This is a short grammar of the Basque language, or Euskara as it is called by its speakers. What follows is a partial description of the syntax of Euskara.

The text has been arranged in the following fashion: there is an index where you can find the distribution of topics. Within each of the topics, an effort has been made to arrange information from general to specific, so that as you read into a given section, you will get into more details about the topic being under discussion.

This grammar hopes to be useful to a wide variety of users. Therefore, it will probably not satisfy anyone completely: Those who want a quick 'feel' for the language will be disappointed by the slow and messy details the text dives into. Those who want a detailed, professional description will be disappointed by the lack of depth in the discussion. The text hopes to sit somewhere in the middle, and if it tells too much to those who want to know a little, and too little to those who want to know a lot, then it will have done its job.

On more than one occasion, the description will probably state what seems obvious to the professional of language, but perhaps not so obvious to the curious general reader, and hopefully more than once the reverse will happen too; every effort has been made to present all the basic information that is necessary to grasp the mechanics of Euskara, paying most attention to the basics, as should be the case in such a limited text.

The curious and careful reader is sure to construct many sensible questions that are not answered in the text, and to the extent of my capacity I have tried to become an inquisitive reader of this grammar, and then I have tried to answer the questions that seemed most obvious to me. No doubt, many have escaped my fingers, and I would be happy to hear about them from you.

The informed reader who already knows Euskara or about Euskara will find wholes, exceptions that are not mentioned, constructions that are not described, dialectal variants that are completely missing. I have attempted to explain the central facts of Euskara to those who are not acquainted with the language, and I have tried to keep it simple. Any deep, serious and thorough grammar of a language must include all exceptions, constructions and variants, but this one is more like a short visit to the language of the Basques, and thus not everything could be told. At least I hope it manages to make a few readers curious enough to want to look for more in better sources.

About glosses. If you are a really methodical reader, of the kind that actually reads the glosses of the examples, you will notice that the same word may appear glossed in different ways in various parts of the grammar. The reason is that glosses have been kept to the simplest, in order to make the examples easier to read. Since the text provides explanations of examples, the parts not deemed relevant are often glossed rather generally. Details about various parts are provided in different sections. For instance, you may notice that the determiner a is sometimes glossed as 'the', sometimes as 'det'. The reason becomes clear, I hope, in the section devoted to the determiner a, where it is shown that it is not really a definite article ('the'), but very often it can be translated as such. In those examples where the determiner a was not the issue, and where its translation was indeed 'the', I have chosen to write 'the' in the gloss, so you can find it easily.

Naming morphemes. You will notice also that I don't follow the standard practice of attaching a dash in front of a morpheme when mentioning it. I simply write the morpheme, or whichever form it takes more generally, as if I were quoting a word. For instance, and to continue with the example, I write about the determiner a, although it is not written as a separate word, but attached to another one. The standard use is to refer to it as -a instead. But since you can see for yourself that it is indeed attached, I fail to see what is wrong with calling it determiner a. So I do.


About grammars. A grammar is a rather complex mechanism, built out of various elements, which are in turn constructed out of more basic elements, much in the way the entire universe works. Some of these units might be familiar to any user (pretty much anyone who can read knows something about units like 'verb' or 'noun'), but others might only be familiar to a linguistically educated user (for instance, elements like 'morpheme', 'anaphoric', 'irrealis' or 'agreement marker'); still there are other elements that have been recently discovered, and whose very existence might be under debate within the broader linguistic community (terms such as 'unnacusative' or 'complementizer', for instance). This grammar makes an attempt to provide information at various levels of linguistic knowledge, and various types of terms are used, generally the more descriptive ones at the beginning and the more technical ones as the discussion progresses. If you are not a linguist, and not even curious about linguistics, you can simply skip the discussion if it gets too strange, and move on.

Apologies. Writing the description of a human grammar feels like knitting an infinite sweater that never fits. At some point a decision is made that this much knitting is enough for the sleeves, and this much knitting will have to do as far as the neck is concerned. Grammarians know there is more to be said about this construction here, and that further questions could be investigated regarding that other one there. They might stop and declare a given text finished, but they know there is much that was left untouched. In fact, as a grammarian I have often felt like one of the four blind men that Buddha introduced to an elephant to illustrate the complexity of truth, but I was the one who had to knit a sweater for the elephant on top of it all. So this sweater will never quite fit, but the hope still remains that it might at least cover a few parts of the elephant's humongous body. It is in this hope that I offer you this forever incomplete piece of work.

Itziar Laka

2. LOCATION: where is Euskara spoken?

Euskara is spoken by a population of around 600.000 to 700.000 people.The Basques call themselves euskaldun, a term that means 'euskara speaker' (for the names euskara, vasco, vascuence, vascongado, see Mitxelena (1977:13-16)). Languages exist in the minds of their speakers, they do not have a land of their own. Thus, when locating Euskara on the world's map, we are simply pointing out those areas where Euskara speakers are more likely to be found, that is, where Euskara is most likely to be heard, or where it is most likely to be used as primary language. In this sense of geographical location, Euskara is spoken mostly within the Basque Country (or Euskal Herria in Euskara). The Basque Country is found in the western Pyrenees, a land within Spanish borders to the West, and within French borders to the East. The areas where native Basque speakers are most likely to be found covers totally or partially the seven lands of the Basque Country. From West to East, this area includes: the land of Biscay (except for the corner to the west of the city of Bilbao and Bilbao itself), the Valley of Aramaiona in the northern side of the land of Alava, the land of Guipuscoa, the northwestern area of the land of Navarre, the land of Labourd (except for the urban areas of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz), the land of the Lower Navarre, and the land of Soule.


Euskara appears to have always been spoken by a rather small community, never beyond 600.000 or 700.000 individuals in its known history. In the Middle Ages, the geographical area where Euskara was the main language covered all the Basque Provinces in their entirety, except for the western tip of Biscay and the southernmost tip of Navarre and Alava. For some centuries, this area expanded beyond the Basque Country to the south, into parts of the Rioja region and north of Burgos. It is also likely that in the high valleys of the Pyrenees, east of today's Basque Country, varieties of the language were alive well into the Middle Ages.

Since the Middle Ages, the area where Euskara is the main language of communication has shrank relentlessly. By the XVIIIth century it lost large parts of the province of Alava, and during the XIXth century large areas of Navarre lost the language as well. In contrast to the southern area, were the language has disappeared increasingly in the last three centuries, the northern borders of the Euskara speaking area have remained stable, probably in relation to the fact that the neighbouring language was not French but rather Gascon, a very distinct variety of Occitan. Nowadays, Euskara's territory has been reduced to Biscay -except the western tip and the city of Bilbao-, Guipuscoa, the valley of Aramaio in the north of Alava, the northwestern area of Navarre and all the Northern Basque Country (the Basque area within French borders), except for the urban areas of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz.

The oldest traces of Euskara in history are a set of proper names found in Roman inscriptions in the Aquitanie. They consist mostly of person and divinity names, which are easily recognizable given modern Basque: thus for instance, Andere corresponds to andere 'woman, lady', and Nescato corresponds to neskato 'maiden'. There are also a few adjectives and suffixes that further confirm the fact that these are the first written traces of Euskara, dating from the first centuries after Christ.

While up to the present century the predominant and often only language used in the Euskara speaking area was Euskara, we cannot say the same about this century. Nowadays, even within the Euskara speaking region, a minority of the population knows the language: only a fourth of the inhabitants of the Basque country and slightly less than half of the inhabitants of the Euskara speaking area. However, the number of speakers is increasing in the younger generations of the areas that include Euskara at school, and there is also a large number of adults who have learned or are learning the language (see Intxausti (1990) for more details).


For more information about the Hystory of Basque and the Basques, as well as Basque Culture and where to learn Basque, look into these pages:

For more information, questions... about this grammar you can send a mail to:

Itziar Laka


(c) Itziar Laka

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