Karlos Zurutuza

What´s in a word?

"You cannot leave Apsny without meeting Mr. Chirikba", Maxim Gunjia - Abkhazia´s former Foreign Minister- told me during my second and last visit to Abkhazia, back in 2007. He was absolutely right. I was lucky enough to meet Mr Viacheslav Chirikba, a linguist - among several other facets- who had devoted many years of his life to the study of my own language, that is Basque.

Viacheslav brought with him a beautifully handwritten Russian-Basque dictionary which a colleague had handed him back in 1975. 30 years later, Mr. Chirikba would produce himself the first ever Abkhaz-Basque dictionary.

While I passed with great care the yellowed pages of his Russian-Basque manuscript, I could not stop thinking about the paradox of it all: somebody in that corner of the Black Sea had bothered to study my native language, whereas many of my neighbours back home deliberately ignored it.

In the Basque country we are struggling on a daily basis to keep alive what we consider to be our main symbol of identity: a pre Indo-European language which experts have classified as "isolate”, until a genealogical relationship with other languages is found.

Mr Chirikba -today Foreign Minister of the Republic of Abkhazia- also told me about his investigation of a possible link between Basque and the North Caucasian languages, Abkhazian among them. Wherever the truth lies, it is clear that both our languages share a common scenario: that of a language of limited number of speakers coexisting, side by side, with some other spoken by hundreds of millions of people: Russian in the case of Abkhaz, and French and Spanish in the case of Basque.

I´m aware that substantial efforts are being currently made in Abkhazia in order to keep alive their ancient tongue. Nonetheless, I´m fully convinced that my “indifferent” neighbours back home have never posed any major obstacle for the survival and development of my language. Joxean Artze, a well-known Basque writer and poet, explains why in a verse which is deeply rooted in all of us:

“Hizkuntza bat ez da galtzen ez dakitenek ikasten ez dutelako, dakitenek hitz egiten ez dutelako baizik” (A language is not lost when those who don't know it don't learn it, but when those who know it don't use it”).

It is far from being my intention to be patronizing by giving any unsolicited advice. I just want to convey my most sincere hope that both Mr. Chirikba´s language and mine are able to address the enormous challenges ahead. Let´s not forget the key role language plays in the continuity and the identity of any culture. As one Abkhaz proverb says, “a person´s tongue is his medicine”.

Karlos Zurutuza
Freelance correspondent specializing in the Caucasus and the Middle East regions. BASQUE COUNTRY

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