B is for Bable and Basque

B is forEach of the autonomous regions in Spain have their own language in addition to Spanish, which they call Castellano, or Castilian. The most well-known is Catalan, but that begins with C, so let’s look instead at Bable and Basque.


Bable is the language spoken in Asturias. Surprisingly, it is a Romance language even though the culture and heritage of the region is Celtic. Also known as Asturianu, it has around 100,000 native speakers and there are approximately 450,000 more who understand it or who have it as a second language. It is not an official language of Asturias, but it has protected status.

Bable was used in official documents in Asturias until 14th C and then disappeared gradually between 14th – 17th centuries although it was still spoken unofficially.

Basque also known as Euskara, is spoken in the Basque country which is the region to the west of the Pyrenees in north east Spain and south west France. It has between 500,000 and 700 000 speakers.
Basque is what is known as a ‘language isolate’ which means it is not related to any other language. This means it is most likely to be pre-Indo-European. The first written evidence of it dates to the 11th C.

Basque is not an official language of Spain, but it has co-official status in the Basque Country. It has no official recognition at all in France.

Related posts: A is for Arabic   C is for Chinese

What is La Tomatina?

tomatoLa Tomatina is celebrated on the last Wednesday in August, in the Plaza del Pueblo, Buñol, Valencia.

Nobody remembers for definite the origins of this grand-scale food fight, but there are many suggestions ranging from a local food fight amongst friends, to residents pelting the council as part of a political protest, to a joke when a lorry shed its load of tomatoes. Regardless of how it began, it has developed into such a popular event that these days participation is strictly ticket-only.

It was banned for a period under General Franco, and participation was punishable, but the festivities were reinstated in the 1970s at the end of his regime.

The event begins at about 10am when someone has to climb up a tall greased pole to claim a ham which has been secured at the top. In theory the main event doesn’t start until this has been achieved. In practise, no matter what, it begins at about 11am with the firing of a water cannon to signal the start of the fight. To reduce the possibility of injuries there are some rules such as crushing the tomatoes before throwing them. By the time the water cannon is fired for the second time, exactly one hour later, to signal the end of the fight, around 150,000 tomatoes will have been thrown. They are grown in Extremadura especially for this annual event.

The town itself is cleaned by fire trucks hosing down the streets. Participants have to rely on local residents hosing them down, or go down to the river to clean themselves up.

Apokries, Carnaval and Shrove Tuesday

While teaching a Spanish lesson on the months of the year a few months back, I pinned up a picture of a witch for “octubre”. One of the boys put his hand up and said that he found that confusing because in his culture (Greek) Halloween wasn’t in October, it was in February or sometimes March.

I was intrigued, partly because Halloween is on 31st October for a good reason – it’s the day before All Saints Day and so was believed to be a day when spirits came out for their last chance of mischief before going into hiding for the next 24 hours – and partly because I always like to learn new things about other cultures. I wondered what the significance of February or March was. The boy promised to ask his family for more details and to let me know.

The next day he came to find me with two pieces of information: 1) the celebration in question was called “Apokries” and 2) it was absolutely nothing to do with Halloween!

Curiosity piqued further I did some research, and this is what I found: the period of Apokries lasts for about 4 weeks, and the word comes from apo kreas which means “goodbye to meat” because during this time traditionally meat is not eaten. It is roughly equivalent to the Spanish and Brazilian “Carnaval” (a word which is believed to come from the Latin carne vale – also meaning goodbye to meat).

Apokries and Carnaval are both celebrated with parades and decorated floats, and (and this could well be where the confusion with Halloween came from) people dress up in elaborate costumes, often with masks.

This year Apokries lasts from 24th February to 17th March, and Carnaval from 8th-12th February. So, while they are having house and street parties, and several days of revelry and celebrations in other countries, what are we doing here in the UK? That’s right – eating pancakes.

How do they celebrate Christmas in Spain?

the three kingsChristmas lights start going up in towns from the end of November, or early December. Christmas trees are quite popular now, although the more traditional decoration is the nativity scene (known as a belén)  which can be found in churches, public places and homes all over the country.

Christmas celebrations start on December 24th (Nochebuena) when families go to midnight mass (La Misa de Gallo) and then have a meal together. The meal itself varies from region to region but dessert tends to be sweets made of marzipan or turrón (nougat).

December 25th (El día de Navidad) is a quiet day. Families get together again for a meal, and they may exchange small gifts, but the real day for giving presents is January 6th, the day the Three Kings (Los Reyes) saw baby Jesus.

On January 5th there are processions all over Spain to celebrate the arrival of the kings. Traditionally they came by horse, but these days they may arrive by car or even helicopter! You can see a video of the three kings arriving by helicopter here. On the night of the 5th, children leave their shoes out, filled with straw and carrots for the kings’ horses, and in return the kings leave presents.

On this day there is also a special cake, known as Roscón de los Reyes, which is shaped in a ring. Inside is hidden a small charm. Tradition says that whoever finds it will be lucky for the next year, and they are also crowned king or queen for the day. Sometimes there is also a bean hidden in the cake, and whoever finds this has to buy the cake the following year!

Happy Christmas in Spanish is Feliz Navidad and Father Christmas is Papá Noel.

If you want to learn Spanish and you are based in Birmingham, you can contact me via my website for private Spanish lessons.

Related posts: How do they celebrate Christmas in France?    How do they celebrate Christmas in Greece?   How do they celebrate Christmas in Germany?    How do they celebrate Christmas in Denmark?


Tuesday November 13th

If you live in Spain or Greece you’re probably being extra careful today.  Tuesday 13th – that unlucky day when things are bound to go wrong…

Tuesday? Not Friday? No. Although for UK, USA and most other countries in the western hemisphere Friday 13th is considered the unluckiest day in the world, people in Greece and Spanish-speaking countries people fear Tuesdays.

The reason is not known for sure, but it has been suggested that it has something to do with the fact that Tuesday is named after the god of war (martes in Spanish after Mars and  ἡμέρα Ἄρεως (hemera Areos) in Ancient Greek after Aries) and so trouble was expected on this day.

Another suggestion put forward is that the day is considered unlucky because Constantinople fell on a Tuesday (Tuesday May 29th 1453), causing many Greeks to flee their homes.

At least we all agree that it’s the number 13 that’s unlucky though, don’t we?  Err…..no! In Italy it’s the number 17 that is considered unlucky. The reason is a bit convoluted, but bear with me…

  •  In Roman numerals 17 is written as XVII
  • If you rearrange these four characters you get VIXI
  • VIXI means “I have lived” in Latin, and it is found on many graves in Italy

During the middle ages, uneducated people found it difficult to distinguish between XVII and VIXI and so the number 17 came to be associated with death.

Here endeth the culture lesson for today!

For language teaching or tuition, visit my website www.sjbteaching.com.

Related post: How do they celebrate Christmas in Greece?