January 03, 2007

Why is Basque an Ancient Language?

In an article entitled "Peace at Last" in this month's Smithsonian Magazine, Joshua Hammer describes the Basque country as "an enclave marked by an ancient language". What does this mean? Some languages, such as Egyptian, Sumerian, and Hurrian, are referred to as "ancient" because they were used in ancient times and are no longer in use, but that cannot be what Hammer means since Basque is still spoken today. Since most languages are the result of a continuous transmission that stretches indefinitely far back into the mists of time, it doesn't make sense to describe one language as older than another. Most frequently, people who describe one language as older than another are confusing the origin of the language with the date of first attestation in writing, a confusion that Sally Thomason has written about here and here. But that can't be what Hammer means either. Basque is first attested only about five hundred years ago, much later than its Romance neighbors. Even its relative and possible ancestor Acquitanian is attested only from the Roman period.

This seems to be an instance of the same phenomenon as in the description of Yucatec Mayan as "ancient", discussed here, here, and here, where it apparently means that the language is exotic and associated with putatively ancient mysteries. The Basque are different from their neighbors, apparently the only (cultural and linguistic) survivors of the pre-Indo-European population of Western Europe, which once caused them to be regarded as devil worshippers.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 3, 2007 01:12 AM