Basques, a peculiar race, who from time immemorial have inhabited both slopes of the Pyrenees. They number about 800,000, of whom about 150,000 are in the French department of Basses-Pyrenees, the remainder in the Spanish provinces of Navarre, Biscay, Guipuz-coa, and Alava. The last three provinces are usually styled the Basque provinces. From the remotest times the Basques have remained unsubdued in their mountain homes, and neither Carthaginian, Roman, Gothic, Saracen, French, nor Spanish domination has been able to efface their distinctive characteristics. They are of middle size, compactly built, robust and agile, of a darker complexion than the Spaniards, with gray eyes and black hair. They are simple, but proud, impetuous, merry, and hospitable. The women are beautiful, skilful in performing men's work, and remarkable for their vivacity and grace. The Basques are much attached to dancing, and are very fond of the music of the bagpipe. The national dress is a red jacket, long breeches, a red or brown sash, a square-knotted neck tie, hempen shoes, and pointed caps. The women wear headdresses of gay colors over their variously braided and twisted hair. In the social relations of the Basques patriarchal manners and habits prevail.
The art of agriculture is but little advanced, yet the fertility of the soil and the industry of the occupants produce an abundance. Among the Spanish Basques there is an almost universal equality of conditions, the nobility being few in number. There are few cities or villages, but small houses lie scattered upon nearly all the heights. In their political constitution, they are divided into districts, each of which chooses annually an alcalde, who is both a civil and military officer, and a member of the supreme junta, which meets every year for deliberation upon matters of general interest. Their rights are protected by the fueros, or written constitutions, which were granted by ancient Spanish kings. In religion they are Roman Catholics. - Whatever may have been the origin and ethnological relations of the Basque people, they have enjoyed an immemorial reputation for valor in their present seats. They were the Cantabri of the Romans, and are alluded to by Horace as a people hard to be taught to bear the yoke.
The Spanish Basques long maintained themselves independent, though situated between the rival monarchies of Navarre and Castile; and though in the 13th century they were incorporated into the Castilian monarchy, they retained their old liberties, paid no taxes, and enjoyed throughout Spain all the exemptions of the nobility. The Spanish constitution of 1812 stripped them of their long-possessed privileges, which however they recovered in 1823, after an energetic insurrection. When, after the death of Ferdinand VII. in 1833, Isabella determined to take their privileges from them again, they embraced with ardor the cause of Don Carlos, and after six years of rebellion recognized the young queen only when the reestablishment of the fueros was promised them. - The proper name of the Basque language is Euscara or Esquera, which degenerated into Vasc, Bascongada, and in the French provinces into Bascuence. Eusk or Esc probably signifies sunrise or east, pointing to the original country of the Basques. The people call themselves Euscaldunac, people of the language, designating all strangers as Erdaldunac, people of foreign language.
Some natives derive the name of Bascon from basocoa, forest-dweller. There are three principal dialects of this language: the Guipuzcoan, the purest, pleasantest, and most developed of all, spoken in Guipuzcoa and Alava; the Vizcayan; and the Labortan of Lower Navarre, Labourd, and Zuberoa, which is softer than the Vizcayan. Great diversity of opinion exists among writers on everything concerning not only the history but the language of this brave, hardy, industrious, freedom-loving people. It is, however, certain that the Euscara entirely differs from the languages of the Indo-European family. It has some common traits with the Magyar, Osmanli, and other dialects of the Uralo-Altaic family. This similarity consists in blending several words into one, especially in the conjugation of verbs, and in the exclusion of combinations like cr, gr, pr, pi, tr, etc. But there are few coincidences of the roots of words. The Euscara is the primitive language of the inhabitants of Spain, who were called Iberi by the classic writers, were settled in the whole peninsula, in a part of Aquitania, partly in Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, and traces of whom are found in Italy and in Thrace. By an invasion of a branch of Celts, in prehistoric times, these aborigines were mixed in a part of the peninsula with the invaders, thus producing the
Celtiberi, who included the Cantabri. Many writers confound the latter with the aboriginal Basques; but the inhabitants of Iberia at the time of the Roman invasion were of three sorts: the Iberi, the Celtici, and the Celtiberi, to whom the Cantabri belonged. The settlements of Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians on the coasts of the Mediterranean sea are of much later date. The Euscara has no words beginning with r, f, st; it has more sibilants than the Greek, viz., s, z, hard and soft ts; it is very rich in words and grammatic forms; it is full and well-sounding, and very perspicuous. Its predominant combinations of sounds are: ar, man; bae, be, low, deep; cal, damage; car, gar, high; maen, men, power; na, plain, high; 0, high; se, ce, plain, etc. Very rare combinations are ner, and tar, ter. We possess the most valuable grammatical information in the Vizcayan, the best lexical development in the Guipuzcoan (Larramendi's Diccionario trilingue, Castellano, Bascuence, y Latin, San Sebastian, 1853), but scarcely anything available in the Labortan dialect. - William von Humboldt (in Adelung's Mithri-dates, and in his work on the aborigines of Spain, etc, Berlin, 1821), Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte, and Chaho (Dictionnaire basque, Paris, 1857 et seq.) furnish the best materials among all foreign writers on the Basque language.
See also Ticknor's "Spanish Literature," vol. iii., and Le pays basque, sa population, sa langue, ses maeurs, sa litterature et sa musique, by Francisque Michel (Paris, 1857), who has also published a Romancero du pays basque (Paris, 1859).