Basque cuisine is very good. And one of the most classic bits of Basque cuisine is the pintxo (pronounced “pincho”). Or, as you usually see it, pintxos, because you never have just one.
A bit of Basqueground is in order, perhaps. The Basque Country is an area of northeast Spain (and southwest France) where Basque culture is dominant. The life’s blood of Basque culture is the Basque language – the language’s name for itself is Euskara. Euskara is fascinating linguistically because it’s an isolate: it is not related to any other languages that we know of. It has been spoken by people in that region since time immemorial, and in spite of efforts to stamp it out (the Franco government of Spain made it illegal and severely punishable to speak it), it persists – indeed, since the end of the Franco regime, it has had a resurgence and is a matter of great pride for many Basques, and is omnipresent in Basque Country.
That’s not to say that it hasn’t had any influence from Spanish, of course. Languages always have influence from their neighbours, and Basque has borrowed words from Spanish – and, I think it’s safe to say, its phonology has also been influenced over the centuries. But grammatically, Basque is nothing like Spanish.
It’s not just that verbs tend to go last in the sentence, rather than between subject and object as in Spanish and many other Indo-European languages. It’s not just that Basque has a complex inflectional system that is reminiscent of that of Finnish (to which it is nonetheless not related!). It’s not just that Basque has an inflectional indefinite–definite distinction, a bit like Swedish (to which it is most certainly not related!). It’s also that Basque is an ergative-absolutive language, which means that the subject of an intransitive verb is inflected like the object, not the subject, of a transitive verb. If English were like that, instead of saying “I went and I met him” we would say “Me went and I met him” – or, perhaps, “I went and me met he.”
OK, fine, you’re not all linguistics geeks. But who doesn’t like food? And pintxos are food. Delicious food, of incessant variety and flavour and very affordable price, and meant to be consumed in social settings with wine or beer. They’re lots of small dishes, and…
Does that sound like tapas? Well, yes, they have a lot in common. Quite a lot. But the pintxo culture is perhaps a little different. The classic way of doing pintxos is to pick them off plates, or take them as they’re offered by passing waiters (if this sounds a bit like dim sum to you, I agree), and each one has a little wooden skewer through it; as you eat them, you leave the skewers on your plate, and when you’re done, the waiter adds up all the skewers and charges you accordingly. Not all pintxos are served that way now, but it’s still a thing you can do.
I keep calling them pintxos, and you may wonder whether that really is the plural of pintxo. And the answer is that it is… in Spanish and in English. But in Basque? The plural is pintxoak, said like “pincho-ak.” Well, that’s the absolutive plural. The ergative plural is pintxoek. And the dative plural, if you want to make pintxos an indirect object, is pintxoei, and the instrumental plural, if you want to use your pintxos for something, is pintxoez, and the genitive plural is pintxoen, and the causative plural is pintxoengatik, and the benefactive plural is pintxoentzat, and the terminative plural is pintxoetaraino, and the directive plural is pintxoetarantz, and the destinative is pinxoetarako, and… there are 17 cases in all, but it’s like pintxos themselves: if you have 17 skewers on your plate, you sure must have been hungry!
So anyway, pintxos are classic Basque food and pintxo is a classic Basque word – you can even see it with the txspelling for the “ch” sound, which is actually quite sensible given that x spells “sh” (and given that c is not used in Basque spelling). But if pintxos seem very similar to tapas, because after all Spain and Spanish culture are right there, then you might well wonder if pintxo has anything in common with any Spanish word.
And it does. Actually, it’s a loan from Spanish. The Spanish word it’s taken from is pincho, which means ‘skewer’. As in those little wooden things that are typically found sticking out of pintxos. Pincho in turn traces through the Spanish verb pinchar to the same Latin root that gives us English puncture and punctuation.
But just as Basque cuisine has long interacted with Spanish cuisine – and the cuisines of other countries, such that not too far from where you can get inexpensive plates of little pintxos in San Sebastián (Donostia) you can get extremely expensive little plates of Basque-style nouvelle cuisine at Michelin three-star restaurants (see above) – the Basque language has taken this Spanish word and made it its own, so that you can eat pintxorik (partitive indefinite!) all you want.