Basque (or Euskara in the Basque language) is one of the most unusual and mysterious languages in the world.
One of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages, it is one of the oldest in Europe and has been continuously spoken in the Basque Country – in northern Spain and southwest France – for thousands of years.
Little is known of its origins, only that it predates the Romance languages of its neighbours and has no known links to any other modern languages.
The mingle of k’s and z’s can seem more than a little bit confusing for people unfamiliar with the language, so we’ve put together a handy guide to some of the most unique words in Basque that you can try out next time you are visiting the Basque Country.
Euskara – Basque
Landscape of the Basque Country. Photo: Arrano/Flickr
Let’s start with the obvious: euskara (also written euskera) is the Basque word for the Basque language. Euskara is spoken by around 30 percent of people in the Spanish Basque Country and around 22 percent of people who live in the French Basque Country.
Public use of Basque was frowned upon under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-75) but measures were taken in the 1980s to strengthen the language and nowadays it is the co-official language of the autonomous community of the Basque Country, along with Spanish.
Xirimiri – a very light rain (pronounced shirimiri)
Spain might have the reputation for being sunny all year round, but the lush Basque Country sees its fair share of rain, which is why Basque has its own word, xirimiri, which means a very light rain. Basques even use this word when they are speaking Spanish, as there is no perfect Spanish equivalent.
Zurito – a tiny beer
Photo: Alan Levine/Flickr
The Basque Country, and particularly the city of San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) is renowned for its delicious bites of tapas, known as pintxos. To go with the little morsels of food, the Basques have a beer even smaller than the Spanish caña (small beer), which is called a zurito – so remember to order one next time you’re in a bar in the Basque Country.
Txotx – toothpick (pronounced chotch)
Photo: jose a del moral/Flickr
While this word literally means toothpick, it is also said when you tip the cider out of the barrel to announce to everyone that the barrel is open and they should fill their glasses. Cider is a popular drink in the Basque Country, where people pour it into a glass from a great height to give the drink more fizz.
Traditional cider houses are called sagardotegi in Basque and serve cider as well as Basque cuisine including cod fritters.
Erdera – any language other than Basque
The Basque flag, the Ikurriña. Photo: Rober/Flickr
Basques hold their own unique language in incredibly high esteem, so much so, in fact, that they use the word erdera to refer to any language that is not Basque.
Txoko – a gastronomic society (pronounced cho-ko)
Photo: Kok Chih and Sarah Gan/Flickr
This typically Basque gastronomic society is usually private – by invitation only – where Basques get together to cook, experiment with their cuisine and socialize. They first started in San Sebastián in around 1870, then spread throughout the Basque Country. Traditionally, the txoko are only open to male members, but the more modern societies have begun to allow women to join too.
During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, txoko were a popular place to meet legally, free of state control and speak Basque – which was frowned upon – and sing Basque songs.
The word txoko literally means nook or cosy corner in Basque.
Aizkolaritza – wood chopping
Photo: Emilio del Prado/Flickr
Basques are incredibly proud of their unique sports, including wood chopping competitions, which are held all over the region. It is a popular kind of herri kirol (rural sport) usually held during local festivals. Other popular rural sports include trontzalaritza (log sawing), sokatira (tug of war) and harri-jasotzea (stone lifting).
Txapela – beret (pronounced chapela)
Photo: Terre et Cote Basques/Flickr
Also known as a boina, a beret is a staple of any traditional Basque wardrobe. The traditional outfit, worn during festivals, includes white trousers and T-shirt, a red neckerchief and red beret.
Txakoli – Basque sparkling wine (pronounced chakoli)
This fresh white wine is a popular accompaniment to pintxos and is poured from a height, the bottle above the barman’s head, to add bubbles to the wine when it hits the glass, held in his other hand.
Baserri – traditional Basque farmhouse
A baserri is a half-timbered or stone house traditional in the Basque Country. Typically used as farmhouses, they can be spotted dotting the landscape and have been at the core of Basque society for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, the household is administered by the etxekoandre (lady of the house) and the etxekojaun (master of the house) who then pass on the baserri to one of their children – they can choose any child, male or female.
Most baserri have a stone carved sign built into the wall (armarriak) and a lintel stone above the doorway stating who built the house and the year in which it was built.