Euskal Herria, ho!

Three weeks from tomorrow, I will be flying to Bilbao, Spain. That will be my long-awaited arrival in the Basque Homeland, Euskal Herria, and my gateway to Mondragon.

I don’t remember when I first heard of these co-ops, but it was probably early in my career as a co-op geek. It’s amazing stuff: tens of thousands of people have built a democratic economic system out of the ashes of two wars, despite being an oppressed minority living under Franco’s dictatorship for much of that time.

In half a century, they’ve created a model for the world, including their own educational system, social security and healthcare, R&D, and finance. They also co-own Eroski, one of Spain’s largest grocery store chains, which is developing a joint worker-consumer ownership.

I’ll be writing much more about the cooperatives over the next month, but at the moment I’m preoccupied by the Basques themselves. They are different that the rest of Europeans, and not just in the way that Spaniards are different from Frenchfolk.

The Basques have been a distinct people since at least Roman times, wedged between the Atlantic and the Pyrenees. They were seafaring folk, with ancient trade relations as distant as Iceland. They did a lot of mining and made a lot of weapons, and it seems that people mostly left them alone as empires ebbed and flowed and invaders roamed what is now France and Spain. Think about it, would you rather sack Madrid/Paris or climb over the mountains to tangle with a bunch of unintelligible weapon-makers?

What really has me intrigued is their language, Euskara. It was banned during the Franco years, but is now making a comeback. Spanish is more common, but about 20% of Basques use Euskara at home. And it is a matter of cultural identity and national pride.

I’m fully expecting to have a hard time understanding anything. Heck, I’ll be doing great if I even grasp a fraction of their dialect/accent of Castellano (which itself apparently sounds way different than espanol de California!) I know that everyone in the world speaks English now, and people won’t necesarily see me as an oppressor if I ask them donde esta el bano, so I’ll probably be able to communicate with most people (especially after I’ve had a couple of drinks and lose my linguistic inhibition). Nevertheless, I want to at least learn a few phrases of the local tongue, to have made an effort, y’know?

Problem is, the language is  not even in the Indo-European family. That is to say, Persian, Russian and Hindi are all more closely related to Spanish than any of them are related to Euskara). There is even scholarly debate about whether Euskara is actually related to the Caucasian/Dene language family (and yes, it’s THAT Dene, like the North American first nation). Remnant indigenous cultures speaking languages that are related even though they’ve got all of Europe, Asia, and an ocean between them. How cool is that? How can I not try to learn some Basque?

Here’s my first problem: “No” is pronounced “ess” and that just sounds affirmative to my poor little anglophone brain. On the bright side “yes” is pronounced “bai” and that doesn’t really sound like anything except  “bye” (pronounced “agur”) or “hi” which Basques pronounce “eup” which sort of sounds affirmative and brings me back in a befuddled circle.

Nevertheless, I want to learn some Euskara. Just looking at the written stuff is doing nothing for me. Therefore, I went looking for some sort of audio to get me started, and this is what I’m up against.

But all is not lost. I found a little online guide with audio, which will give me the vocabulary of a two-year old. Unfortunately, it takes twelve syllables to ask, “Do you speak English?” and I can’t make heads or tails of it.

Wish me luck.

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3 Responses to Euskal Herria, ho!

  1. Andrew,

    Have a great time! I really saw this as our version of the pilgrimage to Mecca (and I just completed my Hadj to Rochdale). It was a transformational experience–as you know, the academic material on Mondragon is out-of-date. It is a living, breathing, constantly evolving democratic workplace. Two years ago, when I went, they were just rolling out their new Cooperative Management Model (their first break from the University of Chicago and Harvard Business Schools). The new model was only in the beginning stages of being taught at Otalora. I can’t wait to hear how it has changed their organization!

  2. coopgeek says:

    Thanks for telling me about that. I’ll be sure to keep an eye open for it while on my little pilgrimage.

  3. Ella says:


    I am really excited for your adventures to come or perhaps that have been had already! I just came back from Basque country myself and was learning euskara in an euskaltegia….I would love to compare stories and perhaps even practice our horrible euskara skills together! The more practice the better! Are you still there? What are you plans?

    zorionak eta besarkada bat!


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