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Note 16: The Basque Words for Day and Night
by Larry Trask
The universal Basque words for 'day' and 'night' are <egun> and <gau>, respectively.
In the east, <egun> is also an adverb meaning 'today'. This use is also recorded in Old Bizkaian, and we may suppose that it was once general in the country.
For 'tonight', the historical form is <gaur>, apparently derived from *<gau-haur> 'this night'. This word is still 'tonight' in the east. In the west, however, it has shifted in sense to 'today', displacing <egun> in this function.
As occurs with all old words ending in /n/, the combining form of <egun> is variously <egu-> or <egur->. The first occurs, for example, in <Eguberri> 'Christmas', while the second occurs in <eguraldi> 'weather'.
(By the way, <eguberri> is a curious name for 'Christmas'. Henrike Knorr has recently suggested that the pagan Basques applied this word to the winter solstice, and that, after accepting Christianity, they simply transferred it to the nearby Christian festival. This seems plausible, but there is no way of investigating it.)
All known Basque words for 'sun' are derivatives of <egun>. The common form was obtained by attaching the compound suffix <-z-ki>, yielding *<egu-z-ki>, roughly 'day-thing', hence <eguzki>.
Zuberoan alone has a different form, obtained by attaching only the simple suffix <-ki>. Zuberoan *<egu-ki> has developed into modern <eki> by the usual rules of Zuberoan: *<egu-ki> --> *<egki> --> *<etki> --> <eki> (actually <ekhi>). This regional <eki> has been accepted into the standard language in the compound <ekialde> 'east'. (For a parallel, compare the old formation *<egu-gaitz> 'bad day', which has developed into <ekaitz> 'storm'.)
But the 'moon' words are exceptionally interesting. It appears that the ancient Basques used the same word for 'moon' and for 'month'. The precise form of this lost word is hard to determine, but it was approximately *<(h)iLe>, where <L> represents Michelena's "fortis lateral", probably somewhat similar to modern Italian <ll> as in <bello> 'beautiful' and to Catalan <l.l> as in <col.lega> 'colleague'.
Long ago, the Basques began to distinguish 'moon' from 'month' by coining compounds: <(h)ilargi> 'moonlight' for 'moon', and <(h)ilabete> 'full moon' for 'month'.
However, the dialect of Salazar has a different word for 'moon': <ilaski>. (Azkue cites <ilazki>, but Michelena reports that Azkue's form is an error.) This <ilaski> looks mysterious, but there may be a simple explanation. Perhaps the Salazarese simply took the <-zki> from <eguzki> and tacked it on to the end of <ilargi>. If so, the regular development would have been as follows: *<ilargi-zki> --> *<ilargzki> --> *<ilartzki> --> *<ilarzki> --> *<ilarski> --> <ilaski>. This may look strange, but every bit of it is in accordance with the ordinary rules of the language.
By the way, I know of no evidence to support the frequent suggestion that the ancient Basque word for 'moon' is related somehow to <hil> 'dead'.
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)