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Basque Metal Names
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.
As has been pointed out, there is something very odd about the Basque
To begin with, there are no indigenous Basque names recorded for any
of tin, copper or bronze. Instead, we find only loan words: <eztainu>
`tin', <kobre> `copper', and <brontze> `bronze'. I find this strange,
since it is inconceivable that the ancient Basques did not know these
metals. So the ancient names must have been replaced and lost, but
why? True, the `bronze' of English and other European languages is
itself of unknown origin, and not native in any of them.
But there is no doubt about the native status of <burdina> `iron',
<berun> `lead', <urre> `gold', and <zilar> `silver'. Many people
have tried to connect this last one to the Germanic word, as
represented by English `silver', but this is awkward, and I gather
that Agud and Tovar, in their etymological dictionary of Basque,
reject it altogether, though I don't know why, since publication of
the dictionary has not yet reached Z. Nor is it possible that <urre>
could have anything to do with Latin <aurum>.
Exceptionally interesting is <burdina>. Since there is good evidence
that the Celts introduced iron into the Basque Country, we might have
expected Basque to borrow a Celtic name for the metal, but that
didn't happen. The comparative evidence makes it pretty clear that
the earliest form of the Basque word was *<burdina>, or just possibly
*<burnina>, which seems less likely but cannot be ruled out. And it
is not so easy to connect this with <urdin> `blue'.
First, such a source could not account for the final <-a> in the
metal name. Second, it requires us to conclude that the word for
`blue' has lost an initial /b-/ which it formerly had. This is not
impossible, since initial /b-/ is indeed occasionally lost before
/u/: compare <buztarri> ~ <uztarri> `yoke'. But it doesn't seem
There are also problems with <urdin> itself. This might possibly be
from <ur> `water' plus <-din> `resembling', which makes semantic
sense, but the problem is that the combining form of <ur> in ancient
formations is regularly <u->, not <ur->: note cases like <ubide>
`ford' (<bide> `road, way'), <ubil> `whirlpool' (*<bil> `round'),
<uhalde> `riverbank, river' (<alde> `side'), <uharte> `land between
rivers' (<arte> `between'). (Western <ugalde>, <ugarte> are more
recent, post-dating the loss of /h/ in the west.) Hence we would have
expected *<udin>, not <urdin>. Moreover, the sense of `blue' is
modern. Earlier, <urdin> covered the entire territory of English
`green, blue, gray', just like the more famous Welsh <glas>. Note
formations like <gibelurdin>, the name of a mushroom with a bright
green underside, and <mutxurdin> `old maid', in which <urdin> clearly
refers to gray.
I don't know what to make of all this, though I think `gray metal' is
pretty neat on the semantic side, even though the phonology is pretty
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
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