Tuesday, March 29, 2022


by Sidney Schroepfer

Sidney Schroepfer is a senior in psychology and Spanish at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Sidney’s future plans include applying to graduate school for clinical psychology and volunteering in ESL classrooms. He wrote this blog post in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ in Fall 2021. 

Before beginning this blog post, I would like to thank my host parent, Tere, and the professors from the University of Deusto. Thanks to them, my study abroad experience had a major impact in understanding myself and the world around me, and I gained a deep connection to the city, its languages, and its people.

In this blog I interweave my observations from a typical metro commute with research that demonstrates where and how Euskara is used. And therefore, demonstrates how a salient Basque identity is being shaped.

First, I paint Bilbao’s context through a brief history lesson. The Basque language, Euskara, is a language isolate (Urban, 2021). It has no perceived relation to the other languages in Europe that geographically surround it. Despite this lack of linguistic connection, the Basque people have played an important role for the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Bilbao was the main port for the Kingdom of Castile during the Middle Ages (The Port, 2018). In recent history, Basque identity and the Euskara language fell when fascist and extreme nationalist groups shunned and discouraged the use of minority languages and expression of minority cultures in public spaces in Spain up until the 1970s. From this low, Basque people have rebuilt their cities and reestablished their identity and appear poised for more salient Basque expression through language. And it is from within this context I begin my commute.

Figure 1. Arrantzale (Bar), Getxo
Stepping out from my apartment in Algorta, I walked along the seaside towards Puerto Viejo (old port) in Getxo. In this area, approximately a twenty-five-minute metro from the main city, Euskara shares its presence on commercial buildings with Castilian. One place I passed is called Arrantzale which means fisherman in Euskara (Figure 1). Right beside Arrantzale you see in Castilian, ‘Taberna’ (tavern) and ‘Bar’ (bar). Naming this popular tavern Arrantzale honors the whaling and fishing that kept the Basque region prosperous. And including Castilian in its signage introduces Euskara into the Castilian speaking population in the area and further places Euskara into the linguistic landscape of Bilbao. Carmen Fernandez Juncal reports in their research, “[Euskara] has a greater symbolic-connotative function” and that “…certain subjects…are more likely to be exposed in both languages” (Fernandez, p.724). In Algorta and throughout the Bilbao region, Euskara is often used to name commercial businesses and Castilian tags alongside it to help further identify what it means for those who do not speak the language. This shapes identity by symbolically putting Euskara in equal level to Castilian.

I then hopped onto the metro, and after a twenty-minute ride, walked to the University of Deusto near the center of Bilbao. I remember the first orientation where the university president took center stage and spoke in Euskara about the university’s mission to focus on Basque academic achievements. The notion of expressing a Basque heritage through academia demonstrates how linguistic and ethnic communities can reshape and define their own future through establishing credible institutions.

At the university I had a gastronomy class that involved cooking lessons from a chef at the Ribera Market. We took the metro from the university and arrived in the city’s old center, Casco Viejo, and walked over to the Ribera Market to make Basque cuisine. Gastronomy plays an important role in establishing a communities ethnic or regional identity. For example, think about French cuisine and the prestige that has, and think about differences in cuisine for northern and southern states of the US. Clearly, identity is expressed through a state/region’s gastronomy. Kerri Lesh identifies how locations like the Ribera Market play into the economic prosperity of the Bilbao and attributes value to Euskara through marketing products globally and placing prestige on the associated cuisine. Lesh states “developing ideas of how language materiality and value are produced, languages such as Euskara can better strategize the promotion of their gastronomic and tourist sectors” (Lesh, p.60). With the university connecting study abroad students to the Ribera Market, Euskara and Basque identity are shown off and promoted to outsider groups.

After classes at the university and at the Ribera Market, I took the metro again to travel to a local elementary school in the close suburb Otxarkoaga where I tutored English in their after-school program. Here I got exposed to how Euskara was taught in some schools and how children felt connected to their neighborhood. What I observed largely aligned with what Begoña Echeverria concludes in their observations and quantitative research. Echeverria concludes that “Basque schooled students identified as Basque and linked that to their Euskara whereas Spanish-schooled students identified as equally Basque and Spanish” (Echeverria, p.365). As I tutored in English, I would ask them questions about their neighborhood and family, and for many children, if they did not know the word in English they would choose to speak in Euskara as opposed to Castilian. Children who are born around Bilbao and have access to Euskara language education, they strongly identify with the Basque community.

Figure 2. Mixing with Euskara and Castilian

At the end of my time at each of these locations, bar, market, university, or classroom, the conversations in Castilian that we had always ended or began with a Basque greeting. My favorite was “agur” which means both hello and goodbye. Euskara bleeds through into the Spanish conversation, especially amongst the highly educated in Bilbao. For example, Castilian is the language that is mostly heard when walking down the street. However, in cases where there is high mixing of people in Bilbao, Euskara was the language of conversation (Figure 2). This too is an example of increasing Euskara and Basque identity that takes hold of the verbal landscape in Bilbao.

In conclusion, from short rides on the metro I was exposed to how commercial enterprises utilized Euskara to symbolically tie business into historical triumphs of the Basque people. I saw how food and tourism tied in to strengthen the prestige of Euskara. I learned from the children in the area how Euskara education increases their pride of their heritage. And of course, the embedding of Euskara greetings in the conversations in Castilian serves to remind where exactly we are. From these different sectors, it is clear a Basque identity is shaping and strengthening using Euskara.


Echeverria, B. (2003). Schooling, Language, and Ethnic Identity in the Basque Autonomous Community. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 34(4), 351–372.      https://doi.org/10.1525/aeq.2003.34.4.351

Fernández Juncal, C. (2020). Funcionalidad Y convivencia Del Español Y El Vasco en El Paisaje Lingüístico De Bilbao. Íkala: Revista de Lenguaje y Cultura, 25(3),713-729. https://doi-

Lesh, K. N. (2021). Basque gastronomic tourism: Creating value for Euskara through the materiality of language and drink. Applied Linguistics Review, 12(1), 39–63. https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.1515/applirev-2019-0101

The Port: History. Bilbaoport. (2018, February 9). Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.bilbaoport.eus/en/the-port/history/.

Urban, M. (2021). The geography and development of language isolates. Royal Society Open Science, 8(4), 202232. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.202232


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