A Look at the Basque Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Basque language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.


Basque, of course, is a wild language. There is an old saying that the Devil tried to learn Basque, but after seven years, he only learned how to say “Hello” and “Goodbye.” Many Basques, including some of the most ardent Basque nationalists, tried to learn Basque as adults. Some of them succeeded, but a very large number of them failed. Based on the number that failed, it does seem that Basque is harder for an adult to learn as an L2 than many other languages are. Basque grammar is maddeningly complex, and it often makes it onto craziest grammars and craziest language lists.

There are 11 cases, and each one takes four different forms.

The verbs are quite complex. The verbal complexity is because it is an ergative language, so verbs vary according to the number of subjects, the number of objects and if any third person is involved.

This is the same polypersonal agreement system that Georgian has. Basque’s polypersonal system is a polysynthetic system consisting of two verb types – synthetic and analytical. Only a few verbs use the synthetic form.

Three of Basque’s cases – the absolutive (intransitive verb case), the ergative (transitive verb case) and the dative – can be marked via affixes to the verb. In Basque, only present simple and past simple synthetic tenses take polypersonal affixes.

The analytical forms are composed of more than one word, while the synthetic forms are all one word. The analytic verbs are built via the synthetic verbs izan “be”, ukan “have” and egin “do”.


d-akar-ki-o-gu “We bring it to him/her.” The verb is ekarri “bring”.

z-erama-zki-gu-te-n “They took them to us.” The verb is eraman “take”.


Ekarriko d-i-o-gu = “We’ll bring it to him/her.” Literally: “We will have-bring it to him/her.” The analytic verb is built from ukan “have”.

Eraman d-ieza-zki-gu-ke-te “They can take them to us.” Literally: “They can be taking them to us.” The analytic verb is built from izan “be”.

Most of the analytic verbs require an auxiliary which carries all sorts of information that is often carried on verbs in other languages – tense, mood, sometimes gender and person for subject, object and indirect object.

Jaten naiz.
“Eat I-am-doing.”
“I am eating.”

Jaten nintekeen.
“Eat I-was-able-to.”
“I could eat.”

Eman geniezazkiake.
“Give we-might-have-them-to-you-male.”
“We might have given them to you.”

In the above, naiz, nintekeen and geniezazkiake are auxiliaries. There are actually 2,640 different forms of these auxiliaries!

A language with ergative morphosyntax in Europe is quite a strange thing, and Basque is the only one of its kind.

The ergative itself is quite unusual:

Gizona etorri da. “The man has arrived.”

Gizonak mutila ikusi du. “The man saw the boy.”

gizon “man”
mutil “boy”
-a “the”

The noun gizon takes a different form whether it is the subject of a transitive versus an intransitive verb. The first sentence is in absolutive case (unmarked), while the second sentence is in the ergative case (marked by the morpheme -k).

If you come from a non-ergative IE language, the concept of ergativity itself is difficult enough to conceptualize, not to mention actually learn in an ergative language. Consequently, any ergative language will automatically be more difficult than a non-ergative one for all speakers of IE languages.

Ergativity also works with pronouns. There are four basic systems:

Nor: verb has subject only
Nor-Nork: verb has subject + direct complement
Nor-Nori: verb has subject + indirect complement.
Nor-Nori-Nork: verb has subject + direct + indirect complement

Some call Basque the most consistently ergative language on Earth.

If you don’t grow up speaking Basque, it’s hard to attain native speaker competence. It’s quite a bit easier to write in Basque than to speak it.

On the plus side, Basque verbs are quite regular. There are only a few irregularities in conjugations, and they have phonetic explanations. In fact, the entire language is quite regular. In addition, most words above the intermediate level are borrowings from large languages, so once you reach Intermediate Basque, the rest is not that hard. In addition, pronunciation is straightforward.

Basque is rated 5.5, nearly hardest of all.

1 Comment

Filed under Applied, Basque, Isolates, Language Learning, Linguistics

One response to “A Look at the Basque Language

  1. Another William Playfair Web

    Basques are Aliens;
    “As a linguist, Basque fascinates me because no one knows where it came from. The ‘Basque country’ is surrounded by places where Romance languages like French and Spanish are spoken, but yet Basque is classified as a language isolate. This is a fancy term that means that no one has proved that it descends from a common ancestor. “

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