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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 11: Zahar, Old
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Note 11: Zahar, Old

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.

Basque <zahar> 'old' has undergone some interesting developments. This word is seemingly recorded in the famous stele of Lerga, in the male personal name VM.ME SA.HAR, which appears to be none other than <ume zahar> 'old child'.

Now, <zahar> came to be used frequently as a final element in compounds. In this position, it was obliged by the rules of Basque to lose its /h/, being reduced to <-zar>. For other familiar reasons, this frequently became <-tzar>, and this <-tzar> eventually became generalized as the usual form.

And it underwent a shift in meaning in this position, from 'old' to 'big' and then to 'bad'. The literature is full of examples of this, such as northern <zakurtzar> 'big dog', 'bloody great dog', from <zakur> 'dog', and Mendizabal's <basurdetzar> 'nasty great wild boar', from <basurde> 'wild boar'.

Then the Basques did something which they often do with suffixes and apparent suffixes: they extracted this <-tzar> and turned it into an independent word <tzar> 'bad'. This <tzar> is still a common word for 'bad' in the north today.

But then this new adjective <tzar> acquired a diminutive <txar>. This has two meanings in the north: 'small' (the opposite of <tzar> meaning 'big') and 'naughty' (the diminutive of <tzar> meaning 'bad'). Some easterners use <txar> in playing mus the way westerners use <txiki>.

In the west, the form <tzar> does not appear to be recorded, but the diminutive <txar> is widespread, both in the sense of 'feeble, delicate' and (more commonly) in the sense of 'defective, bad'. In much of Bizkaia, at least, this <txar> is now the most usual word for 'bad', in place of the more widespread word <gaitz>.

Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK


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