Language, accents, identity, community: a clearer view

By Jose Mari Tirol

I have always been fascinated by the Basques. My late maternal grandfather, who was one of them and came to the Philippines in the 1920s when he was in his 20s, said his people are “ang mga Ati sang España”. Yes, he spoke Ilonggo and witnessed various eras of Philippine history, from the American colonial period, the Japanese occupation, the declaration of Philippine independence in 1946, the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, the 1986 EDSA revolution, until he passed away in 1998. But that is another story.

Nobody can definitely say where the Basques come from, or if they are really the indigenous people of the Iberian peninsula. In fact, what is known as the “Basque Country”, País VascoPays Basque, or Euskal Herria is actually a territory that now consists of a set of political subdivisions on the western side of the Franco-Spanish border on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Those on the French side comprise the Basque Municipal Community; those on the Spanish side constitute the Basque Autonomous Community which exercises the highest level of autonomy among the Spanish autonomous regions. So much so that the framers of our 1987 Constitution derived inspiration from the Basque Statute of Autonomy when they were drafting our Constitution’s provisions on local autonomy.

Basques from both sides of the Franco-Spanish border – including those that comprise the Basque Diaspora that have spread throughout the world, particularly in North and South America, and even the Philippines – are very proud of their culture, heritage, and their place in the sun. Especially their language, which has its own dialects.

Like the Basque people themselves, many people have postulated different hypotheses about where their language comes from. It is unlike any in the world in general, and in particular, the Romance languages that are spoken by the people surrounding the Basque Country.

I am somewhat familiar with the Spanish side of the Basque Country and have had many occasions to hear Spanish Basques speaking Basque with a heavy Spanish accent (and they speak Spanish with a Basque accent). Now since the Basque Country straddles the Franco-Spanish border, I have always been curious about how French Basques speak Basque. Is it with a French accent? I had the opportunity to ask my Spanish Basque friend Gonzalo (he describes himself as a Basque with a Spanish passport) that question a few years ago.

He did not directly answer me. Perhaps I framed it incorrectly, or he misunderstood me, or both. Or he deliberately chose to disregard it. But he responded, and what an interesting response it was.

He pointed to my eyeglasses and said that the Basque word for it is betaurrekoak (I had to check its spelling in Google Translate to be sure), a term that, according to him, many Spanish Basques are aware of and use. But he also said that they also use gafak, which is derived from the Spanish gafas, Basquified with the suffix -ak. On the other hand he said that many French Basques use lunetak, from the French lunettes. More interestingly, he said that both gafak and lunetak, as well as many other Basquified words from Spanish and French, can be understood on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border. Which is essentially politico-legal, not linguistic.

And the Spanish language itself has likewise indigenized many Basque words. These should be of interest to us Filipinos with our many languages, in view of the fact that, as I discussed in another piece in another paper (, many Spanish words are now in our local lexica. So much so that Gonzalo told me about his experience when he was in a taxi in Manila; the driver was surprised that he has a Filipino name and knows Tagalog words like derecho and esquina.

Which to me, clarifies what language is, whatever language it may be: regardless of the origins of certain words, they are an ever-developing instrument for understanding and communication. Not a measure of intelligence or sophistication, nor a tool for obfuscation and confusion.