people were working nonstop from 1936 to 1968.

Nina Porzucki: But the question of language standardization was still very much up in the air. And a new idea about how to standardize the language was starting to ferment. More about that after a break.

Patrick Cox: Just a quick interruption here to tell you about the Subtitle newsletter. Did you know that we’ll pop something into your inbox, if you sign up, every two or three weeks? It’s a quick and fun read. There are language-themed stories that are in the news. You’ll see what’s coming up in future podcasts, you’ll hear about other podcasts that we’re listening to and we think you’ll like. And there’s some goofy lingo stuff as well. You can sign up here.

Nina Porzucki: What is “nap” in Basque?

Alan King: Oh, we say “siesta.” I don’t think this is a Spanish siesta that I’m doing it’s grandpa siesta.

Nina Porzucki: Grandpa Alan King, as you might guess from his accent, is English. He moved to Basque Country in 1978.

Alan King: I was 24 years old. And the 24year olds who I knew, most of them had not had their education in Basque. They may have been native Basque speakers but as for reading and writing the language, doing that in Basque was something that they were in the process of adapting to.

Nina Porzucki: So this was a very interesting time in Basque country in Spain. Franco had just died in 1975, the Basque Country had just been granted status as nationality under the 1978 Spanish Constitution. And the Basque language was just coming out of decades of being illegal, basically spoken in the shadows. There was no Basque TV yet, there was no newspaper yet. But really to talk about the state of the Basque language at this point, we need to go back 10 years earlier to 1968.

Alan King: What there was before 1968 is what social linguists refer to us diglossia.

Patrick Cox: Ooh, that’s one of those linguistics words, isn’t it, diglossia?

Nina Porzucki: It is, it’s a situation where people have two languages, but they don’t use the languages for the same purpose. So, each language has its distinct use. Under Franco, many Basque speakers — the large majority — could also speak Spanish. Take the experience of going to the grocery store.

Alan King: Spanish would have been on the packets of the products in the store. The signs in the aisles in the supermarket were in Spanish. And the announcements were in Spanish — anything that had anything official about it was in Spanish. But you might still talk to the person checking you out in Basque. But if you ask the question, like, you know, “Can you look at that packet and see what it says there because the writing is too small,” that writing would be in Spanish. And they would switch over to Spanish to relay that to you. And you say, “Oh, okay.” And then you go back to Basque. You see, you’ve got two languages going on. But each language has a different function, or different functions. That’s diglossia.

Patrick Cox: Oh, yeah, this happens a lot, doesn’t it with minority languages?

Nina Porzucki: Yes.

Patrick Cox: So how do you take a language like this, that’s basically been illegal, and make it spoken in sort of equal ways with the majority language — on a par with it?

Nina Porzucki: Exactly, how do you do that? And what about all the gaps in that minority language? All the words that don’t exist, because it’s never been used in certain contexts?

Alan King: How do we say that in Basque? How do we do this in Basque? What would this sound like in Basque? And how do you spell this in Basque? It creates new needs for the language because the language is entering into new domains.

Nina Porzucki: And again, it creates a push for a standard.

Patrick Cox: So what happened to the grandfather of that guy who you talked to?

Nina Porzucki: Xabier Irujo’s grandfather, Ametzaga?

Patrick Cox: Yeah. All of that translation into the dialect that he decided was the one that Basque would use?

Nina Porzucki: The central dialect Gipuzkoan? There were still some proponents of choosing this dialect. but many other dialect speakers didn’t like the idea of choosing one dialect over another, even if it was enriched from all the other dialects as they claimed with Gipuzkoan. And so in the 1960s there was another proposal that was getting a lot of attention, something called Batua.

Alan King: Batua was a proposal for a new code of standard Basque. Unified Basque, as the word batua, means: unified.

Nina Porzucki: Batua was developed by a very respected Basque linguist by the name of Koldo Mitxelena. And Mitxelena, he took bits and pieces from all of the different dialects to develop Batua. Hence its name, Unified Basque.

Patrick Cox: So Batua became the standard.

Nina Porzucki: It wasn’t as fast as that. There was actually a faction of people as you might imagine who opposed it.

Patrick Cox: Surprise, surprise.

Nina Porzucki: Right. It was a very, very bitter fight. And it was very, very entrenched on both sides. And at a certain point, the fight all centered around the letter H.

Patrick Cox: H? For Harry?

Nina Porzucki: For Harry! H.

Alan King: People basically went sort of crazy about the H, being pro-H or anti-H.

Nina Porzucki: In southern Basque dialects like Gipuzkoan and Biscayan, the letter H became silent centuries ago.

Patrick Cox: So the southern Basque dialects are the ones in Spain?

Nina Porzucki: Yes. And folks in the north, in the French part of Basque country, they still pronounced their H’s. And what linguist Mitxelena proposed for Batua was to include the letter H in the spelling of certain words.

Alan King: Today, we would say that the reason for wanting to include the H was for inclusion, so that the northern Basques weren’t left out. Because it seems to make more sense to write an H, that you don’t pronounce in part of a country than to not write it, and yet people are pronouncing a consonant that doesn’t seem to be there. And in this way, trying to achieve the unity or the reunification of the whole country.

Nina Porzucki: The fight got political and vicious.

Alan King: The people who want to write Basque with an H are “Reds”

Nina Porzucki: “Batua is a communist conspiracy.”

Patrick Cox: Communist conspiracy! Reds!

Nina Porzucki: It got ugly.

Alan King: So this was going on during the Sixties. And it finally came to a head at this famous meeting in Arantzazu.

Nina Porzucki: October 1968, all of the greatest Basque thinkers and linguists met at a monastery in Basque country to vote on whether to make Batua the official standard.

Alan King: There was a motion on the table to adopt Batua as the official way of writing Basque from there on. There were a lot of people who very angrily spoke against it. And it actually looked as though the motion was not going to be adopted.

Nina Porzucki: And then, in an infamous moment, at the meeting, a linguist by the name of Pierre Lafitte, stood up.

Alan King: Not a very imposing man — you know, physically imposing but a humble, frail man.

Nina Porzucki: And he gave a speech. As a northerner he said,

Alan King (Paraphrasing Lafitte): “On behalf of the people of the Northern Basque Country, seeing that things have come to a head, I believe that the correct way forward is to stop writing H.”

Patrick Cox: What?! Stop writing H?

Nina Porzucki: Yeah. He went on to explain that it was more important for the speakers of the south, where there were and are still many, many more people, that they continue to speak the language and…

Alan King (Paraphrasing Lafitte): “Our northern Basque may perhaps die out, but you must keep it alive. If you don’t see fit to spell with the H, then we should not stand in the way.

Nina Porzucki: Imagine the room after that speech, Patrick!

Patrick Cox: Wait a minute, he fell on his own sword, right?

Nina Porzucki: He did. He said (Paraphrasing Lafitte), “You know what, it’s more important that the language survive, our dialect will die, but yeah!”

Patrick Cox: So how did they react? What did they do?

Alan King: He sat down. And apparently, that was when they decided to say yes, to the H.

Nina Porzucki: H became the standard.

Patrick Cox: Did he fall on his sword? Or was he actually bluffing and pretending that he was falling on his sword?

Nina Porzucki: I mean, who knows, Patrick, what his motivations were. What happened was that everybody realized, we all are trying to save this language. So if we spell something with an H without an H, that’s kind of beside the point. The point is to continue Basque, right? That standardization is for saving the language.

Patrick Cox: How do you say “In the alphabet weeds” in Basque, I wonder?

Nina Porzucki: I bet it has some X’s in it. So a decade later, in 1978, when a bright eyed 24-year-old Alan King came to Basque Country, Batua was still so very new.

Alan King: There was no Basque TV yet. There was no daily newspaper in Basque. The opportunities for people to become accustomed to using the standard language were limited. There were really two different kinds of tasks that were urgent. One was to decide on some of the details that still needed to be settled about what is considered correct in Batua. The other was maybe more crucial: to make Batua a social reality.

Begotxu Olaizola: I think I’m a different person when I speak Welsh, or when I speak Catalan, or when I speak English. I don’t think I’m exactly the same person.

Nina Porzucki: This is Begotxu Olaizola.

Patrick Cox: Wow, she speaks Welsh.

Nina Porzucki: She does speak Welsh. I have a bit of a language crush on her. She’s Basque but she grew up actually in Valencia, Spain, speaking Catalan with her friends and Basque at home with her mom. And I was really taken by her observation that she feels different in each language that she speaks. And that’s something that I’ve heard from a lot of people but it also feels in some ways particularly Basque. And it reminded me of a Basque word that I heard over and over again, during my research. I asked her about it.

(Speaking Begotxu Olaizola) I heard for many people this term, and maybe I’m gonna get it wrong: Euskaldun. A person who speaks Basque.

Begotxu Olaizola: Euskaldun, yes.

Nina Porzucki: It’s not just a word meaning a Basque speaker but there’s like a whole way of seeing the world, and seeing what makes someone Basque. What makes them yeah, not as well

Begotxu Olaizola: Well, Euskaldun literally means a person who possesses the Basque, who owns the Basque. So it’s different from being Basque away. If you don’t speak Basque but you feel Basque, then we need another word. We use the word Euskal herritarra, which is more like citizen of the Basque Country. But it’s not the same as Euskaldun. Whereas in Spanish, you don’t make this distinction. Really, you always say Vasco or Vasca, which just means Basque, like in English.

Patrick Cox: Oh, that’s so interesting that they have all of these different iterations of what it is to be Basque caught up in the language.

Nina Porzucki: Right, to speak Basque is to be Basque. And that doesn’t preclude you from — you don’t have to be born in Basque country to be an Euskaldun because you just have to know the language. I think that’s a really interesting notion, especially for people that has been a diaspora.

Begotxu Olaizola: We don’t use it much, Euskal herritarra.

Nina Porzucki: Why not?

Begotxu Olaizola: I don’t know because it’s very new, it’s a new word. We always say Euskaldun, although it’s not true in many cases. Because maybe we dream of a country in which 100% of the people will speak the language, like happens in other places. We haven’t adapted to the reality in the last five centuries.

Nina Porzucki: Begotxu is a Basque teacher. She teaches at something called an Ikastola in a small town called Orio outside of San Sebastián.

Patrick Cox: What did you call it?

Nina Porzucki: Ikastola, it’s Basque for school. It’s actually a neologism that means factory of knowledge. Ikastolas were was started in the Twenties and the Thirties.

Begotxu Olaizola: There were schools that uses Basque as a medium of instruction. Then they were forbidden under Franco’s dictatorship.

Nina Porzucki: During the dictatorship, many parents chose not to pass on the language to their children.

Begotxu Olaizola: This is what for example happened to my to my father.

Nina Porzucki: Her grandparents were told by the Jesuit priests who ran her father’s school to basically stop speaking Basque with him at home. And so they did, they listened to their priests.

Patrick Cox: Wow, that sounds so familiar. It sounds just like Irish in the 19th century.

Nina Porzucki: Yeah, totally. I even think about Southern California and all the teachers are like, “Don’t speak Spanish at home with your kids.”

Begotxu Olaizola: He understands Basque. He tries to speak some. And I can speak to him in Basque. But if the conversation gets very, very complicated because we’re into politics or something more complicated than that, he always tells me “You can continue in Basque. I won’t answer in Basque, but I understand you.” This happens in many families, this kind of situation in which you have this conversation, one talking in Spanish and you answering in Basque. The common thing is that in the end, you drop your Basque and you continue in Spanish.

Nina Porzucki: But despite all of the odds against the language, a few Basque parents did keep the Ikastolas going, just in secret.

Begotxu Olaizola: They started in a small room at somebody’s house, or maybe church, maybe the garage of somebody.

Nina Porzucki: The school that Begotxu now teaches at actually started in a garage with a handful of students. And in the 1970s and following Franco’s death, the Ikastolas gradually became legal. Today, there are about 300 of them throughout Basque Country, teaching in Basque. So all the subjects are in Basque. They have Spanish every week, and English or another foreign language, and they basically come out trilingual, a lot of these kids. The schools have been critical not only in spreading the language to younger generations, but they have also been critical in making unified Basque what Alan King termed a social reality.

Begotxu Olaizola: So for my son living in Basque is — I don’t think he even thinks about it.

Nina Porzucki: Begotxu’s son is 15. He’s been going to school in Basque his entire life. They live near San Sebastián where speaking Basque in the stores on the streets is totally normal. It’s not unusual. He can get a Basque newspaper. He can watch the Basque TV. His life is basically lived in Basque.

Patrick Cox: Wow, I mean that sounds like an amazing success story, especially after those years under Franco.

Nina Porzucki: Yeah, except..

Begotxu Olaizola: I’m not sure if it’s going to be enough.

Nina Porzucki: You don’t think it’s going to be enough with all the Ikastolas and the rise of dual language immersion schools?

Begotxu Olaizola: I don’t know if even languages like French and Spanish worry. Imagine a situation for languages like Basque or Welsh or Catalan.

Nina Porzucki: You can almost hear the weariness and her voice right there.

Patrick Cox: Okay, I get it. Like for all minority languages, it’s an uphill struggle.

Nina Porzucki: It’s an uphill battle.

Patrick Cox: What about the numbers though? How many people speak Basque?

Nina Porzucki: When I did some digging a sociolinguistic survey from 2011 found that there’s almost 900,000 Basque speakers of various levels. So, who knows exactly what that means? It’s a very generous number. When I looked at UNESCO, they say there’s about 600-700,000 speakers, about 37% of Basque Country residents speak the language, 37%. And that’s where Begotxu and her son live. But the numbers drop significantly in other Basque regions of Spain like Navarre. And then in the north, in France, where the language is not even officially recognized, it’s in a very, very vulnerable state.

Patrick Cox: Okay, I kind of get it now. Yeah, I get the sigh.

Nina Porzucki: Begotxu, she calls herself a militant about speaking Basque. She will insist on speaking it wherever she is, in stores and restaurants at work, at home. Everywhere she goes.

Begotxu Olaizola: Okay but that’s me, because I’m a militant. But people don’t have to be a militant. I mean, it’s such a hard life to be a speaker of a minority language. Wouldn’t be that easy that task is like English — just go and do you don’t have to think what what language you’re going to use or anything, just go and do it. So for many people, you need to create the atmosphere in which using Basque is not something tiring.

Nina Porzucki: And there are all these little things that make it tiring.

Begotxu Olaizola: Anything so simple as buying in the latestPlayStations, or Nintendo somethings. All those things are in English. And immediately, probably two months later in Spanish, no problem. They are not in Basque. By this time it is translated, you have a new version.

Nina Porzucki: Every new device you acquire — your cell phone, for example — you might be able to get the menu in Basque, but all the apps are in Spanish or in English. And then going on the internet looking something up on Wikipedia, just forget it.

Begotxu Olaizola: So when I tell my students to find something on Wikipedia, they know I’m telling them to go to English or Spanish. They won’t find it in Basque probably. Small things like this, that you do, and you don’t think about it when you have a big language

Nina Porzucki: Begotxu’s son, however, doesn’t feel the same threat that she does. It’s normal for him to live between all these languages, playing video games in English and Spanish going to school in Basque.

Begotxu Olaizola: I’m sure if I asked him, if he feels badly about this — he’s 15 — he would say, “No, what’s wrong with this?” Because you don’t have to be a militant, or you don’t have to be language-aware. That’s why I said it’s so hard to be a minority language speaker, especially when you become aware of the importance of these things for the existence of the language. Maybe I’m more aware because we come from a generation when it was forbidden. And we’ve seen how hard and difficult has been to achieve this moment.

Patrick Cox: Okay, so she’s experienced all of the history of this and the struggles and he’s just received it all on a plate.

Nina Porzucki: Right. That’s the ideal right?

Patrick Cox: That’s how how we all inherit language.

Nina Porzucki: Right. And the sweet irony is like they’ve gotten to a place where he doesn’t think about speaking it. And that’s kind of a beautiful thing. But at the same time, she’s afraid that’s just going to disappear as he gets older and it’s easier to speak Spanish. And everything, the internet and all the things that he uses are in Spanish. What’s going to happen? It’s a start, she will agree — but ever the militant.

Begotxu Olaizola: I think we more defenses if we want to make it.

Patrick Cox: So what do you think, Nina? Like after you’ve reported all of this stuff?

Nina Porzucki: I think it’s complicated.

Patrick Cox: It’s complicated and it’s got 1,001 dialects and people fall out. But on the other hand, they’ve won a lot of the battles. I mean, they do have a standard that is generally accepted, right? And they’ve lived through a dictatorship. They translated all of these things.

Nina Porzucki: What I think really, is that the Basque people are tough as nails. I mean, they’re tough people to have survived basically in exile. What was amazing to me is learning about how much organization and organizing happened in exile. If you’re thinking about this, in the Thirties, and Forties ad Fifties 40s, when you know, there was no internet, so everything — like every piece of news that was spread around, about what was happening back in the home country and then around the globe — was organized by mail. It was just a kind of amazing thing. They started radio stations in exile, they started Basque language schools. So Xabier Irujo, he was born in exile. He was born in Venezuela. And he was going legally to a Basque school in Venezuela. And then his family moved in the mid-Sixties back to Basque Country. And he started going to school again, illegally until things you know, changed.

Patrick Cox: So what happened to him in the end, did he translate any more of those plays?

Nina Porzucki: Xabier’s grandfather? That is the tragic story. The final note before we go — so Bingen, he translated Macbeth into Basque into Gipuzkoan dialect, and he was still living in exile. He was in Venezuela in 1968 when that momentous meeting happened at the monastery. And he got the news that there’s this unified Batua, this unified Basque. And he set to work right away, trying to update all the versions of Shakespeare he had translated. And sadly, he passed away three months later, and he never returned to Basque country.

Patrick Cox: To witness firsthand how the language had flourished.

Nina Porzucki: Yeah and how the standard language had flourished. So it’s a little bittersweet. But his grandson Xabier Irujo also has kids. And they’re trilingual. They all speak Basque. They all speak Spanish. They all speak English. They’re all Euskaldun. I don’t know how to pluralize Basque.

Patrick Cox: It’s a language isolate. They can all do whatever they want.

Nina Porzuck: Exactly.

Patrick Cox: Thanks to Nina Porzucki who I’m hoping will come back from one of her trips to Spain one day with a ton more interviews and stories about the Basque language. Thanks also to Pablo Orduna. Thanks as well to everyone at The World public radio program.

Allison Shao manages Subtitle’s social media and writes the newsletter.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of independent podcasters telling stories that you won’t hear elsewhere. Check out these podcasts: The Briny, Soonish, Iconography, Open Source.

That’s it for today. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod