Basque to basics

11 November, 2011

When I first told people at home that I was going to the Basque country and would be doing a Basque course, the initial response was a lot of jokes about corsets. Because all that most people at home (myself, until a while ago, included) know of the Basque language is that there was maybe once an Ann Summers catalogue of that title.

Upon arriving in Bilbao, I signed up for a three week Basque course and, having resisted the temptation to turn up in a corset and mutter something about there having been a terrible mistake, managed to learn something. For instance, I was initially baffled by words like “Indautxu” (a district in Bilbao), but quickly found out that the Basque “tx” is roughly equivalent to “ch”. Knowing this doesn’t make words much easier to pronounce, however, something that is particularly embarrassing when it comes to names. I can cope with “Txomin” because I live with one, but when he introduces me to a roomful of his friends I tend to panic after forgetting whether the second girl was called “Itxaro” or “Itxaso”, and consequently attach myself to the cousin visiting from Madrid because “Pablo”, I can do.

My course largely focused on grammar rather than conversational sitautions, meaning that the vocabulary that I did learn included a lot of random words such as “mountain” and “homeland”. Although it could be that these weren’t as random as they appeared; oddly, I struggle to understand menus and bus timetables, but am able to piece together political banners. Some people have “Skiing French”, or “Shopping German”; I, apparently, have “Protest Basque”!

The Basque that I do speak has proved useful, however. Although a visitor to Bilbao will hear very little Basque, absolutely everyone will bid you farewell with a fond “Agur”, rather than “Adiós”. And the party trick of rattling off the numbers 1-10 in Basque has, on more than one occasion, earned me impressed looks and a free drink! (bat, bi, hiru, lau, bost, sei, zazpi, zortzi, bederatzi, hamar – just in case you were wondering) Here are a few words of what can be described as “student Basque”: phrases that I have picked up from socializing with locals and which have probably more cultural than linguistic importance:

Kalimotxo: a mix of (cheap) red wine and coca-cola. The student drink of choice in Bilbao.
Katxi: a plastic cup with a capacity of one litre of kalimotxo.
Katxi kalimotxo, mesedez: I would like to get as drunk as possible for two euros, please.
Txakoli: Basque white wine. Slightly bubbly and delicious.
Eskerrik asko: Thank you.
Neskak eta mutilak: girls and boys. Essential if you visit a club called Antzokia (theatre) because the bathrooms are labelled in Basque, and there are no helpful pictures.
Sirimiri: Bilbao “rain” that is more mist than actual rain. Also found in the North of England.

If you find this linguistic insight into life in Bilbao interesting, you can find a longer “vocabulario Bilbaíno” here

Agur, lagunak!

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  1. Rachel2011-11-15 ,

    Sirimiriendo is definitely what it's currently doing in Durham right now! Wish I were back in Bilbao sipping some Kalimotxo in Plaza Nueva in the sunshine!
    You've already learnt much more Basque than I ever managed in 6 months, I'm very impressed :) x

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