Academic Stories

What Speaks to You: Spotlight on Basque

The University of Chicago offers over 50 languages every year, making the Language Competency Requirement the most open-ended component of the Core curriculum. And while old standbys like Spanish and Mandarin continue to fill up every year, some students verge off the beaten path. In “What Speaks to You,” we’ll showcase some of the University’s uncommon language courses, as well as the passionate students and faculty they bring together.

UChicago students are known to thrive on being unique—which may be why a select few choose to study Basque. Dating back to pre-Roman times, it is one of the only languages with no common ancestor. That’s right: it’s completely isolated from any other language in the world. The language lives on today in the Basque Country, which encompasses a number of regions in Spain and France.

The language also continues to live on here in Hyde Park. UChicago students are lucky enough to engage with one of the most well-known Basque translators, Amaia Gabantxo, who teaches Elementary Basque and Introduction to Basque Culture.

Jane Gordon, one of the few undergraduates in Gabantxo’s course last year, “took the class on a whim.” A fourth-year Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major, Gordon was “intrigued that there was a class that didn’t fulfill any requirements whatsoever” for her degree program.

She started the sequence in the autumn and quickly fell in love with the Basque culture, language, and literature. “National identity revolves around the literature and the language,” she says.

Gabantxo’s many interrelated passions reflect this: she has translated everything from fundamental Basque literature to cookbooks, and was even a head chef in a Basque restaurant. Beyond that, she regularly performs as a flamenco singer in venues all over Chicago. “I didn’t plan any of this,” says Gabantxo. “Life is full of strange choices.”

Since the class mostly consists of linguistics majors, Gabantxo tries to tailor her teaching style to best prepare her students. “Most of the teaching material for Basque is for tourists, not linguistic students,” she says. “I try to give my students a very thorough understanding of the language by making up my own material.”

Students engage with some of the most fundamental and renowned Basque literature and poetry—including Bernard Extepare’s Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, considered the first book ever published in the language—and are expected to provide their own translations and interpretations.

Says Gabantxo, “I want to give students a glimpse of what I do for a living. Translating is a rewarding experience, and students enjoy deconstructing words into interesting idioms. For example, to say ‘argument,’ one would say eztabaida, which literally translates into ‘it is no, it is yes.’”

Choosing to study Basque thus makes for a strange, yet uniquely rewarding experience. As Gordon says, “the words are like poetry,” and learning such a unique and utterly isolated language and culture is totally itzela, or “cool.”