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Winter 2007

My First Language

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Bernardo Atxaga

For a brief period during my childhood, euskara, or Basque, was, for me, simply the language I used every day. I had no views about it, and I had no concerns as to its future. I called my father and my mother atta and ama, just as I called the rain ebi and the sun eguzki, for that is what euskara was for—naming people and things with the usual words. In that sense, I was no different from any of the other children who had, in the past, been born in my house, Irazune: they too, regardless of whether it was the twentieth century or the nineteenth or the eighteenth, had said atta, ama, ebi, and eguzki when they wanted to refer to father, mother, rain, or sun. It was the same for other children in my village, Asteasu, and for many others throughout the length and breadth of the Basque Country: we were all euskaldunak, that is, "people who possess euskara."

It was not, however, the only language I heard around me. Some of my playmates, the daughters and sons of the first Andalusian immigrants, spoke in Castilian Spanish—papá, mamá, lluvia, sol—and so did the village doctor and the schoolteachers; the latter had no option, because, at the time, one of the official objectives of education was precisely that-to teach us this second language. Castilian was also the language that blasted out of the enormous radio sets presiding over the main bar in the village or the school-cum-workshop for dressmakers. As we walked down the street, we would hear sighs and cries saying, "¡Te amo, Gustavo!" ("I love you, Gustavo!") or "¡Gol de Puskas!" ("A goal by Puskas!"), and with those expressions our ears began to become attuned.

Then again, we frequently went to church, where some of the prayers were still in Latin: Pater noster... And even though we used it very little, Latin was important to us because, as the language of a religion that spoke of far-off places like Galilee and Babylon, or of the sweet pastures of heaven, it seemed to us mysterious, even more so when it was accompanied by the sound of the organ and the smell of incense. Latin reinforced, by contrast, the normality of other languages, especially the one we used most, euskara. Had anyone asked me if my first language was important to me, I wouldn't even have understood the question. I would have replied that yes, it was, but only because speaking and saying things is important.

Before my childhood was over, I was already bilingual, and my playmates were equally bilingual. Castilian made rapid progress amongst us, thanks to school and, to an even greater extent, thanks to that new arrival, television: it was one thing hearing the goals scored by Puskas and another, far more attractive thing seeing them. We children would all crowd into the bar whenever there was a match; and it was a very different experience indeed hearing the sighs of Gustavo and his girlfriend and actually witnessing the way in which heart-throb Roger Moore, of The Saint, flirted with Vanessa or Samantha or possibly both.

As well as Castilian, television promoted other languages too. The films may have been dubbed—"Eres adorable, Vanessa"—but the screen also showed us signs and posters and letters on which one could read and learn English words and phrases like open, wanted, or I love you. Lastly, at around that time, the first French tourists began to appear in Asteasu: they would arrive on a Sunday morning and address us with a "S'il vous plaît, restaurante, dónde," later thanking us for our help with a merci beaucoup.

So, by 1960, in a small village in the Basque Country, we were more or less familiar with five languages: euskara, Castilian, Latin, French, and English.

I don't know how much influence this fact had on our lives, on mine and on that of many Basques, but it clearly gave us a special linguistic awareness, a knowledge that, however amateurish or naïve, we are all of us linguists.

This is not a very common situation. I remember, for example, something that happened to me once in Scotland. I had gone to a supper given by my neighbor and was having some difficulty following the conversation of my fellow guests, which centered on a new film about Mozart. They asked me my opinion, and I replied as best I could, substituting any English words I didn't know with words that seemed to me universal. At one moment, I can't remember why, I used the word "hypocrisy." The other guests gazed at me in amazement: "Hypocrisy!" exclaimed my host. "My, your English is coming on!" said the others in the same admiring tone.

I compared their situation with that of my father. One day, my father— who was a carpenter and had never heard of Mozart—learned from someone that there was a Japanese ship called Mitxirrika docked in the port of Bilbao, and he returned home musing on the odd coincidence between that name and the word we use in euskara—also mitxirrika—to mean butterfly, and on the possible relationship between our language and Japanese.

I left childhood having learned that lesson. There were many languages in the world besides the one we had learned at home. Nevertheless, more lessons awaited me, more bitter than the first. The idea that euskara was a normal language was soon to be refuted.

I was leaving school one day with a few friends when a young man came over to us and asked if we knew where we lived. We thought he was joking, but he wasn't. He wasn't talking about geography, but about politics. He mentioned the civil war, the bombing of Guernica, fascism, and Nazism. "Now you know where you live," he concluded. "In a fascist state, under the heel of a dictator who wants to destroy Basque culture. Haven't you noticed? There are no Basque schools and no Basque television stations. Everything is forbidden to us." Nothing of what the young man said to us rang any bells because our parents never discussed politics in front of the children, and so we ignored him and made to move away. Annoyed by our lack of interest, the young man spoke to me directly: "You should know about these things!" he shouted. "After all, your mother worked as a teacher, teaching Castilian! She collaborated with fascism!"

This accusation made little impression on me because I didn't think much of the young man nor did I believe anything he might say; however, a few days later, during an argument with my mother, for some reason I repeated what he had said. "Oh, so I shouldn't teach Castilian in school!" exclaimed my mother angrily. "The cheek of the little rich kid! He goes to French classes, but he doesn't want the country children to speak anything else but euskara! Tell him from me that all the children I teach want to learn Castilian, and the teachers who don't teach it have a reputation as bad teachers."

Shortly afterwards, I went off to study at a school in the city, and I discovered that both the young man and my mother were right. One of my teachers could never speak of the Basque Country without describing it as "treacherous" because it had refused to collaborate with General Franco's crusade; on the other hand, the students from good families considered that some of their classmates from the provinces were "too Basque" and heaped upon them all the many insults that have ever been invented for country folk.

My second lesson had begun. Euskara was not like the other languages I knew. There was a battle going on around it, and a violent one. Those who had been in favor of the bombing of Guernica rebuked those Basques who used their language in public with "hable usted en cristiano"—"speak Christian"; the newspapers, for their part, referred to it as a "rustic language," useless when it came to discussing culture, modern culture anyway.

I didn't know it at the time, but, in the future, war would continue to be waged in the Basque Country. It must not be forgotten that one of the aims of the organization ETA—which, now, after more than a thousand deaths, appears to be prepared to lay down its arms-is the defense of the Basque language and culture.

In the years following my childhood, my father organized a competition at home. This involved designing a poster like the ones used to advertise events at local fiestas, except that this time it was not an advertisement for a cycling race or a dance band, but a request: "Egizu euskaraz, arren" ("Speak in Basque, please"). We asked my father where he intended to hang the poster, and he pointed to one of the walls in the corridor of our house. He had noticed that we, in common with the other village children, were all tending to speak more and more Castilian, and this, he saw, would eventually lead to the death of the Basque language.

I was just about to learn the third lesson: as well as the plurality of languages and the social and political battle being waged around them, there was also the matter of death. Languages could disappear and end up bequeathing their words to museums, like ancient coins that are no longer legal tender. And Basque, alas, was in danger of doing just that. Our father hung the winning entry—a wooden disc with letters painted on it in red glitter paint—in the corridor of the house, and there it stayed for a long time.

The "poster" reappeared a few months ago. My brothers and I came across it while we were rooting around in the attic of our old house. The wooden base was split, but the glittering letters—Egizu euskaraz, arren —had survived well; they even glittered a little when we dusted the "poster" off. "Shall we hang it up again?" I asked my brothers. But it was a joke. The situation has changed a lot since 1980, and not just because of the political autonomy that the Basque Country gained after the reestablishment of democracy.

Naturally, the future of the euskaldunak remains uncertain, as does the future of many other minorities around the world, but one can no longer doubt the people's support for the language. The people—about a million, a third of the population in the Basque Country—keep the newspaper Berria going, as well as the Basque TV and radio stations, and the books, a thousand titles a year, that are published in euskara. Then there are the children and young people who, since the spread of euskara batua, the standard literary form of Basque, say aita or euri instead of atta or ebi and study in bilingual schools and universities.

According to Chateaubriand, on the shores of Amazonian rivers one could still hear the words of disappeared languages because the parrots repeated them—for parrots, of course, can live to be a hundred. This is not the case with Basque. Our language may not last as long as that stubborn glitter paint did on the wooden disc, but it will survive all the parrots currently alive in the world.

People who only speak English or Spanish, and occasionally, too, those who come from countries with a particularly turbulent history—I'm thinking of certain countries in Eastern Europe—find the Basques' attachment to their language odd, even slightly absurd. "Why is it so important that the Basque language should survive?" an American journalist asked me recently. "Leaving aside its intrinsic beauty and originality, of course," she added, in order not to appear too rude.

I replied with an ancient aphorism—"Everything that lives desires to last"-—but this failed to impress the journalist, who looked unconvinced. "It's true," I said, "we want our language to last, not because it's pretty or because it's ancient, but for one simple reason, because it's a language we know well and which is useful to us in our daily lives." I wanted to add: "Just as English is to you." But I didn't dare.

"Some people say that Basques could communicate perfectly well with each other in Castilian," she went on, meaning: "Why insist on continuing to speak a minority language when you could use one spoken by three hundred million people?" I told her that we were bilingual and that, as a writer, I published in both languages, and that since two languages were better than one, I could see only advantages. "But advantages apart," I continued in my defense, "what matters is reality. With some people I speak euskara and with others Castilian. Obviously, I could phone my wife and talk to her in Castilian, but she would find that very odd. We've been speaking to each other in euskara for the last twenty years." She had no answer to that, but I was left feeling that I had behaved like a smart-ass. However much experience of life he may have, any member of a minority will rarely emerge unscathed from an interrogation by a member of the majority.

With interviews or without them, the euskaldun learns a fourth lesson. He will have to advance as the bird does in Kant's example, that is, thanks to the resistance of the air, except that, in the case of the euskaldun, the air will be full of clichés, and so it will be less of an atmosphere and more of a stereotyposphere.

If the euskaldun in question is, as I am, a writer, the stereotyposphere will, were such a thing possible, be even denser. One day, they will tell him that he writes in a language "without a literary tradition," as if nothing had ever been published in Basque before (the first book dates from 1545), or as if literary tradition were an esoteric quality shared by only four or five languages, rather than a kind of universal knowledge that any writer writing in any language can tap into—knowing, for example, that novels usually have chapters, or that the rose is symbolic of passing time. On another day, they will speak to him—and this cliché is only a variant of the previous one—of the importance of orality in his work, making special mention of his grandmother. "You probably heard many stories at your grandmother's knee," they will say, in a tone of voice which gives the impression that other writers in the world do not have grandmothers with knees. This, of course, is old-fashioned classism: city slickers harbor similar thoughts about people from "the sticks."

At certain historical moments, the stereotyposphere can prove dangerous. One word too many and an euskaldun can become, in the eyes of others, a rabid nationalist and even an ETA collaborator. That is what happened to me, and to various musicians, film directors, and journalists, when the right-wing Partido Popular was in government. Fortunately, they lost the elections and now dub anyone and everyone "an ETA collaborator." Recently—in June 2006—they even called the socialist prime minister, Rodríguez Zapatero, a collaborator.

As a writer (although it would make no difference if I weren't), I think that languages are important, all of them, including those we speak only slightly. Words are always associated with different parts of our life and are a great help when it comes to thinking about people and the world. That is how I feel about atta, ama, ebi, eguzki, Pater noster, te amo, Gustavo, you're adorable, Vanessa, hypocrisy, hable usted en cristiano, and thousands of other such words and phrases.

And yet some languages mark us more deeply than others and occupy a larger area of our mind. That is the case with me and euskara, not because it was the language of my childhood, nor because it carries with it, as some writers say, a particular vision of the world—something I find most unlikely—but because of its special history, a harsh history in which my family, friends, people of my own generation, a third or more of all Basques, and myself have all been involved.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Bernardo Atxaga belongs to a group of Basque writers who began publishing in the Basque language in the 1970s; his work has been translated into more than seventy languages. His translator, Margaret Jull Costa, also translates José Saramago, Javier Marías, and other Spanish and Portuguese writers.


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