Basques - Orientation

Identification. Basques inhabit the area of southwestern Europe where the western spur of the Pyrenees meets the Cantabrian seacoast. Their territory straddles the French-Spanish frontier, providing a distinction between Spanish Basques and French Basques. There are four traditional Regions (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Nafarroa, Araba) on the Spanish side and three (Lapurdi, Behe-Nafarroa, and Zuberoa) on the French side. Basques refer to their homeland as "Euskal-Herria" (land of the Basques) or "Euskadi" (country of the Basques). While the seven regions have not been unified for nearly a millennium, the Basques remain one of Europe's most distinctive ethnic groups.

Location. The Basque country is located between 41° to 43° N and 0° to 3° W. It contains 20,747 square kilometers, of which 17,682 square kilometers are on the Spanish side of the frontier. The Basque country contains three ecological zones. The northern zone is comprised of the Cantabrian seacoast and interior foothills. It has a maritime climate and is one of the wettest regions in Europe. The ridges of the Pyrenees constitute a central zone with an alpine climate. The southern zone, or about two-thirds of the Basque country, is in the rain shadow of the Pyrenees and has a continental climate.

Demography. In 1975 the population was 2,871,717, of which only 229,383 persons resided on the French side. Population density varies greatly by region. Highly urbanized Biz-kaia has 533 persons per square kilometer, while rural Behe-Nafarroa has only 22. There are an estimated 828,000 Basque speakers. Basque language proficiency is distributed unevenly, being concentrated primarily in the northern and central ecological zones. It is also more pronounced in rural and fishing communities than in the urban centers. In recent years there has been a vigorous campaign by Basque nationalists to encourage Basque language acquisition. It has met with considerable (though not total) success. AU Basques are fluent in either French or Spanish (some in both), depending on which side of the border they inhabit. Use of the Basque language has declined over the centuries in places where it was spoken previously, and use of French and Spanish has increased because of the influx of non-Basque speakers into the area.

Linguistic Affiliation. Basque is an agglutinative language and employs the Roman alphabet. It is the sole representative of its own language family. Scholars have tried to demonstrate affinities between Basque and languages from disparate parts of the world, particularly languages in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. Another possibility is that Basque is linked to Ibero, a language spoken throughout the Iberian Peninsula in pre-Roman times.

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