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Note 12: Expressive Formations
by Larry Trask
On the whole, we expect the words of a language to descend from earlier words, in one fashion or another. But there are exceptions.
One familiar class of exceptions is onomatopeias, like English 'meow', 'hiss', 'buzz', and 'clank'. These items were simply coined out of thin air, in an attempt to represent real-world noises with linguistic forms. And all languages have some of these.
But there are other classes of exceptions, and one of the most interesting of these is what we call 'expressive formations' -- that is, words coined out of thin air because of their appealing sound, and assigned suitable meanings.
English is not particularly rich in these things, but we certainly have some. An especially noteworthy group, mostly of rather recent formation, is those words beginning with /z/, such as 'zip', 'zap', 'zoom', 'zing', 'zilch', 'zit', and 'zonked', plus the British 'zizz' (= 'nap') and the Australian 'ziff' (= 'beard'). It seems likely that these formations are favored by the very rarity of word-initial /z/ in English (no native English word starts with /z/).
Like most of the world's languages, Basque is much richer in these things than is English, and there are several identifiable classes of them. Here I want to mention just one particularly interesting class. Each word in this class exhibits the following characteristics, with occasional minor exceptions:
(a) it is an adjective; (b) it denotes a moral or physical defect; (c) it is two syllables long; (d) it starts with /m/; (e) the /m/ is followed by one of /a o u/; (f) the medial consonant is one of /k g t tz/, or one of these preceded by another consonant; (g) the final consonant is /r/ or /l/.
There are very many of these, but most of them are confined to particular areas of the country, and only a couple of them are widespread. Here are just some of the examples in Azkue's dictionary. I am sure that there exist many more than Azkue managed to record.
<makal> 'weak, ill' <makar> 'skinny, scrawny' <maker> 'counterfeit, fake'; 'surly, rude' <maketx> 'vile, despicable' <makur> 'twisted, bent, crooked, curved' <malder> 'impoverished, destitute' <males> 'treacherous' <malet> 'loose, limp, slack' <malgor> 'numb, stiff' <malgu> 'soft, spongy, flabby' <malkor> 'sterile, barren' <malmutz> 'pudgy, flabby'; 'sly, shifty, deceitful' <maltxor> 'sterile, barren' <maltzur> 'sly, shifty, deceitful' <malutz> 'chubby, plump' <mandil> 'lazy, good-for-nothing' <mangel> 'crippled, maimed' <mantzur> 'greedy, avaricious, miserly' <maraz> 'crumpled, spoiled' <margul> 'faded, washed out, colorless' <ma(r)kets> 'defective, deformed' <maskal> 'spoiled, ruined' <maskar> 'drooping, weak, deteriorating' <maskin> 'tearful, sniveling' <matxar> 'vile, despicable'; 'shrunken, shriveled'; 'scowling, grumpy'; 'deformed, defective' <matzer> 'deformed, defective' <mazkal> 'enfeebled'; 'deformed'; 'downcast' <mazkara> 'insolent, brazen, shameless' <mazkaro> 'blackened, stained, dirty' <mazkelo> 'clumsy, ungainly' <mazkor> 'empty' (of a nut) <moker> 'hard' (of earth, bread, or people) <mozkor> 'drunk' <muker> 'tasteless'; 'antisocial'
And so on, and so on. There are lots more of these. As you can see, some of these words depart slightly from the canonical form, but all adhere to it in most respects. Every Basque-speaker will recognize some of these as familiar from his own area, while other words will be unfamiliar.
It appears that the Basques have long felt free to coin new adjectives of this sort. What is especially noteworthy, perhaps, is that initial /m/. It is clear that /m/ is greatly favored in Basque in coining expressive formations of every kind. Another pattern that features /m/, for example, is the group represented by all those words like <zirimiri>, <aiko-maiko>, <ikusi-makusi>, <karramarro>, <txistmist> (= <tximist>), <zurrumurru>, and so on.
Why this preference for /m/? Well, one of the most striking of Michelena's conclusions about the Pre-Basque of some 2000 years ago is that the language apparently had no consonant /m/ at that time. As a result, Michelena once suggested, it may have been the very rarity of /m/ in the old language that favored its exuberant use in coining expressive formations. In other words, the consonant /m/ sounded exotic and striking -- something like word-initial /z/ in English.
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)