Basque, 'the oldest language'

There are, from time to time, some articles or speeches which address a common misconception hardly related to linguistics, namely that of Basque being ‘the oldest language’.

Firstly, let me say that I (as many others) like the Basque language specially because of its peculiarity: it is one of those strange language isolates that can be found in some corners of the world, having resisted the linguistic battle of those unending cultural wars that contact between different human societies usually generate. In this very case, the language resisted the spread of Indo-European dialects in Western Europe, just as Uralic resisted mainly in the North, and Caucasian languages did in the East. It is, so to speak, a European linguistic anomaly, as it could be said of Andorra, San Marino or Liechtenstein, if we were talking about the history of European states’ formation.

1. Basque as Europe’s oldest language: Europe’s oldest written language, as far as I know, is Minoan, possibly a language isolate of Crete (and not a Proto-Greek dialect), spoken before the Mycenaean invasion; and that only if we don’t believe that the Vinča-Tordos script or other known scripts were writing systems at all. Europe’s oldest attested language, with strong basis on archaelogical and linguistic findings combined, is of course Proto-Indo-European. That doesn’t mean that Indo-European is the oldest language, though, but only that it is the farthest we can go back in the prehistory of languages, with the linguistic (glottochronology) and archaeological (kurgan hypothesis) findings we have today.
2. Basque as Europe’s oldest non-Indo-European language: again, Minoan is the oldest, non-Indo-European language known to have been written within the European subcontinent; archaeologically attested, I guess, it could be argued that a hundred different non-Indo-European languages were spoken (or even written) at a very old time – some want to trace languages back into Palaeolithic! -, in this or that territory, because of this or that hypothetical cultural continuity found. Even if there were scientific basis to justify them, those cultural continuities obviously wouldn’t imply an ethnic or linguistic continuity; at least none we can ever demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt.
3. Basque as Spain’s oldest language: we can only talk about a Basque ‘ethnic group’ and basque-related toponyms, specially in Aquitania, since the first Roman invasions, thanks to the writings of Roman historian Strabo, who lived around the beginnings of our Era. Before those writings we only know that, apart from the Vasconians, the (also non-IE) Iberians and the (mainly IE) Celtiberians, Celts and Lusitanians inhabited what is today Spain. Then, if Proto-Indo-European is attested well before that Roman invasion and (knowing about the Celtic migrations’ timeline) if the Lusitanians were really, as suggested, Celtic-like tribes who migrated before them from central Europe – where Italo-Celtic speaking tribes lived – to the South West, then they are the oldest proven people of Spain. That, again, does not mean that any language is ‘oldest’ than others, as such exactness about the origin of a language is impossible to ascertain without a time machine; it is just to prove how wrong the general assuption about Basque is, to the extent that not only the discussion is in itself absurd, but also the common arguments used.
4. Basque as Spain’s oldest non-Indo-European language: again, if we are going to use myths (like some Paleolithic linguistic continuity theories), we should first look at those old written records that talk about Tartessos, a region located in present-day Western Andalusia, where the oldest non-IE attested language of Spain was spoken, Tartessian, possibly an Iberian dialect. We could also talk about Phoenician as a non-Indo-European language of some very old Spanish ports.
5. Basque as Spain’s oldest living language: this is a better approach to the matter, but still far from solving it. Clearly No: Spain’s oldest (attested) living languages are exactly all the Indo-European ones. The history of Spanish, Catalan and Galician (through Latin) can be traced back thousands of years, into its probable pre-Proto-Indo-European origin in the Russian steppes, near present-day Ukraine. Because Basque is only one language, its history cannot be extrapolated anywhere back from Strabo’s short description about the Vasconians; before him, it can only be speculated, not proven.
6. Basque as Spain’s oldest living indigenous language: still better than 5., but also wrong. What we could say is that, ‘since the Roman Invasion, Basque is the only living indigenous language of Spain‘ – that is because we don’t actually know if Basque was really indigenous (i.e. not resulting from migrations) to Spain, or if their speakers – or maybe only the language – arrived to the Pyrenees just before the Romans, maybe from Africa or Eastern Europe. What we do know is that Indo-European dialects didn’t originate in Spain, but we don’t know anything about the origins of the Basque language.

However, point 6. is also wrong, as today’s Basque language is not the same as the old Basque (or Aquitanian) language; in fact, if today’s Basque is a probable dialect of the attested primitive Aquitanian language, is it not Latin also a dialect of Indo-European? or, still better, is it not Latin a dialect of the Italo-Celtic Indo-European dialectal group of Central Europe? And isn’t Italo-Celtic still spoken in Spain, in the form of different modern dialects, like Spanish, Catalan or Galician? Now, if the answer is yes, then Basque cannot even be considered the oldest living indigenous language of Spain since the Roman invasion, as Italo-Celtic – in the form of Lusitanian, Celtic and Latin – could be considered the oldest language really attested, and therefore modern Indo-European languages of Spain could also be considered indigenous.
7. Basque as Spain’s oldest living non-Indo-European language: nope. Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese and other Spanish immigrants’ languages can be traced back well before Basque, and they are also non-Indo-European.
8. Basque as Spain’s oldest living indigenous non-Indo-European language: yes, that’s true. It is tautological, though, as Basque is the only living non-Indo-European language of Spain, so it is necessarily also ‘the oldest’ one.

As a conclusion, not being able to use the above descriptions, one could be tempted to promote it saying that Basque is not related to any other language. This is obviously untrue. Basque hasn’t any known linguistic relative; that does not mean that it isn’t actually related to any language or language family, whether dead or alive. In fact, what many romantics believe is the panacea of the Basque language – namely, the lack of proofs on its origin, history and linguistic relationships – is exactly what makes its study in historical linguistics somehow boring: if there are no known languages related to Basque – with which its evolution could be compared -, but only a linear history from Aquitanian to modern Basque through some mediaeval texts, then the study of the language history is done for the most part. What remains open is just a huge historical linguistic vacuum before the Roman sources, usually filled up with speculation.

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20 comments

  1. Pingback: Indo-European language blog » Blog Archive » Tamil vs. Sanskrit, or Indian ‘official classical languages’, and the first tongue in India (AKA. Indus Valley Civilization language)
  2. Aslam Nadeem

    I am sereaching the origin of Burushaski Language since ten years as research fellew (M. Phil/D. phil student) at Pakistan study centre University of Karachi and i am belong to Hunza valley the home land of Burusho people. I have studied many articles regarding the resemblance and common origin of Burushaski and Basqs. and according to my research and openion we Burusho people and Basq have lived togather in remote past in a single place for many years but not single common origin.

  3. X

    in reality the most oldest language in Europe, wich is still alive, is Lithuanian language! This is 100 proc. if true.

  4. X

    in reality the most oldest language in Europe, wich is still alive, is Lithuanian language! This is 100 proc. of true.

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  6. Laura

    First, basque is spoken not only in spain.

    And second, if you say that ” Basque hasn’t any known linguistic relative; that does not mean that it isn’t actually related to any language or language family, whether dead or alive…” if you are saying that, you can´t say also basque is not (Europe’s oldest language/Europe’s oldest non-Indo-European language/Spain’s oldest language…) because you have not any consistent proof of that. In reality you said a lot of things but you said nothing, only that you don´t know any true about basque language.

    And another think, languages do change obviously, but the protobasque writings founds are the same as these days, the order into a phrase also doesn´t change although these artificial unified basque says that, and that the euskera from aquitanian change a lot, it is a lie also because you cannot proof it, although today they use a latin, spanish, french, english modern words by influence or because in basque didn´t exist.

  7. Richard

    It is often argued that Basque is the oldest European language. This arguement is mainly used by Basques to prove their uniquness. It is also argued that it is a unique language unlike any other. However doesn’t it use a form of initial letter mutation for grammatical reasons. Gailic, Welsh, Cornish etc also do. Doesn’t it have the letter A as a very common letter? Welsh has C and Gailic PH/F etc. Grammatically it appears at least infuenced by the celtic languages. The history of Basque is not as well documented as some languages but evidence that it is the oldest language is poor. Just because we cannot prove that it is not doesn’t make it the oldest.

    Arguing about if it is the oldest takes attention away from the fact that it is a beautiful and valuable language.

    All that we do know for sure is that nobody can prove which is the oldest Eurpean language but we know that languages like Basque, Welsh, Lithuanian and Ancient Greek are very old.

    I can’t help the feeling that many Basques actually want Basque to be the oldest but that doesn’t make it so.

  8. John Bengtson

    In general, any dispute about which is the “oldest” language is futile: we must assume that ALL known languages (except consciously created ones like Esperanto) are more or less EQUALLY OLD. Languages that are cited as especially “old” – such as Lithuanian – are actually only archaic in certain respects. While Lithuanian is markedly archaic in phonology (preservation of phonetic forms) and in vocabulary, English and other Germanic languages are more archaic in preserving Indo-European verbal ablaut (such as the vowel alternations in “sing, sang, sung, song”) than Lithuanian, which has mostly lost this form of ablaut.

    RE #1: Proto-Indo-European is not an attested language but a RECONSTRUCTED language. Archaeological sites, unless they include identifiable inscriptions, cannot be indisputably linked to specific languages. Thus the identification of Indo-European with Kurgan is disputed.

    RE #8: ” … one could be tempted to promote it saying that Basque is not related to any other language. This is obviously untrue.” With reservations, I agree (see below):

    Since the 1980s I have been scientifically studying the question of the origin of the Basque language. Since I have no Basque ancestry or personal attachments to Basques, I had no preconceptions about the end result, and it made no difference to me personally what the results would be.

    From a scientific standpoint, if Basque does have identifiable relatives, they could be found by concentrating on the most basic realms of its vocabulary, and its oldest grammatical features. I found that some old suspicions about relations with Caucasian languages were the most likely, specifically with North Caucasian (Northwest and Northeast Caucasian), for example Abkhaz, Avar, and Chechen, rather than with “South Caucasian,” now usually known as Kartvelian (Georgian, Laz, Svan, etc.). The specific words common to Basque and North Caucasian (cognates) have also been found to be relatable phonologically, i.e. with recurrent sound correspondences.

    The evidence for these findings is detailed in several published articles and in my book _Linguistic Fossils_. Some of the articles are accessible on my homepage: http://jdbengt.net/

    So far it is true that my findings are not generally accepted by linguists, if only because most of these scholars are unaware of the findings and/or are unable to discuss them objectively.

  9. paul metcalfe

    Basque is the oldest spoken language in Europe. One theory is that when the last glacial period started, most nomads living in northern Europe were driven south & east hence Indo-European. They were a small number of nomads who migrated to the Iberian plains. When the Ice Age ended the Basques ( modern name ) were driven to the Atlantic shelter on what is now the Spanish French border. Hence their language has absolutely no connection with Indo-European.

    It is also theorised that these same nomads migrated to Britain & Ireland & settled there long before the Celts arrived, between 14,000 – 7,000 BC. Oppenheimer’s dna theory suggests that the British & Irish have more Basque dna than Celt or Germanic. Maybe our ancestors spoke a similar language once !

  10. !

    Dear John Bengtson,
    …Lithuanian has mostly lost this form of ablaut. ???
    Have a look: gerti-girtas,gilus-gelme,rijo-rajus,kesti-kancia,ugis-augti.Would You like to get some more examples?Anytime,anytime just ask.

  11. mallorca

    Basque people are direct descendents of the cromagnon man ffs lol they are the original europeans btw

  12. England

    Crete was settled by atlanteans n many say the basques are the atlanteans so basque would be the oldest language and the language spoken in the garden of eden.

  13. England

    tribe of dan=basque people(the sea peoples) thats why they say the tribe of dan settled the british isles and ireland and now we learned the 1st people to settle the bitish isles and ireland are the basque people thats why they are blood brothers of the irish,welsh scots n to a lesser extent the english

  14. Nic

    My family is 100% pure Basque. The fact of the language is it is one of the oldest languages. It is the only language that has no other language like it. Not Latin based or anything. Next Basque people are the oldest in the world. So old in fact the orgins before spain are unknown. Obviously doing the research on just the bloodline will tell you that
    I am not saying they are the first written language. Just the oldest spoken.

  15. lingon

    If Indo-European originated in the Ukraine or Turkey, it must have caused other originally European languages to become extinct. It would have been of interest to know something about the maximum distribution of Finnish-Ugrian languages in the Neolithic. The Saami have obviously been pushed back much farther north than what was originally the proto-Saami area, if indeed the proto-Saami spoke a language related to Saami in the Neolithic. If Fenno-Ugrian could to some degree be retraced, place names in northern Europe might indicate a more southerly distribution of this language in the past. The Saami are one of the peoples of Europe who kept a hunter gatherer economy well into historical times. The Fenno-Ugrian language might therefor be connected to hunter gatherer groups of the neolithic, maybe also the mesolithic.
    One might even speculate that Fenno-Ugrian and Basque are related languages far, far back. When the common language roots are eventually 10-15000 years old it makes however no sense to search for similarities between these languages as they must both have been changed beyond any possible recognition over the last 15000 years.

    I have had a certain interest in place names to see what they can tell us about historical movement of peoples. I have tried to have a look at parts of the world where groups of farmers obviously have replaced hunter-gatherers directly to understand the type of place names eventually borrowed from indiginous peoples. The US, Australia and New Zealand are countries where the the types of borrowed names from indiginous tribes can be studied with some credibility. The general pattern is that names of the grand structure of nature are the place names borrowed. By “the grand structure” I refer to the names of areas or districts, rivers and creeks, ponds, lakes, islands and also mountains and prominent hills. When transferring this theory to Scandinavia the same pattern can be recognized. The inexplicable names here belong to the same cathegories as the above mentioned. Quite a few can be recognized as Saami place names, in areas the Saami must have left more than a thousand years ago. Other place names have been changed byond recognition over the cause of time.
    The Saami word “Ednan” is one of the interesting ones, meaning mother land/earth. The Scandinavian mythical name “Jotun” is interesting in this respect as it is derived from a proto Nordic word with long e /e:tun/. There is a certain conservatism in the use of place names that causes them not to change very much although languages as such change all the time. One example is the name of the river “Etna” in southern Norway which has its sources in “Jotunheimen” i.e. the home of the Jotun. Although hard to prove the connection Etna-Jotun is nearly too good to be true. Supported by archaeological evidence that 1000 years old Saami hut foundations are found in this area the possible connection between Ednan-Etne-e:tun-Jotun is certainly not weakened.

  16. lingon

    I would like to add that the linguistic distance from “Edne” to “Edoni” or “Don” is not necesarily very long.

  17. mikeguidoj

    Lemme take a guess here…. Carlos, you’re from spain? I don’t buy the argument… If you were 2 be transported back 2 pre Bronze Age Spain, would you be able 2 comunicate through speach in Basque…?

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