JOXE MANUEL ODRIOZOLA, BASQUE LANGUAGE ACTIVIST AND WRITER: “Unfortunately, there is not strong evidence anywhere attesting to a Basque national language policy”

Argazkia: Naziogintza

We agreed to meet Joxe Manuel Odriozola in San Sebastian on a rainy Winter afternoon. A retired Basque teacher with a long experience at his job, he has not onlyt made his living out of the Basque language but it also become a source or concern for him. An author of many books, Joxe Manuel has always put the Basque language at the core of Basque nationalism, in the very heart of the Basque nation. In his last book (Nora goaz euskalduntasun honekin?- Where are we going with this Basque identity of ours?) he underlines the fact that it is about time we took a leap from an ethnical Basque identity towards a national one. We had a pleasant and peaceful discussion about language, nationalism and  about the relationship between them.

The subject matter of the book addresses the differentiation between national and ethnic identity. Along these lines, how would you define ethnic and national Basqueness?

There are different ways to be Basque, since not all Basque speakers live our Basque identity in the same way. If we confined Basqueness to just two categories, we would have on the one side a Basque national type of existence – we aspire to use Basque language along national lines and logic, we look for a Basque language endowed with national functions, in a way that this sociolinguistic value leads us to own our Basque national identity. A language that does not carry out hegemonic national functions is not empowered to create and inform national standard speakers. A speaker operating along functions creates speakers. On the other hand, there is the ethnic or ethno-diglossic Basque – Basque speakers who do not care about their exclusive use of Spanish/French in hegemonic social settings, sidelining their Basque for local and informal functions. Ethnic Basqueness is a feature issued from the ethno-diglossic use of Basque. An ethnic Basque uses Spanish/French for culture and highbrow social settings, while confining Basque to customary oral communications.

The information of a national identity requires a national language and culture. By contrast, Basque does not operate along national lines and logic, so the linguistic, cultural and national identity held by the Basques can hardly be dignifying. We are conforming to an ethno-cultural identity, not along the lines of a dignifying national identity, since our identity is subject to the structural framework of a subdued ethno-cultural community. In the Basque Country, only non-Basque speakers live hanging onto sociolinguistic conditions in line with a national sense and logic. Only non-Basque speakers enjoy linguistic rights corresponding to a nation status.

Spanish nationalism has completely politicized language, as testified by the Spanish constitution that makes learning Spanish mandatory. By contrast, the Basques ourselves are subject to negative criticism on the alleged grounds that we have politicized Basque. What is your take on that?

When it comes to the politicization of language, we are subject to ignorance. The Spanish attitude is no surprise. Another deceptive argumentation legitimizing the hegemony of Spanish is that the history of Spanish is natural, implying that the Spanish language is everyone’s common language, hence the status assigned to languages in their Constitution. National Spanish imperialism is governed by a naturalized ideology, so stripping things of their political nature.

However, the most upsetting ignorance in this issue comes from the Basques themselves. We are still devoid of knowledge and an ideological character enabling us to think that all the languages of the world are politicized. An overview on the history of nationalism should suffice to realize that the fundamental political-national hallmark of nation-states is language, with the exception of those states using the same language as other states. Therefore, present-day hegemonic societies, as opposed to the Middle Ages, are national societies, and states in possession of a native language bear witness to that political dimension of language, to whomever wants to see it. Language cannot be apolitical in the present-day world of nations.

Our main Basque nationalist world does not hang onto a dignifying discourse, which is the reason why it gives in on confrontation with Spanish nationalism. Koldo Mitxelena maintained that Basque is too feeble a language to expose it to political litigation, meaning that it would come out losing. That is something you will be reminded by those who attempt to justify their ethnic Basqueness that lacks in dignity.

We have often heard the catchphrases “language diversity” and “cultural diversity”. However, that discourse does hardly ever mention that we the Basques hold a right to live in Basque. What would you say about that to the political class?

That is another point of confusion raised by our ignorance – the Basques are not able to notice what the nitty-gritty of language and culture diversity is; I mean the essence of it, and not that deceptive rhetoric building around multiculturalism and language diversity. One simple, revealing example should suffice to expose it – Donostia (San Sebastián) is home to lots of languages, and some people are stating that there is nothing more to it, pretending that is the be all and end all. Period. No further scrutiny should be forthcoming on the issue of language and cultural diversity.

The fact is that we fail to understand the dividing line between the ethnic diversity occurring following immigration and the original national diversity. The rich ethno-linguist landscape in Donostia actually reveals that these people have a national language back home, so it is down to these original national communities to guarantee the diversity, and not down to the immigrants living in Donostia. The essence and source of diversity do not lie in Donostia, but in the national sociolinguistic backdrop the native communities of the languages spoken in Donostia experience back home.

Where do the native territory and nation of Basque lie? In Donostia itself, partially at least. What does that mean? It means that Basque should fulfil the hegemonic functions inherent to a national language in that city, and if it actually does not, then the main sociolinguistic condition for diversity stands at risk, i.e. the hegemony of Basque as a native language is on the ropes, and consequently also the premiss for diversity. On that note, when it comes to the rights of the Basque speakers, the rhetoric about diversity is cooked. The quest for true diversity should especially concern itself with a native nation’s situation, guaranteeing the sociolinguistic dynamism of languages.

Europe circulates a widespread idea stating that peoples with national awareness earn their freedom. Do you think the Basques enjoy a strong national awareness? Do you also perceive a rise in national awareness in connection with the revitalization process of the minorized Basque language?

I agree with your idea – there is no national freedom without national awareness. National building first requires a determination to be sovereign, a drive to live in line with one’s own language, culture, history and territory. National building is not a neutral process, an in-born quality; only a community controlling the power relations prospering in certain historic circumstances can build a sovereign nation. A strong awareness is a compelling premiss for that. It is not enough, for example, to be a mother-tongue Basque speaker. One’s own Basqueness is extremely fragile if the community underlying the Basque existence is not a national one, so if the Basque community supporting Basqueness is not yet empowered to forge a national project, and presently it is not, the future of the Basque Country is looking somewhat grim.

As we all know, Basque identity is not a national one, and we realize that structural fragility clearer than ever. The ideological servitude of our ethno-regional awareness has been never as exposed. Our people has never been so Spanish or Frenchified. That was no surprise before, but now our major national alienation has turned into an attested sociological fact. Now in response to the last part of your question, it should be noted that the revitalization of Basque goes strictly side by side with a sovereign politics for a national status. Only the ethno-cultural autonomist ideology believes that the sociolinguistic evolution of Basque now is in the right track.



The single most important issue of the Basques lies with the hegemonic position held by the other two languages. Do you think that the present-day language policy advances towards a hegemonic position of Basque? Do you perceive any moves in the agendas and schemes of public institutions and political parties in that direction?

Unfortunately, there is no strong evidence anywhere attesting to a national language policy. Some Basque nationalists, of course, show a more activist position in favour of Basque, but overall active pro-Basque awareness and praxis is non-existent among political parties. Even the most active Basque supporting nationalists are very ethnic and bland when it comes to language policy. If you scratch just a bit on the skin of the most radical Basque nationalist, you will find a stupid, ethnic pro-Basque underlying position. Incidentally, what should we think of our recent radicalism? What was really hiding under a coating of radicalism in the face of the present-day blandness and conformism on the national issue and specially Basqueness.

The Basqueness of the party holding office in the Basque Autonomous Community since ever does not go farther than a nation of the historic ‘charters’ (fueros). In other words, the Basqueness of the Basque Nationalist Party shows an ethno-diglossic make-up, which stands for a complete servitude to pro-Spanish positions. There are indeed in that political party a handful of Basque language activists, but they fail to exert any influence in the party’s language policy.

When it comes to Basque language teaching, it is obvious that the results are poor, even in the fully Basque language medium ‘D model’. What changes should be undertaken in the education system in order to significantly improve the quality of the Basque language? What aspects should be addressed in order to improve those results?

The recipe for the Basque education system is not an easy one. For a start, the most Basque speaking agents in the system do not live up to a minimal national, ideological perception and awareness. If you think that the present-day minorized ethno-cultural status of Basque may empower Basque education with capabilities leading to progress in this respect, sorry you are completely wrong. You will not get very far with the D model if the transmission of Basque is confined to the education domain, and unfortunately our most Basque language model is restricted to that function. Our D model based on the Spanish and Basque school curriculum is not valid for us to build a Basque language nation. The D model operates along the lines of an ethno-cultural logic nowadays. The inadequacy of the D model should be clearly understood in our wider national context – if the non-Basque sociolinguistic control of society remains in the hands of a Spanish and French language dynamics, the Basque transmission and socialization at school does not stand a chance.

Anyway, the D model issue raises a string of disturbing questions. For example, do D model schoolchildren feel fluent with their Basque language skills? Are they bilingually Basque? Or are they bilingually Spanish/French? In our opinion, both ideologically and at a communicative level, we do not reach a decent Basque approach, and it is enough to fail in just one of these variables to have a new Basque speaker opt instead for Spanish or French, dumping Basque. We are lacking in a general, activist pro-Basque language policy.

The D model is not working out, but we prefer to turn a blind eye and pretend it is operative. For most parents, the school medium Basqueness is enough, and that is exactly the essence of ethnic Basqueness, we accept a self-deceiving ideology. We seem to take as good any brand of Basqueness.

Basque politics has lately seen the emergence of a new political trend prioritizing independence, at the expense of Basque national features, such as Basque language and identity, in the believe that they do represent a hurdle, a hassle. What do you think of this nationless state model, a pro-independence stance with no nationalism?

The worst in that pro-independence version rests on the fact that the sovereignty model they put up hides by definition a “nation” underneath. A nation actually lies under that option, since there is no nationless state, despite some objections as to the nation quality of certain states across the world.

What is then the nature of the nation lying behind that state-building model stripped of a national element? We need to expose that hidden nation underlying the program that advocates against the Basque language nation as the centre of state building. There is no social cohesion without a state project, and the national elements are necessarily, albeit not exclusively, the ingredients bringing together social cohesion. You need a language, necessarily so, to articulate a state community.

The myth of state building devoid of national identity conceals de facto the reality of a non-Basque speaking Spanish nation, since the fundamentals of that proposal rely on the premiss of a Basque state for an ethnic Basque language or, inversely, you might as well call it an ethnic Basque language for a sovereign Basque state. That is what the pathetic proposal of certain pro-independence advocates comes down to. Whomever is willing to participate in that wedding, s/he is free to do so, but do not count me in.

The achievements in Quebec would not have been possible had the French speakers not been in authority. Could you elaborate on that?

It is a well-known fact that the social normalization of a language is a matter lying in the hands of relations among different national powers. If the mechanisms of hegemonic power do not fall in your hands, if state mechanisms stay out of your reach, you really stand a slim chance. Notwithstanding, Quebec is not a sovereign nation, but at least largely pulls the strings of its own language. In other words, the capacity for authority of the native Francophone community was enough to tip the scale of power balance in favour of French to a large extent.

Therefore, we need to focus fundamentally on the quality of that relation between language and power, i.e. what is the language of the hegemonic national power? What is the operative language used by the most relevant institutions and agents in that hegemonic national society? The answer will be revealing.

On the other hand, holding authority is not sufficient in itself to guarantee the salvation of your trodden national language, namely, a power system that does not operate in the language you intend to normalize will not normalize the language, even though state officials took sides in favour of your demands and showed a willing disposition. That is actually our case – the Basque Government is seemingly supportive of Basque, but the government’s communicative approach actually rests on the language putting down the nation of Basque. So we do not hold a Basque power to normalize Basque. Since the autonomous authority operates in line with the sociolinguistic logic of the Spanish power, it engages in Spanish nation building, not Basque nation building. If nation building could be reduced to statistics, the Basque Government’s nation building balance would be tantamount to nought.


March 2018