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Basque-Language Soap Opera a Linguistic Hit

November 27, 1995

BILBAO, Spain (AP) _ A low-budget soap opera has proved the most successful tool of an educational campaign to familiarize Basques with their own language _ the oldest and the most mysterious in Europe.

Since it premiered last fall on the first channel of Basque regional television, ``Goenkale″ (``Main Street″) has gained a following of a half million viewers a week. That’s nearly as many people as are thought to speak Basque in Spain’s three northeastern Basque provinces.

``Goenkale″ _ pronounced go-in-ka-lay _ chronicles the lives of two estranged brothers who live in a fishing village in Spain’s Basque country bordering the Bay of Biscay.

``The success of `Goenkale’ lies in its great realism,″ said Cesar Martinez, a sociologist at the University of the Basque Country. ``It depicts everyday life in Arralde, a village where the old Basque rural world and a newer urban environment clash, creating conflicts that set residents against each other.″

Arralde’s traditional lifestyle is disrupted as the picturesque fishing village is turned into a tourist resort, a problem that many recession-hit Basque fishing villages face today.

The local tavern is the focal point of the program. Many of the characters have relatives who emigrated to the United States as shepherds and jai alai players, and young characters are looking for work as fishing jobs dry up.

Director Inaki Eizmendi says the success of ``Goenkale″ is unprecedented for Euskal Telebista, the regional public station that broadcasts half its programming in Euskera, the Basques’ name for their language.

The station can reach 2.5 million viewers, but Basque is spoken by only about a fourth of the people in Spain’s three Basque provinces, the three French Basque provinces across the border and the separate region of Navarre.

Familiarity with the language, which bears no resemblance to Indo-European languages, is highest in rural areas.

Linguists are still pursuing the mystery of Euskera’s origins. Some think it could be connected to languages spoken by the Berbers, a caucasoid people of North Africa who have been living between the Sahara and Mediterranean since before the Arab conquest in the 7th century.

A quarter of a century ago, Basque seemed on the verge of dying out. During the 1939-75 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, use of regional languages like Basque, Catalan and Galician was sternly suppressed.

But since Spain’s Basque region voted for home rule in 1978, the Basque nationalist-led government has promoted the use of Basque. It finances special schools and has enacted laws requiring regional civil servants to speak Basque as well as Spanish, the language of all of Spain.

Similar practices and policies exist in Catalonia, another of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, where some 6 million people speak Catalan. But recovery is much easier for Catalan and the other regional languages, which are rooted in Latin and not difficult for a Spanish speaker to learn.

Gorka Aulestia, author of the first Basque-English dictionary, said ``Goenkale″ has breathed fresh air into Basque, taking it out of the rural world and scholarly circles where it had been taught as a relic and turning it into a popular language for everyday life.

According to surveys by Euskal Telebista, two of every three Basque speakers daily watch ``Goenkale,″ which is on in prime time Monday through Friday. The surveys also have found that non-Basque speakers often follow the soap, aided by family or friends who understand the language.

In addition to promoting Basque, ``Goenkale″ is fueling the development of Basque broadcasting in general, said Inaki Zarraoa, executive director of Euskal Telebista.

When Euskal Telebista first went on the air in 1982, it was forced to broadcast Basque-dubbed versions of Spanish and American TV series like ``Dallas″ for lack of anything original.

This year _ with an $80 million budget for its two channels, ETB1 in Basque and ETB2 in Spanish _ two-thirds of the schedule is locally produced.

About 200 people work on ``Goenkale,″ whose 30-minute episodes are produced and broadcast at a cost of $8,000 each, said Peio Sarasola, the station’s programming director.

```Goenkale’ is a training ground for Basque actors, writers, directors and producers,″ he said, adding that a casting call for Basque-speaking actors for the second season’s episodes drew 2,000 applicants.

The one subject scriptwriters have avoided during the first 190 episodes is the armed Basque separatist group ETA, which has killed more than 750 people in a 27-year campaign to gain independence for the Basque provinces.

Eizmendi said the program is deliberately politics-free and rejected claims by groups supporting ETA that ``Goenkale″ fails to show the real Basque society.

``Political bigotry will lead us to schizophrenia. `Goenkale’ tries to show human day-to-day aspects of life and to act as a catharsis for our conflict-ridden Basque society,″ Eizmendi said.

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