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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Basque language "normalization" and its difficulties

Arantxa Etxebarri writes today in Gara an essay named Eight wrong ideas on Basque language normalization. It is a long article but it is also quite interesting, so I'll try to summarize her ideas, the eight wrong concepts and why they seem to be wrong, here:

1. The real problem of Basque language is that those who know it speak it rarely. The reality is that it is too common that Basque speakers (all bilingual, with the odd elderly rural exception) cannot use the national language, either in the public services or in daily life. Out of almost 3 million Basques only 700,000 are fluent in Basque language and the rest are very likely to consciously or unconsciously impose their language.

But stats indicate that the Basque speaker tends to use Basque language as much as they can. The problem is that there are way too many monolinguals (Spanish or French monolinguals with little knowledge of Basque) and that each time one of them gets in any social circle the language is switched for courtesy or mere need of communication.

2. Linguistic policies are dependant on the social and political consensus and of free will. Etxebarri claims that, even at risk of being politically incorrect, this cannot be the case; that the survival and normalization of the Basque language demands a policy with capital letters; that there are linguistic rights that cannot be negotiated. The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights states that everybody has the right to get information in their native tongue, that means that everything, including product tags must be in Basque language, not on voluntary basis but by law. Nobody has done anything to guarantee that right. Neither product tags, nor publicity, nor instruction manuals, nor movies offer have seen significatively increase their offer in Basque language on voluntary grounds in the last 25 years.

3. The advance of Basque language in the last years has been a success. Etxebarri says that way too much has been left undone, that administrations systematically vulnerate the rights of Basque-speakers, that such an important institution as the public health service Osakidetza (Western Basque Country only) has been left without a language normalization process until four years ago. She says that if this would have been done early on, when it was being formed, the situation would be much different.

She directly attacks right-wing "nationalist" politician Azkuna, current mayor of Bilbao and previously director of Osakidetza for this wrongdoing. But she also denounces that under his rule, Bilbao, the largest Basque city, lacks of translation of the municipal ordinances to the Basque language. Unbelievable!

4. The legal frame that regulates lingusitic normalization is the appropiate one. No private institution is legally bound to guarantee any service in Basque language. Neither companies nor religious sects are obligued to provide their services in Basque at all (they must do in Spanish though) and therefore all complaints in this regard are dismissed.

Etxebarri demands a POLICY with capital letters in this regard, so the rights of Basque speakers are protected properly.

5. Basque language must be normalized basically on public grants. She claims that rules must be at least parallel to them, that voluntarism is not enough. That without clear specific rules, the linguistic rights are not guaranteed even by the public institution dedicated to Basque language, Elebide.

6. Basque language can be normalized without defined deadlines, progressively. Etxebarri protests that "progressively" means nothing and that this term is used as excuse for going slowly, much more slowly that it is possible. She claims that clear deadlines and goals, both final and intermediate, must be defined in order to measure the success or failure of the actual policies.

7. The demand of knowledge of Basque language in the public administration is discriminatory. Etxebarri states that it is exactly the opposite, that the lack of that demand discriminates against Basque speakers, forcing them to change to Spanish.

There is an apaprent conflict between labor rights and linguistic rights but apparently this conflict is always solved against the latter. Some labor unions work hard to make sure that the demand of knowledge of Basque language for public servants is kept at minimal levels, that way they assure that their affiliates, who mostly don't speak Basque and have no interest in learning it, are not "discriminated".

She says: I cannot speak German, I admit it, and, if the German goverment doesn't hire me for that reason, they are not discriminating against me, they are just informing me that I cannot attend their citizens with minimal guarantees.

In other words: speaking Basque fluently should be a requirement for Basque public servants.

8. The increase in knowledge of the language assures its normalization. The great bet in this aspect has been the younger generations, as many adults have considered themselves (because of Fascist persecution) a lost generation. The result is that the social and laboral spaces has not seen any major increase in the use of Basque language. Etxebarri suggests that the only way to achieve this normalization is by bringing the Basque language back to these social spaces, making easier to Basque speakers to live their lives in the old language. This, she insists, cannot be done by mere voluntarism but by serious policies.

She concludes that, in spite of the inistitutional marketing, living in Basque language is still a pain, full of obstacles an unsurmontable difficulties.


As for me, I can only say that I agree with her: that the recovery of the ancient language can only be achieved by political means. We certainly need our own sovereignity in order to be able to create laws independently of France and Spain, which have different interests and objectives, but we also need a political class that is not shy and reluctant of making clear advances towards the recovery of Basque language and the defense of linguistic rights.


Ariel said...

Aloha. I read you post with interest, and solidarity. I am also advocating for cultural pluralism in the Philippines. The founding of linguistically democratic community of peoples moves me so, and in the diaspora of Ilokanos (oftentimes lumped with the non-ethnic term Filipino), your Basque causes seem to run parallel to our own with the hegemony, for years and years on end, of English and the Tagalog language of the center of power. Good luck to your pursuit and dreams.

BTW, I found you via Google search engine using 'Basque language normalization'. Would you mind if I quoted you in my forthcoming essays on the cause of linguistic democracy in the Philippines?

Maju said...

Aloha, Ariel.

Sure, feel absolutely free to quote or reproduce anything in this blog (with due akcnowledgement preferably). In any case this post is just my own abstract of a longer article in Spanish language (linked in post) that you may to prefer using instead (specially if you can get a full translation to English, something I guess easy in such a hispanized city as LA).

I have to admit I'm not really knowledgeable of the ethnic diversity of the Philippines. I know that it is a diverse country, mostly of Austronesian stock (plus some Negrito minorities) and that, as you mention, English and Tagalog are the official and dominant languages. IMO such diverse states would be a lot better with, at least, a federal system in which all ethnicities are recognized in equal terms and can manage their own affairs democratically.