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date: 23 February 2017

Romance in Contact with Basque

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Basque is a language isolate spoken along the Atlantic coast in an area on both sides of the French-Spanish border covering approximately 7,000 square kilometres. There are currently around 700,000 speakers, over 90% of whom live on the Spanish side. Up to the second half of the 20th century, the Basque language would have been more appropriately described as a language family, as regional variation was so extreme it could prevent mutual intelligibility, with different regions also having distinctive literary varieties. The standardization of the 20th century has reduced, but not eliminated this variation, so that Basque is now best described as a pluricentric language with several standards reflecting current administrative borders. The co-existence of Basque with Romance goes back about two millennia and, despite the recent standardization and transition from diglossia to co-official use of Basque, the traces of the long and intensive contact with Romance remain visible in all areas of the Basque language. Although Castilian Spanish originated in geographical proximity to the Basque-speaking areas, the impact of Basque on Romance is much more limited.

The influence of Spanish on Basque is particularly manifest in the tense-aspect system of Southern Basque, which has come to be modeled on that of Spanish, with every Spanish tense-aspect category having a Basque counterpart. This parallelism extends into aspectual periphrastic constructions involving such verbs as “bring” and “go.” Just like Spanish, the Basque varieties in contact with it distinguish between “be,” expressing a property versus a state, and “have,” used as an auxiliary versus a verb of possession. While the default constituent order of Basque is verb-final, object clauses and other subordinate clauses are often found in post-predicate position, matching the order found in Spanish. Basque has various strategies to express relative and passive constructions, some of which are again modelled on Romance. Furthermore, there are many calques in derived words and idiomatic expressions. Finally, we find some striking phonetic resemblances between Basque and Spanish, some of which may be the result of bilingualism.