The surprising story of the Basque language

A few steps from the entrance to the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, one of San Sebastian’s most visible landmarks with its sky-piercing gothic spire, lies a simple, two-faced earthen slab. In this corner of Spain’s Basque Country, it seems out of place: carved on one side with an Apostolic cross and on the other with a mysterious-looking, non-Latin alphabet.

The letters are certainly not Euskara, also known as Basque, an enigmatic European language famous for the absence of any clear links to living linguistic relatives. Rather, this Armenian khachkar (a cross-bearing memorial stele) was placed in central San Sebastian in 2017 by the city’s modern Armenian community to commemorate the centennial of the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, which the Basque Country parliament is one of five parliaments in Spain to officially recognise.

There is a surprising reason for the camaraderie between these two small and distant ethnic groups that are from opposite sides of Europe. Though their languages indicate no superficial resemblance – even the scripts look comparatively alien to one another – they share a baffling litany of words and grammatical elements that are acknowledged by both Armenian and Basque scholars.

When I first saw the Armenian khachkar, I had just arrived from Biarritz in French Basque Country, where the Association AgurArménie (Armenian-Basque association) similarly trumpets a strong friendship between the two ostensibly distinct groups. What’s more, as I clumsily rolled past the memorial with suitcase in hand, I noted that San Sebastian’s khachkar looked familiar. In the Basque Museum in Bayonne, a short distance inland from Biarritz, I’d seen medieval Basque funerary steles that bore artistic motifs with striking similarities to the one in San Sebastian.

Was this just coincidence? Many Armenians believe these similarities are not. Contrary to the popular belief that Basques are a cultural island, the Armenia-origin theory claims linguistic, toponymic, mythological and even DNA links between Armenians and Basques. Though this theory goes back centuries, it was most recently reinvigorated by Armenian linguist Vahan Sargsyan, who published numerous books and studies on the subject, including a first-ever Armenian-Basque dictionary in 2001.

It’s a topic not without controversy. The dominantly upheld theory by many Basques, including on their government tourism site, is that their ethno-linguistic origin is isolated. This means their language and DNA are unique – and is thought to derive directly from hunter-gathers who came to this area long before Neolithic farming entered the region 7,500 years ago.

However, in 2015, DNA testing by population geneticist Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University in Sweden put a dent into this theory when his team found strong DNA matches between skeletons of Neolithic Iberian farmers, which date to 5,500 to 3,500 years ago, and modern day Basques, according to Science Magazine. But the discovery hasn’t brought closure. The researchers also conceded that they couldn’t “entirely rule out the possibility that Basque still has its origins in a hunter-gatherer language that was retained and carried along as farming spread throughout Iberia” – which leaves the mystery unsolved.

Read more: BBC

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