Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 24 May 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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My husband has just been to a professional conference in La Rioja. Why do doctors feel they confer better in places renowned for wine? I was allowed along for the ride, although it meant that even when we had a delicious dinner (those bream with gold-painted noses and bits of animals that would make Digby Anderson's heart glow) it was to the accompaniment of conversation about ventilation and macabre things done with butterflies.

There was a poor Chinaman at a neighbouring table with never a grain of rice to be had unsteeped in milk and cinnamon, and I began to experience the sense of the alien that he must have felt when we ventured into the nearby Basque country. Wales I can cope with; one soon learns that tacsi means 'taxi'. I should love to know Basque, that ancient tongue left like the last turret of a sandcastle when the tide of Indo-European swilled around it. But I never shall. And that makes me uneasy about the twin-language approach of the local government of that autonomous region.

None of my business, of course, but most of the Spanish-speakers in the region will not become systematic Basque-speakers any more than I am. All they are left with is notice-Basque. I mean things like 'public lavatory'. The notice-Spanish for that is aseos (although what people say in restaurants or bars is servicios). The notice-Basque is komunak. That looks to me suspiciously like a loan-word. There are all sorts of long Latinate words for things like demonstrations, organisations and other notions that are represented by even longer but fundamentally similar words in Basque with a k at the end.

I do not mean to say anything deep about Basque by such ignorant remarks. On the contrary, I am suggesting that the shallow impression of Basque projected by politically motivated signposting serves the old language rather ill. Knowing that the Basque for the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts is Bilboko Arte Eder Museoa is no way to grow to love the language.

Incidentally, among the quotations from world literature celebrating Bilbao, cast in iron along the riverside, is one from Hamlet: 'Me thought I lay Worse than the mutines in the Bilboes.' There Bilboes means 'fetters'. Not a bright reflection of Bilbao's image. But then, there is no evidence that the word derives from Bilbao. It is, for what that's worth, reproduced by Hakluyt from a source dating from 1557, three decades before the Armada.