Jacqueline L. Urla

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Basque Language Revival and Cultural Politics

Euskara, the ancient tongue of the Basque people, is one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages in Europe. During the Franco era it was branded as seditious, but since the mid-1970s the movement to revive Basque has been gaining visibility and popular support. Being Basque, Speaking Basque, Jacqueline Urla's book-in-progress, is based on more than a decade of ethnographic fieldwork in the Spanish province of Gipuzkoa. In it, Urla looks at the culture of Basque language activists and the diverse strategies they employ to ensure the survival of Euskara into the next century.

"The language revival 'movement' is, in fact, very heterogeneous in both ideologies and strategies," Urla said. "Language activists" is a catchall label that includes intellectuals, artists, musicians, linguists, teachers, parents, and young people of varying walks of life. They work in a broad range of configurations, from formal organizations dedicated to promoting Basque education, standardization, and legal status to local grassroots groups engaged in social activities that lie outside the realm of formal language planning. Urla's book devotes particular attention to the radical Basque youth culture and its use of low-power free radio, community magazines, comic books, and joking, slang, and parody. Through such means, Urla suggests, young people challenge Basque marginality by offering alternative ways of understanding language and the self.

"Bringing together ethnography, sociology of language, and cultural studies, this book takes a broad view of language politics, situating the struggles over grammar, orthographies, and literacy within the larger contestation over what it means to be modern, to have a culture, a language, or an ethnic identity in an increasingly transnationalized world," Urla writes. Her manuscript examines what it means to be Basque, the role of the language movement in the reemergence of Basque nationalist political activity, the debate about standardization, the growth of community-based language schools, the free radio movement, and the proliferation of Basque-language punk-rock, protest, and traditional music groups.

Urla sees her work as bridging cultural and linguistic anthropology. "I'm not doing linguistic analysis, but I am concerned with language ideology," she said. "I feel that cultural studies scholars haven't really looked at language issues as a part of multiculturalism. Language is intimately connected with people's lives. I want to convey the sense of investment and urgency that many minority language speakers feel."

"One of my aims is to show that language revival strategies in the twentieth century derive from two assumptions: first, that language is central to cultural identity; second, that language is a social fact that can and must be planned in order to survive." Noting that Basque language revival has received much less attention than have the Basque nationalist movement and political violence, Urla said, "I want to demonstrate that not all nationalist movements are about extreme ethnocentrism. The media tend to emphasize the evils of nationalism, but the youth strategies I'm exploring are inclusive, not exclusive."

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts

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