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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > The Letter H in Basque
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The Letter H in Basque

by Larry Trask

Larry Trask, a world expert on Basque linguistics and the history of the Basque language, passed away on March 28, 2004. Larry contributed extensively to several online communities, including Basque-L and the Indoeuropean list. This collection of his postings is dedicated in his memory.

To learn about Larry, see this article.

It is believed by specialists that the sound /h/ (or better [h], for those of you who understand the difference) was formerly present in all varieties of Basque. The letter H is very frequent in the surviving Aquitanian materials (Aquitanian is the ancestor of Basque), including in those few texts found south of the Pyrenees, in Navarra. For example, one personal name recorded in Navarra from the Aquitanian period is VMME SA.HAR, which we have no hesitation in reading as UME ZAHAR.

The sound [h] seems to have been lost early in the center of the country (Gipuzkoa and Navarra), since there is no trace of it here in the medieval period. In Bizkaia and Araba, however, the letter H is very frequent in personal names and place names in the Middle Ages: for example, BAHAHEZTU for modern MAEZTU, ELHORZAHEA for modern ELORTZA, HURIUARRI for URIBARRI, ELHORRIAGA for ELORRIAGA, HARIZAVALET for ARRIZABALETA.

Today the [h] survives only in the French Basque Country, but it survives everywhere there except along the coast of Lapurdi. Hence, the French Basques say, and have traditionally written, things like these: HORI, HURA, HARRI, HERRI, AHO, NAHI, MIHI, ETHORRI, EKHARRI, ALHABA, SENHAR, ERHI (finger), URRHE (usually written URHE).

When Euskaltzaindia sat down to devise a standard orthography for Basque, therefore, it had to find a compromise between the French Basque spelling traditions and the southern traditions. Naturally, there were disagreements. On the H, some people wanted to retain *all* the written Hs, and to spell things the way Axular spelled them. Others wanted to get rid of H completely. The solution the Academy adopted was basically this: H is written in Batua wherever the northerners have it, *except* after a consonant. So, ETHORRI, EKHARRI, ALHABA, SENHAR, ERHI, URHE were rejected in favor of ETORRI, EKARRI, ALABA, SENAR, ERI, URRE. But HORI, HURA, HARRI, HERRI, AHO, NAHI and so on were accepted into the standard orthography.

This, in my view, was an excellent decision. The northerners have a spelling that matches their pronunciation. The southerners have to learn where to put the Hs, but they're used to doing the same thing when writing Spanish. Moreover, the Batua orthography has the advantage of providing different spellings for words like HARI, ARI and AHARI, which are often pronounced identically in the south -- or, come to that, for AHATE and ATE.

In the 1970s, though, there was a good deal of outrage in the south over the Hs in Batua. The left-wingers objected bitterly to the Hs, on the ground that they made the written form more distant from the speech of the masses. The right-wingers objected even more bitterly on the ground that they'd never had Hs before and didn't see why they should have them now. If I may be blunt, a lot of people wasted an enormous amount of time fulminating about Hs when they could have been doing something more useful to assist in developing Batua.

Eventually the whole kerfuffle died down. I have the impression that the young left-wingers just got too busy with jobs and families to worry about Hs any more, while the elderly right-wingers in many cases just died.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH


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