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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 0: Dental Fricatives
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Note 0: Dental Fricatives

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.

Given our recent discussion of dental fricatives in English, I'm hoping it will be interesting to mention a curious fact about dental fricatives in Basque.

But first a word about Castilian Spanish. As is well known, Castilian in the north of Spain -- the only variety relevant here -- has a phonemic contrast between a voiceless apico-alveolar fricative, noted <s>, and a voiceless dental fricative, noted <z> in general but <c> before a front vowel. There are minimal pairs like <casa> 'house' and <caza> '(a) hunt'.

Basque has no dental fricatives, but it does have an unusual contrast between two voiceless alveolar fricatives: an apical, noted <s>, and a laminal, noted <z>. There are minimal pairs, like <su> 'fire' and <zu> 'you', or like <ikusi> 'see' and <ikuzi> 'wash'.

Traditionally, and still today, in borrowings from Castilian, Basque takes over Castilian <s> as its apical <s>, and Castilian <z> as its laminal <z>. Examples: Cast. <sastre> 'tailor' > Bq. <sastre>; Cast. <clase> 'class' > Bq. <klase>; Cast. <cine> 'cinema' > Bq. <zine>; Cast. <arroz> 'rice' > Bq. <arroz>; Cast. <socialista> 'socialist' > Bq. <sozialista>. Castilian <z> is never borrowed into Basque as a dental fricative, even by speakers who are fully fluent in Castilian.

Now, northern Castilian has another well-known feature: word-final /d/ is pronounced as a voiceless dental fricative, theta. Words like <Madrid> 'Madrid' and <red> 'net' are thus pronounced in the north with final theta. Few of these words were borrowed into Basque in the past. When they were borrowed, Basque, which tolerates no word-final voiced plosives, did interesting things to them. For example, 'Madrid' is in Basque <Madril>, with a legal final /l/.

But today Castilian has a number of acronyms, and some of these acronyms end in the letter D. An example is <UNED>, which is the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia. Naturally, northerners pronounce these too with final theta.

But now comes the interesting bit. When these acronyms are used in Basque, they are frequently pronounced with final theta!

So, even though Castilian theta is never taken into Basque as a dental fricative, which Basque does not have, Castilian word-final /d/, which is locally a phonetic theta, is taken into Basque as a dental fricative.

This is a pretty little phonological problem, don't you think?

The observation was made by J. I. Hualde, who reports it in an article in Folia Linguistica 27 (1993).

Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK


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