Basque Language and Culture

Basque Language and Culture

Today, Translation Commons (TC) has the pleasure of speaking with Kutz Arrieta on the topic of the revitalization of endangered languages. Kutz works as an Analytical Linguist at Google, she received her Ph.D. in Anthropological Linguistics from The Ohio State University, and is an active member of the Basque community in California. 

Below is a graphic that represents cultural identity responses to the 1981 and 1991 census in the Spanish-Franco regions officially known as the Basque Autonomous Community (Basque Country).

Cultural identity according to the 1981 and 1991 census based on the question Do you consider yourself Basque? 1 – Yes. 2 – Yes, in some ways. 3 – No. 4 – Don’t know/Don’t answer. 

Image Source –  Zorion (Author):

Q: Let’s start off with your involvement with the Translation Commons Language Digitization Initiative (LDI), could you tell us about this endeavor?

Kutz: The Language Digitization Initiative (LDI) is an initiative within Translation Commons whose aim is to digitize endangered languages as a means to provide resources to communities who want to preserve their languages.  I am a volunteer in Translation Commons and, due to lack of free time, my involvement is quite limited. Other members are donating much more time to this project and Translation Commons at large.  

Along with another volunteer, we proposed the idea of creating a repository with a different spin from the existing ones. The idea is to create a repository where community members and non-members could easily submit data that relate to endangered languages: stories, information, resources, videos, audios, and the community can make use of it.  This repository will not have the same restrictions as existing repositories whose main goal might be to document languages and are tools for Academic and Research endeavors.  This new repository could serve those purposes, but it is not its main goal.  

Q: A lot of our readers are passionate about either language or technology, or both. Could you tell us a little about your career as a computational linguist, how you came upon it in the first place?

Kutz: It was accidental. I was working on my Ph.D. at The Ohio State University and I saw an ad for a job for a computational linguist in a machine translation company. I learned the trade on the job and I kept going. Computational Linguistics was quite new at the time and it was a lot of fun.

Q: The Basques are a European ethnic group indigenous to north-central Spain and south-western France. Could you tell us a bit about your cultural background as a Basque? Where do you call home, and what are some things that make one Basque?

Kutz: I come from Donostia, a coastal city very close to the official border between France and Spain. For us, this border is meaningless, as the land and the people are Basque on both sides of the border. You are Basque if you are born Basque (Basque last names), if you are born in the Basque Country, and feel Basque. And, of course, the language is a big definer of ethnic identity. Our language is an isolate, unrelated to any existing language. Probably a leftover from a far-away past.

But the concept of identity is sometimes a matter of perception and politics. The following quote is attributed to Albert Einstein:

“If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”

Q: The revitalization of endangered languages is a theme that we champion here at Translation Commons, what are your thoughts on the benefits of revitalizing an endangered language?

Kutz: In every aspect of ecology, the preservation of species, languages, and the people are tantamount to leaving a world as good or better than the one we inherited. It is also a matter of respect and tolerance. Differences and a balanced life with differences are enriching and make us better. From the point of view of Linguistics as a science, preserving and revitalizing a language is as important to a Linguist as preserving a microorganism is to a Biologist. It is another path to a better understanding of the human brain and humanity itself.

Q: Would there be potential economic advantages to the revitalization of endangered languages? How would this benefit the Basque community?

Kutz: I believe revitalizing an endangered language is beneficial to the economy only in the sense that it makes people happier being themselves. If we agree that a happy and balanced member of society is a better contributor to progress, there is a clear advantage. On a much smaller scale, endangered cultures that are revitalized bring new points of view and even new products into the economy.

Q: What are some underlying reasons (geopolitical, cultural, economic) that contributed to the survival of the Basque language to this day?

Kutz: Not sure. No one has a good explanation. Some say that it is the fact that we tend to be very stubborn. I imagine that being in the middle of Europe we kept up with the changes effected in the Western world and, therefore, were less vulnerable to sharp differences, contrary to the case of Native Americans, who were unprepared to confront or live with the invaders.

Q: Could you give us your thoughts on the “digitization” of languages vs. the “revitalization” of languages?\

Kutz: Digitalization, nowadays, is a required component for endangered languages to survive, but we must be careful and not think that digitizing these languages is the only thing that needs to be done. There are many other things that need to happen for a language and a culture to be revitalized, to become functional again. Often Academics see the research aspect of these languages and to satisfy that aspect, we probably only need to document those languages, which is facilitated by digitization. Technocrats often look at the technological aspects of making a language available and/or stronger via the creation of keyboards for their scripts, corpora, digital grammars, etc. It seems to me that if we only push for these two aspects, we are leaving the heart out and, therefore missing the point of revitalization. 

Q: What are some factors that must come together in the revival of a language? Are there any instances where a dead language was successfully revived? 

Kutz: Hebrew is the only example I know of a language that didn’t have any speakers and was resuscitated. You need ingredients/resources: lexica, scripts, morphologies, grammar, phonological descriptions, and data. You need education (materials, teachers), media (movies, radio, television) and politics to support the efforts to make the language grow. Once it takes, once a language becomes the language transmitted from one generation to another (a language learned from birth), you are already making great progress for the language to stay alive, grow and evolve.

Q: What are some motivations for indigenous communities to revitalize their language, and how can we help in this effort?

Kutz: The initial motivation I would say is dignity and a sense of oneself. Feeling a sense of belonging is very important. If you know you belong to a community that is different from others and you can see it is disappearing, this provokes many feelings of sadness and inappropriateness. And if the community or the individuals in the community decide at some point it is not worth the effort, no one can help. As outsiders with some skills we can help them get the resources needed, design revitalization strategies and assist them in monitoring progress, and attract public attention

Q: What are some things you see today in the Basque community that might be a good sign in terms of the continuation of the language?

Kutz: Now most teenagers and children use Basque as their main language and, very importantly, already create (and keep creating) their own “cool” way of talking in Basque, much like teenagers do in the stronger languages. This is a sign of good health in the language. 

Q: Let’s end on a fun note, what is one of your favorite Basque dishes that you love to make, and can we have the recipe?

Kutz: We do not like sharing recipes. We don’t like sharing them with Basques and even less with non-Basques (sense of preservation? I don’t know). But we can make an exception, just to show that if Basques had disappeared, the pleasure of tasting this dish would have been lost forever.

Here is an easy fish recipe: Fish in Green Sauce

(We normally use hake, but it can be done with cod or bass.)


  • fish
  • clams
  • parsley
  • garlic
  • olive oil
  • dry white wine
  • a little bit of flour.
  1. Clean the fish in sea salt with water and let it dry. 
  2. In the pan (we use a clay pan, but a regular low-edges pan will do). 
  3. You start with olive oil and chopped garlic: lay the pieces of fish that you have lightly bathed in flour. Add chopped parsley and maybe some hot red pepper. Turn them, add the clams (which were also in salty water – but don’t add the water, just the clams). 
  4. Raise the temperature and cover the pan and shake it by moving your wrists, like twisting (for the fish to release the gelatin in between the skin and the flesh and build the sauce). 
  5. The clams are already opening, you add some wine, more chopped garlic, more chopped parsley, a few green peas (just for looks) and continue twitching the pan with your hands. 
  6. Lower the temperature, let it go a couple of minutes longer. 
  7. The sauce should have built by now. 

The whole cooking part should not take more than 20 minutes. Overcooking fish should be a sin. On egin!


Thank you so much, Kutz, for taking the time to share with us Basque culture, as well as your insights into the revitalization of endangered languages. 

Here is a video of traditional Basque music and dance.

Thank you for tuning in to this month’s blog post, see you next time!


Tony He

A content writer at Translation Commons, Tony is a Translation and Localization Management graduate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. As a localization professional, Tony is passionate about language and technology, and is very much interested in spreading the word.


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