What's in a name? Language as a tool for political power
Image by Olatz Bulson-Roman of Hondarribia in the Basque Country

Military action. Imprisonment. Censorship…and illegal baby names? These were just a few strategies employed during the Spanish dictatorship under Franco in the Basque Country, an autonomous region in Northern Spain.

Basque language under dictatorship

The oppression of linguistic diversity by Franco showed how languages can be a significant tool in exerting political power and how politics can greatly shape cultural identity. 

The oldest living language in Europe today, Basque – or Euskera as it is known in the Basque Country – was subject to harsh policies and restrictions during the Franco regime.

For the years 1939-1975, the length of Franco’s dictatorship, Basque was heavily policed. Those caught speaking Basque were imprisoned and fined. Literature, both for educational and recreational purposes, could only be published in Castilian (Spanish).

Oppression extended into every aspect of people’s lives. From the way they communicated to the way the mourned – even tombstones with Basque engravings had to be removed.

The practice of speaking Basque was confined to remote ‘Basseriak’, traditional family homes characteristic of the Basque Country. Sparsely dispersed along the Basque Country and the Pyrenees, these rural settlements still stretch today all throughout the region. They are often credited with successfully protecting the language during this era of persecution due to their seclusion and rich cultural heritage.

Urban regions, where stringent measures were more heavily enforced and concentrated, suffered greatly. Due to their dense population, towns and cities were often successful targets for the regime as word spread quickly of the repercussions of Basque expression. These policies constrained Basque identities to isolated rural communities. 

The next chapter in a troubled history 

At the end of the Franco regime, the Basque country witnessed many violent terror attacks, kidnappings and assassinations carried out by ETA – a Basque separatist terrorist group. Their main goal was to achieve Basque independence from Spain. ETA placed the Basque language at the heart of their mission and was born as a result of the decades of oppression imposed onto the Basque country by Franco’s regime. 

It could be argued that Franco perpetuated Basque identity and pride to an extent. Celebrating Basque culture and speaking Basque – in any capacity – declared that you were opposed to Franco. Some aspects of modern Basque identity were therefore forged and born out of his rule as Basque people fought to preserve their heritage. 

From a prohibited to a promoted language

Nowadays, only 20.4% of over 65s speak Basque – the lowest of any age group – compared to 55.4% of people aged 16-24. Naturally, this could be a product of multiple factors such as immigration. 

However Basque’s resurgence today is undoubtedly amongst the youth – those who did not live under repressive linguistic policies, but rather ones which encourage it. 

There has been a huge shift from Castilian (Spanish) being the only language formally recognised in Spain, to the elevation in status of languages within schools, such as Basque, being seen today.

Laws, such as ‘La Ley Celáa’ passed in November 2020, are significant in the way that Basque-speaking children can be taught and take their exams. This law means that Spanish is no longer the only main language of the curriculum. Basque education has been accessible to an extent through schools since after 1975. However, this law means that children from autonomous regions – such as the Basque country – can opt out of taking exams solely in Spanish. Students must still be proficient in Spanish, but this is a huge leap from Franco’s old motto “Si eres español, habla español” (If you are Spanish, speak Spanish).

‘La Ley Celáa’ is an example of how government policy can have tangible impacts on the transmission of a language. Spanish will no longer be the principal language in schools. Lessons can be taught in Basque, Catalan, Aranese and Galician. Children can also take exams in their native language.

‘Ikastolak’ are schools which have existed since 1914 in the Basque Country. In an ‘Ikastola’, Basque language is ‘la lengua vehicular’ – the principal language of the curriculum. These schools were forced to teach solely in Spanish after the Spanish Civil war in 1939. As a result ‘Ikastolak’ moved underground as children were taught in Basque in secretive networks. Today, these schools are usually private schools.

A complicated culture 

I have witnessed first-hand the cultural shift that these favourable policies have produced.

My cousin, Izadi, was born in 2012. I remember going to visit her during the school holidays when she was two years old. She was beginning to learn how to talk. My uncle and auntie decided to only talk to her in Basque. It was their choice that her first language be Basque, and that she would pick up Spanish eventually as she began socialising in school and in lessons.

I myself speak Spanish. I was born in the Basque country, yet I do not speak Basque having grown up in England my whole life. On paper, we are both Spanish. Both my cousin and I have Spanish nationality and passports and yet we could not communicate with each other due to this language divide.

Although Izadi is now is able to communicate in Spanish, Basque is very much her first language. I quickly became accustomed to trying to decipher what she was talking about with my uncle or auntie through her tone of voice or gestures, however, it has always struck me how formative a language can be to identity. My mother and grandparents themselves have a good understanding of Basque but don’t speak it. Evidence that still today, the impacts of these monolingual policies have pertained.

The political climate, post-Franco, means that the youth of today – children such as my cousin Izadi – have the freedom to communicate unashamedly in public in their native language. Laws such as La Ley Celáa allow my cousin to sit exams in her first language and be taught in her native tongue.

This seismic shift in attitude, tolerance and acceptance towards Spain’s co-official languages demonstrates the impact that governmental policy can have both on the longevity of a language and the identity of the people who speak it.

Politics can be a devastating, dynamic and decisive factor in language transmission. What happened in the Basque Country is an example of how Franco tried to use language and culture to achieve his dictatorship’s aims of a nationalist and authoritarian Spain. Still, it is up to us to promote Basque and speak Basque today in order to continue benefiting and learning about our own history and identity.

Whilst it is true that languages are vulnerable to repressive policies and attitudes, it is through the determination of the Basque people – from their remote Baserriak to their Ikastolak – that Basque has survived today.

Throughout the persecution of the Basque language under Franco’s regime, whispers of Basque still managed to survive. It is thanks to ‘La Ley Celáa’ that Izadi can exercise her first language and that I am free to begin to learn it – albeit from England. It is also thanks to the strength and resilience of the Basque people that my cousin is called ‘Izadi’ and that I am called ‘Olatz’ – baby names which were once illegal under Franco’s rule, now regaining popularity today.