March 11, 2004

A language that no one can learn

In a discussion on the BBC World Service today after the appalling tragedy of the train bombings in Madrid, the Basque separatist organization ETA was being blamed (perhaps too soon: Al Qaeda has now reportedly claimed credit for the slaughter). Professor Fred Halliday, Professor of International Relations at LSE and an expert on terrorism, spoke angrily and contemptuously about young-generation Basque separatists "whingeing about nothing" (since all reasonable demands have basically been met by moves toward granting of local government autonomy in the Basque country), and spoke of their intransigence. As part of what he said about their wild nationalism and unreachability by moral or political argument, he said, "For a start they speak a language that no one can learn."

It's a pity this myth about the Basque language still drifts around out there as part of the folk nonsense about language that most people have heard somewhere or other.

Basque is not Indo-European, so learning it should be compared with learning Japanese rather than with learning Spanish; but it's perfectly learnable. My friend Larry Trask (an American) at the University of Sussex is thoroughly conversant with it, and has a Basque language page devoted to providing information that is "free of the errors, misconceptions, and just plain lunacies that so often turn up in published sources of information on the language." Rudolph de Rijk (a Dutchman) wrote a dissertation on its syntax at MIT decades ago. One of my teaching assistants this quarter (an American) has spent some enjoyable summers learning it. Lots of non-Basques have successfully learned it.

Whatever the reasons might be for the political isolation of the Basque nationalists, let's not add completely mythical difficulties. If the members of the Basque nationalist movement are politically unreachable at the moment, it's not because their language is unreachable by linguistic analysis, or unlearnable by people who want to learn it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 11, 2004 02:24 PM