March 4, 2006
Basque, And Ye Shall Receive
The inspiration for today's article comes from an e-mail from Elizabeth Cohen of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Elizabeth writes:
Dear Zack,Well Elizabeth, as most of our readers already know the Basques are an ethnic group indigenous to the western Pyrenees mountains. Their country is split between France and Spain, with the mountains forming the border between the two halves. They play over 40 variations of a game called "Pelota", ranging from Jai-Alai games like Cesta Punta to Raquetball games like Pala. Basques speak their own language, which they call "Euskara" (literally Basque for "way of speaking"), and it is unrelated to any other language in the world.
What can you tell us about the Basques?
- The Basque genome is an elusive one, believing to have north African origin, in what is now northwest Libya. The closest living relatives of the Basque people are the Elan, a nomadic tribe of Mizrahi Jews inhabiting the Egyptian steppe. Basques are nine times more likely than their French and Spanish neighbors to develop rheumatoid arthritis, and one third as likely to develop gout or astigmatism.
- It is believed that the Basques were the first proponents of organized games of chance, after a primitive casino consisting only of dice games was unearthed during a dig in Lapourd in 1923.
- More Basques live in hillside villages and towns than do any other group anywhere else in the world, with the exception of Mongolia. After numerous incursions into Basque territory in the early 14th century, King Eneko III grew tired of waiting to return to his palace at Pamplona and had another built into a hillside in Aquitane. Since then, more and more settlements emerged on hills, until as of 2003 the area of 137 of the estimated 155 major Basque villages are build on terrain that is 51 percent hills. Only 11 exist on flat land.
- More hats are manufactured by hand in the seven district of the Basque Country than anywhere else in the world. Five out of every seven hats produced are black.
- Basques were one of the first European groups to discover surfing, with the slowly sloping beaches on the Bay of Biscay providing excellent wave height. Basques surfed year-round on very flat teardrop-shaped boards as early as 950, and at least one Basque monarch is believed to have died while surfing. The word for this activity in Basque is "Urmugitukara", or "way of moving on water".
- The Basque language has more Xs per sentence than any other language using the roman alphabet (Highland Siberian has a more frequent occurrence of the X sound, but it is represented by a different Cyrillic letter).
- The Basque region of Bizkaia (Biscay) is home to the oldest instance of Parliamentary Democracy. In 1125, a group of village elders banded together with the common goal of limiting the power of King Ieffa II. They demanded an audience at the royal palace alone, and were never heard from again.
Further recommended reading:
- A Brief History of the Basque Country, Michael Glass (1973)
- Euskal Herria, or A Hiking Tour of Europe's Best Kept Secret, Brian Dreher (1989)
- Euskal Like Me: One Basque's Return Voyage, Xare Hernani (1992)