Tag Archives: Basque

Spanish patronymics

Patronymics — names that mean “son of” someone — are something of a mystery in Spanish.

In English and other Germanic languages, most patronymics contain the actual word for son or daughter, as in English Samuelson, Danish Christensen, or Icelandic Mínervudóttir. Hebrew patronymics are just as transparent, although the word ben “son” is a prefix, not a suffix. David Ben-Gurion’s last name was a famous example. But the Spanish patronymic ending -ez, seen in names like Martínez and Enríquez, is clearly unrelated to hijo.

There are no definitive explanations for the origin of -ezRalph Penny, my history of Spanish guru, attributes it tentatively to possessive (genitive) forms of Germanic names like Roderick that came into early Spanish with the fall of Rome. The genitive form Roderici (i.e., Roderick’s) was shortened to Ruiz, with the all-important final -z, and Roderick itself to Ruy. Once established as a patronymic ending, the -z spread to other names, including those shown below.


Some Spanish patronymics (patronímicos), plus Chávez

To complicate matters, some Spanish patronymics derive from names that are now obsolete. Have you ever met a Gomo (the source of Gómez)? A Velazco? A Valdo? Other Spanish last names end with -ez by mere coincidence, like Chávez (as in the late Hugo), which comes from the Portuguese word for “keys.”

As a teacher I’m often reluctant to recommend Wikipedia. However, its resources on patronymics are impressive. They include

  • descriptions of patronymics from languages around the world
  • a long list of Spanish patronymics, most with -ez endings, but others with -iz-oz, and -az
  • in the same article, some alternative, Basque-centric theories of the origins of Spanish -ez

By the way, most of these patronymics have a written accent mark. This is simply because the next-to-last syllable is stressed even though the last letter of the word is a consonant. Explanations here, here, here, and a zillion other places on the web (not to mention textbooks, dictionaries, and the like).

Census data on languages of Spain

Here are some interesting data about how many Spaniards who live in the relevant regions speak or just understand Galician, Basque, or Catalan. The Spanish government asks about language usage every time it does a national census. Unfortunately, it still hasn’t processed the language results from the most recent census (2011), so these numbers date from 2001.

census data

At that time, the regional languages were spoken by over half the residents of their respective territories: Basque by just over one-half of residents, Catalan by about two-thirds, and Galician by almost all. The lower numbers for Basque are to be expected because, unlike Galician and Catalan, Basque is unrelated to Castilian Spanish and therefore difficult for other Spaniards to learn. (This difference also explains the large numbers of Spaniards who can understand, though not speak, Galician and Catalan.) The higher numbers for Galician, compared to Catalan, are probably attributable to demography. As shown in the last column, over 90% of Galicians were born in Galicia, compared to less than 70% in the prosperous and cosmopolitan Catalan region.

It will be interesting to see how the 2011 data compare.

If you want to have a closer look at the numbers yourself, you can visit the Spanish census website. Previous posts on minority languages of Spain are here, here, here, and here.


Language education policy in Spain

I’ve been looking into how bilingual education works in the different Spanish provinces (Comunidades Autónomas) that have their own language. It turns out that there are some significant differences.

As shown below, the relevant provinces are Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands for Catalan, Galicia for Galician, and the Basque Country and parts of Navarra for Basque.

Minority languages of Spain (adapted from Martorell 2006)

Minority languages of Spain (adapted from Martorell 2006) — click to enlarge.

In all three regions, the jumping-off point for language policy is the Spanish Constitution, which officially promotes both Castilian Spanish and the regional languages. Article 3 of the Constitution states (in CastilianCatalan, Galician, Basque, and English) that:

  • Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it.
  • The other languages of Spain shall also be official in the respective Self-governing Communities in accordance with their Statutes.
  • The richness of the different linguistic modalities of Spain is a cultural heritage which shall be specially respected and protected.

Accordingly, Spain’s national education law requires children to study both Castilian and the local language in these provinces. This is a serious directive: to accommodate the extra language study, the percentage of class hours that schools are required to spend on basic subjects (math, reading, etc.) is decreased to 55%, compared to 65% in the rest of Spain (Article 6 in the law).

Each province has a statute of “language normalization” that interprets this national legislation, and this is where differences among the provinces arise. Catalonia’s statute is the most demanding, stating (Article 2.2a) that Catalan is the language of education in Catalonia. More detailed legislation regarding primary and secondary education spells out (Article 4 in both) that:

Catalan, as Catalonia’s own language, will be the normal linguistic vehicle of instruction and learning and in internal and external activities of the education community: oral and written student and faculty activities, lectures, textbooks and other teaching materials, learning and evaluation materials, and communications with families.

In other words, Spanish (Castilian) is relegated to the same position in Catalonian schools that it has as a language of foreign study in the United States. It’s no wonder that the Spanish-speaking community has pushed back in recent years, claiming that the schools aren’t living up to the national goal of promoting both languages, and launching lawsuits and legislative proposals to change the current system. The Catalan establishment, in turn, argues that the current system works, and that Catalan needs extra support in a Castilian-majority country. A popular poster inspired by the current controversy will strike many readers as familiar:

The language normalization statutes in Galicia and the Basque Country are more accommodating. Galicia’s (Articles 12-14) states that Galician is an official language in education (not the language as in Catalonia), and that “children have the right to receive their primary education in their mother tongue”, although “children cannot be separated by school because of language.” Likewise, the Basque statute states that “all students have the right to be taught as much in Basque as in Castilian”, and refers to the parents’ right to choose which language their child is educated in.

In response to an earlier post, some readers commented about their own experiences with minority languages vs. Castilian. I’d love to hear from more of you.