As occurs with some of the garments comprising the traditional costume of the valley, this Basque dialect is unique and sets the Valley of Roncal apart from everywhere else. It used to be spoken in the seven villages of Roncal.
Within the Basque language, and possibly due to the difficult terrain of the Valley of Roncal, which hindered relations with other valleys, the Roncal dialect is the dialect that has maintained the most archaic forms of the language. This dialect is considered to be the oldest in Europe.
In his study of dialectal variety in Navarre, Louis Lucien Bonaparte listed the Basque spoken in Roncal as a sub-dialect of the Soule dialect, although several linguists today clearly differentiate it from the Basse-Navarre and Soule dialects and the Romance languages of Béarn and Aragón. Other linguists, such as Isaba’s own Bernardo Estornés Lasa, defend the thesis that Roncal’s Uskara is a language in its own right and that Basque is a set of languages.
Even at the end of the 19th century, the Roncal version of Basque was commonly used in homes, shops and conversations between neighbours. The men also spoke Spanish, which they needed for their transhumant routes and for use at river timber ports. The women, who only left the valley in order to work making espadrilles in Mauléon, did not need to stop speaking Basque because the inhabitants of the other face of the Pyrenees spoke the Soule dialect, which is very similar to its Roncal counterpart.
That same century, when the Carlist War came to an end, non-Basque-speaking schoolteachers arrived in Roncal, prohibiting and punishing the use of Basque in schools.
The road to Isaba was built soon after that, providing another focal point for the spread of Spanish. The road brought with it outsiders; mainly men from Andalusia and Valencia, aiming to work in the Forest of Isaba, pedlars and workers to build the road to the Plane of Belagua.
All these factors, not to mention the fact that the language was frowned upon in the capital as a sign of ignorance, gave rise to the feeling that Basque was somewhat impractical.
And so the last quarter of the 19th century saw the start of the lingering death of the Roncal dialect, which was relegated at the start of the 20th century to the interiors of Roncal homes and, occasionally, chats between locals. We know that in 1866 in Burgui, the first place to see the language disappear, “Basque is spoken by a minority which does not include young people”, as González Ollé put it in his “Vascuence y romance” (Basque and Romance). At the dawn of the 20th century, it would appear that you could count those in Burgui who spoke Basque to any extent on the fingers of one hand. In the first third of the 20th century, the only people who used the language were 40 or 50 years old or over.
Strangely, the very generation of children who were punished for using their mother tongue at school was the last to have the language passed on to it and actually speak it. From then on, Uskara only lasted as long as those who were children at the end of the 19th century themselves lasted.
The last person both to speak and write Roncal Basque, Ubaldo Hualde, died in Isaba in 1967. The death of Fidela Bernat, the last person just to speak the language, in Uztárroz in 1992 saw the disappearance of the Valley of Roncal’s most characteristic feature: Uskara
THE DEFENCE OF EUSKERA
The association “Erronkari’ko uskaltzaleak”, whose work in defence of the Basque language centred on asking the General Council of the Valley to financially support the creation of classrooms in which classes were given in Basque, was founded in the valley during the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1936).
A few decades later, in the Seventies, none other than the Vice-President of the Provincial Council of Navarre, Amadeo Marco, went to great lengths to protect the Roncal language by subsidising its study and promotion.
In the same decade, private Basque classes were offered in the summer based on the Roncal Uskara text book written by José Estornés from Isaba. With the Roncal language extinct, all efforts focussed on promoting the unified version of Basque, Euskera batua, in the valley.
In the last few years of the 20th century, the Basque Literacy Coordinator for Adults AEK arrived in the valley, providing private classes for adult students. At the same time, “teaching model D” came to the area, offering all those pupils who so wished a full school education in Basque.
The cultural association Kebenko was established in the valley in 1996 to promote and defend the Basque language in the Valley of Roncal.
In 2001, the Government of Navarre’s Decree on the Basque language led to a protest from the local councils in the valley, which considered that it violated their right to use Basque for place names and in the official names of localities. For the same reason, some two hundred people held a demonstration in Roncal on the 21st of April 2001 heeding a call from the cultural association Kebenko and backed by a range of local social and cultural groups (AEK, the Julián Gayarre School’s Parents’ Association, the Nature Interpretation Centre, the Valley of Roncal Ski School, the Basque Language Service, the Valley’s Socio-cultural Officer, the Association of Timber Rafters and the Gaztelu group). This demonstration formed part of the “Euskera kaleratu” campaign led by Kebenko in order to achieve the normalisation of Basque in the Valley of Roncal.
In June 2004, a festive event was held in which those taking part travelled from village to village and placed signs with the Basque name of each locality alongside the official signs on the road. The localities of Garde (which is spelled the same in both Spanish and Basque) and Isaba, which already had a bilingual sign, were excluded from this act of protest. Strangely, the signs bearing the Basque names of the five Roncal villages were removed within just a few weeks.
The Valley of Roncal has had great fortune when it comes to defending the Roncal version of the language and also the privilege of drawing on the efforts of the Estornés Lasa brothers, from Isaba, who devoted a good part of their lives to compiling words, proverbs, sayings, poems and songs from the old language, printing and publishing them in several books, including José Estornés’ grammar book, and Bernardo Estornés’ priceless Spanish-Roncal Basque dictionary, which contains the fruits of seventy years of research. So it can be said that, although the Roncal version of the Basque language is now extinct, the work of the Estornés brothers means that we are still aware of a large part of the language today.