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Monosyllabic Words in Basque
by Larry Trask
Native and ancient monosyllables are not particularly common in Basque; there are probably no more than several dozen. The canonical form of a monosyllable looks rather like that for a two-syllable word: same beginning and same ending, but only one vowel (or diphthong) in between. Here's the pattern (verbs and verb-forms are excluded here because theu are constructed according to very different rules):
C1 can be any of /b g z s l n/; it can also be /m/, when this derives from original */b/, and it can be /h/, if we count this.
Initial /b/ is extremely rare in monosyllables, even though it's one of the commonest initials in two-syllable words. Initial /n/ is also very rare, but then it's also the rarest initial in two-syllable words.
C4 can be any of /n l r tz ts/.
Normally at least one consonant is present. Initial /h/ is somewhat preferred to initial zero.
At least one word has final /ltz/: BELTZ. This almost certainly derives from earlier *BELETZ. A few words have final /rtz/: HARTZ, BORTZ, ERTZ, ZURTZ, and one or two others. (Western BOST derives from earlier BORTZ.) Maybe these derive from longer forms with a second vowel, or maybe we should add the cluster /rtz/ to the possibilities for C4.
The rare nouns with initial J, like JAI and JAUN, were not originally monosyllables, and they were very likely once the participles of verbs.
The word EZ is unusual, but this is a grammatical word, and grammatical words sometimes show unusual characteristics. I personally suspect that EZ may derive from original *EZA, but I don't have much evidence.
The word KE is completely mysterious and out of line with the usual rules.
Words like NAHI, AHAL and ZAHAR were not monosyllables in Pre-Basque and should not be counted as such, even though they are monosyllables today for many southern speakers.
Some other modern monosyllables were formerly two syllables long, such as ZEIN (from *ZEREN), HAIN (from *HAREN), and GAUR (from *GAU-HAUR). The same is true of MIN `tongue' (also MIHI), from *BINI, and of ZAI ~ ZAIN, from *ZANI. BAT derives from original *BADA or *BADE. BI derives from original BIGA, preserved in the north. Western BART derives from original BARDA, preserved in the east. BORT very likely has a similar origin. HAR `worm' was formerly *ANAR. TZAR ~ TXAR `bad' derives from ZAHAR. A few other monosyllables seem to have lost a final A: thus ONTZ `owl' probably continues earlier *(H)ONTZA.
Here is an incomplete list of monosyllables which appear to be native and ancient. Note that the interrogatives ZER, NOR, NON, NOIZ and certain other items like HAN all consist of two morphemes.
Plus, of course:
This list is not complete, but there aren't many others. Verbs in -TU, like SORTU, SARTU, GALDU, HARTU, BILDU and the strange-looking KENDU, may continue other ancient nouns or adjectives of one syllable, but we have no evidence.
There is one other point which I forgot to mention earlier. A Basque word can contain Z/TZ, or it can contain S/TS, but it can't contain a mixture of both. So, Basque has native words like ZEZEN and IZOTZ, and words like ITSASO and SITS, but it has no native words like *ZESEN or *ITSAZO or *SITZ.