The recent rebirth of the "Euskara" typeface may be very surprising. In fact, it was first used in the late Middle Ages, then depending on printing fashions, it came back in the limelight in the early 1930's : today the Basque Culture can't possibly do without it.

Euskara - which means Basque in the Basque language - refers to all kinds of characters you can find in the Basque country. Indeed each of the seven French and Spanish Basque provinces has its own geographic and cultural characteristics. For instance, those who live on the seaside - itsasoan - differ from those who live in the mountain - itsasmendi -. These differences can also be felt from one valley to the other.

Mr.COLAS fell in love with this deep, green country and started to make a list of all its works of art, novels included : this is how Euskara came back in the limelight in the 1930's. From September 1888 until his death, this funny man - a teacher in Bayonne's school - travelling on muleback across the Basque countryside - eagerly searched for Basque monuments, some of which dated back to the pre-Roman era. As a result, he published a rare, heavy book which cost him a fortune and attracted few readers : in disgust he retired, broke and lonely. Anyway, there remains a genuine encyclopedia with more than 500 rough sketches and about 30 photos, tracing monuments and works since lost or destroyed. Unfortunately today, too few originals - some of them in a poor state - can be consulted as unquestioned references to the matter.

Fortunately the shape of characters in the Vascon - the old name for Basque - country was transmitted orally most of the time. This kind of character was inherited from the Roman invaders. By a trick of History, the global shape of the letters came to the Basque country, but how to carve them, without the needed tools ? At that time, the Basque engravers knew very little about the Roman ironworks technique; their rough tools couldn't carve deep characters like in the sculptures coming from Rome. So, instead of carving deeply, they scraped the stone around the characters which thus stuck out, creating a new technique. This explains why the Basque letters can hardly resist the passing of time : five-century-old engravings have been rubbed out, for the most part.

Moreover, very few people - such as old families of engravers - could write as well as engrave : such a treasure was to be kept secret. This explains the variety in the Basque characters. Not only did the children inherit the technique from their parents, but they also inherited the family mistakes : sometimes in a village, you may find the same misprints on the old houses fronts. The most powerfull family in a valley also caught hold of all the written works. Still today, there are shapes in the carved stone which can be found only in some valleys; and it is the same for the "pelote Basque", the rules of which varied according to the valleys which were the (mass) media of the time !

Despite all that, the influence of Roman characters can be found everywhere; in spite of such printing fashions as the Swiss one in the XVIth century, the Roman influence kept control over the remote Basque country : it is the reason why hardly any Basque written work displays cursive script. This appears clearly in Mr.Colas's book, which attracted founfries in the 1930's, and encouraged Euskara's revival. Euskara consists of large-footed, big-eyed, Roman-styled characters (See also to the SOME DIFFERENT BASQUE LETTERS section). You should not use them for a whole text because it would give an sensation of thickness : they were used on mortuary epitaphs and fronts of houses, mostly. The general pattern is rather heavy but the ten existing lowercases makes it look lighter : it seems funny that hardly any lowercase can be found in Euskara, although typically Basque letters can be found (for example, the interpenetrated DE).

Among the various Euskara characters used in offset printing, the LetraSet transfer-types are very well spread, whereas only Spanish printers have still got lead characters. Neuhaus in Hendaye is a worth-mentioning firm : their local roadsigns, printed in Basque characters, help promote tourism. Lately, a young editor from Biarritz has tried to use the Basque culture characters in printing computers, thus rocketing Euskara to the top of technology...

- Thierry ARSAUT -
(how to contact me)