Basque and Armenian? The curious theory that connects the origin of the Basque language with that of Armenia

The origins of the Basque language are one of the great enigmas of Europe, and a theory seeks a common thread between Basque and Armenian

A few steps from the entrance of the Buen Pastor Cathedral, one of the most visible places in San Sebastián due to its high Gothic spire, is a simple two-sided monolith.

In this corner of the Basque Country, in the north of Spain, it seems a bit out of place. On one side, it shows a carved apostolic cross; in the other, characters from a non-Latin alphabet, so it is obviously not Euskera, the enigmatic Basque language famous for not having clear links with other living languages.

It is an Armenian ‘jachkar’ (a commemorative stele), which was placed there in 2017 by the Armenian community of the city to commemorate the centenary of the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, which is officially recognized by five parliaments in Spain, among them that of the Basque Country.

The truth is that there seems to be an unusual reason for the good relationship between these two small and distant ethnic groups that come from opposite sides of Europe.

Although their languages ​​do not show similarities at first glance, they do share a series of words and grammatical elements that are recognized by Armenian and Basque scholars, although it does not stop causing controversy.

'jachkar' from San Sebastián, Spain.
In San Sebastián, a ‘jachkar’ symbolizes the ties between the Basque and Armenian communities.

When I first saw the ‘jachkar’ I had just arrived from Biarritz, in the French Basque Country, where the Armenian-Basque association AgurArménie proclaims in the same way the strong friendship between two apparently very different groups.

What’s more, when I passed the monument with suitcase in hand, I noticed that the ‘jachkar’ of San Sebastián was familiar to me.

At the Basque Museum in Bayonne, a short distance from Biarritz, I had seen medieval Basque funerary stelae with artistic motifs similar to those I found in San Sebastián.

Was it just a coincidence? Many Armenians believe not.

“Unique” language and DNA

Contrary to popular belief that the Basques are a kind of cultural island, the Armenian link theory highlights linguistic, toponymic, mythological, and even DNA links between Armenians and Basques.

Although it has been around for centuries, the idea was regained by the work of the Armenian linguist Vahan Sargsyan, who published numerous books and studies on the subject, including the first Armenian-Basque dictionary in 2001.

But it is a controversial hypothesis: for the majority of Basques, their language has an isolated ethnolinguistic origin.

This means that their language and DNA are unique , deriving directly from the hunters who came to this area long before Neolithic agriculture settled in the region 7,500 years ago.

The Armenian origin theory ensures that there are linguistic, toponymic, mythological and even DNA links between Armenians and Basques.

However, according to the journal Science, in 2015 tests by population geneticist Mattias Jakobsson of the University of Uppsala in Sweden made a dent in this theory when his team found strong DNA matches between the skeletons of Iberian Neolithic farmers, from between 5,500 and 3,500 years old, and the Basques today.

But the discovery was not conclusive.

The researchers also admitted that they could not “completely rule out the possibility that Euskera has its origins in a hunter-gatherer language that was preserved and consolidated as agriculture spread throughout Iberia.”

Which leaves the mystery unsolved.

Common words

But the Armenian-Basque theory has its adherents and has long been supported by linguistic research.

An article by the British-Basque linguist Edward Spencer Dodgson in 1884, and later studies by the German philologist Joseph Karst in 1928, discovered more than 300 lexical, grammatical and phonetic coincidences between Basque and Armenian, as for example in egi (“place ”) And zati / zat (“ portion ”,“ part ” in Basque and Armenian, respectively).

Basque landscape.
Some linguists found hundreds of words shared between the languages ​​of the Basques and the Armenians.

More recently, in 1998 Sargsyan’s teamwork with Armenian and Basque linguists identified nearly 600 words shared between the two languages, which the expert suggests were introduced through metallurgy and agriculture, thanks to an ancient migration of Armenians to this region. zone.

“It is no accident that the Armenian and Basque languages ​​have an almost identical number of words related to agriculture,” he wrote in a 2006 article in Yerevan magazine, referring to the common words ardi (“sheep”), urti (“ abundant water ”) and gari (“ wheat ”in Basque;“ barley ”in Armenian).

I was curious to test the Armenian-Basque vocabulary to see if it was understandable to both of them, so I asked Basque speakers on both sides of the Spanish-French border.

Vasco town
The Basque landscape is a land of brilliant vegetation that cuts through large areas of grass and misty mountains.

The strong link to rural life that prevails in the Basque Country has created numerous dialects of Basque, but in Basque schools and public institutions a standardized one called batua (“unified”) is used.

Obsolete terms

I showed Manex Otegi, born in San Sebastián, whom I met through the apartment I rented for my vacation, a list of 26 words shared between Armenian and Basque from Sargsyan’s compilation.

“It’s Basque, but it’s a bit strange; It seems very old, ”he said referring to the list. “Only six words on this list are batua, ” he added, such as zati (“portion”) and txar (“bad”).

“I’m not sure where the others come from, and I think the ones I don’t know are because they are very old and may have been lost due to lack of use over the years and the small population.

Basque landscape
A strong link to rural life in the Basque Country has created numerous dialects of Euskera.

I repeated the same experiment with some Armenian friends in Bayonne, who only recognized one word on the list , sheep ( ardi ), as an old-fashioned Armenian term.

From conversations in trains and “pintxos” bars, and later with academics, it seems to be deduced that the words most shared between Armenian and Basque are obsolete and do not form part of any of the contemporary languages.

Unfortunately, there are no known living speakers who are fluent in both languages, and Sargsyan, who was self-taught when it came to learning Basque, passed away after a sudden heart attack in 2011 at the age of 54.

According to his daughter Arevik, he left behind hundreds of additional words shared between the two languages, which have yet to be published.

But is it really possible that two such isolated ethno-linguistic cultures share so many words?

Invalid comparison

Many Armenian and Basque academics, including the Basque linguist Charles Videgain, directed me to Bilbao, where the headquarters of Euskaltzaindia (Royal Academy of the Basque Language) is located, to speak with the most remarkable minds about the history of the Basque language.

All the experts I spoke to there officially rejected any link between the Basques and the peoples of the Caucasus (including the Armenians or the Georgians).

The secretary of Euskaltzaindia, Xabier Kintana, told me that the words shared from Sargsyan’s list “are taken at random from the different modern dialects of the Basque language” and “are surely old loanwords from Latin, Celtic and other languages, in their Basque neighbors moment, which invalidates his comparison ”.

Pedro Sanchez and Andres Urrutia
The Academy of the Basque Language rules out links between Euskera and Armenian. In the image, the president of Euskaltzaindia, Andrés Urrutia, together with the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez.

He insisted that in order for a study of this type to successfully find a shared origin, comparisons should be made between the ancient forms of both languages ​​to eliminate the loanwords from other languages, both in the Basque case (Latin, Iberian, Celtiberian, etc. ) as in Armenian (Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, etc.).

However, comparing ancient languages ​​often relies on very small samples from archaeological excavations, making obtaining a complete picture virtually impossible.

Even if a connection is found between languages, ultimately there is no solid physical evidence linking the two peoples.

“The only relationship between these peoples is the similarity of some words, ” Basque archaeologist Mertxe Urteaga told me. “There is no archaeological evidence of the Armenian presence in the Basque Country and Navarra.”

That left me where I started, unable to find evidence of a link between the two ethnic groups, but I’m still not convinced that the fact that two languages ​​share hundreds of words can be pure coincidence.

For now, it seems that the story of the Basque genesis remains one of Europe’s greatest enigmas: a rare treasure to be discovered in a world that is largely mapped out, waiting for someone to finally open it.

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