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Note 10: The Word for Leg in Basque
by Larry Trask
It is a curious fact that no native Basque word for 'leg' appears to be recorded anywhere, nor can any such word be reconstructed. All the recorded words for 'leg' are borrowed.
I know of three Basque words for 'leg'.
The first is <zanko> ~ <zango>, which is perhaps the most widespread. This is borrowed from a Romance word meaning 'long leg, such as on a bird', and also 'stilt'. In some areas this word appears in an extended form, such as <zangar>.
The second is <hanka>. This is borrowed from the very widespread Romance word <anca> 'haunch', of Germanic origin, and it still means 'haunch' in the north today. South of the Pyrenees, though, it has developed various extended senses like 'leg' and 'paw'. Such developments are common. In European languages, words originally meaning any of 'ham, haunch, thigh, shank, shin, calf, leg, foot' and even 'bone' have shifted their meanings around so much they almost seem to be playing musical chairs.
The third is <berna>. This is borrowed from Latin <perna(m)> 'haunch', and it often means 'calf' as well as 'leg'. This Latin word, of course, is the source of Castilian <pierna> 'leg'.
Curiously, the widespread Romance word <gamba> 'leg' does not appear to be recorded at all in Basque. This derives from <gamba> 'hock of a horse', of Greek origin, and it is the source of Italian <gamba>, French <jambe>, and Old Castilian <camba>, all meaning 'leg'.
Why is there no native word? There are two possibilities.
Perhaps the word <oin> formerly meant both 'foot' and 'leg', and it became specialized to 'foot' only after the Basques began borrowing Romance words for 'leg'. This would not be unusual: there are quite a few European languages which use the same word for 'leg' and 'foot'.
Or perhaps there was a native word, but this disappeared completely in favor of the Romance words.
It might seem strange to lose a body-part name, but such losses are not at all rare. In English, we've managed to lose our native word for 'face'. The Old English word for 'face' was <andwlita>. If this had survived, we would now be saying something like 'anlite' for 'face'. But we lost the word entirely in favor of the Old French word <face>. Interestingly, the French themselves have now stopped using <face>, except in certain technical senses and in certain idioms, and they now use <visage> for 'face'.
In fact, European words for 'face' are notoriously unstable. Latin <facies> 'face' survives only here and there in the Romance languages. Castilian standard <cara> is of unknown origin; the favorite guess is Greek <kara> 'head', but there are huge problems with this. Popular Castilian <rostro> comes from Latin <rostrum> 'beak'. In contrast, the universal Basque <aurpegi> looks as though it might be a very old word indeed.
Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK
Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad) Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)