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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 17b: The Basque Words for Front and Back
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Note 17b: The Basque Words for Front and Back

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.

The Basque words for 'front' and 'back' are interesting, and they are not everywhere the same.

For 'front', we find <aurre> in the west but <ai(n)tzin(a)> in the east. For 'back', we have <atze> in the west but <gibel> in the east. For three of these, we know the origin.

It seems that Basque once had a word *<aur>, meaning approximately 'front'. In the east, this word, in the form <ahur>, has become specialized to 'palm of the hand', and 'front' is expressed by <ai(n)tzin(a)>, a word of wholly obscure origin, and one with many other senses in various eastern dialects.

In the west, *<aur> has been reshaped as <aurre>. This happened as follows. The word *<aur> occurred commonly in the local cases, as in <aurrean> 'at (one's) front', with the usual ending: compare <lur> 'earth', locative <lurrean> 'in the earth'. From the forms like <aurrean>, the westerners extracted a new noun <aurre>, by analogy with cases like <larrean> 'in the pasture', from <larre> 'pasture'.

For 'back', eastern <gibel> is of course the ordinary word for 'liver'. Strange as this may seem, it is *extremely* common in languages across the world for 'back' to be expressed by 'liver' -- that is, for 'behind me' to be expressed as 'at my liver'. I don't know why this is so, but it certainly is so.

The western <atze> has a quite different origin. This is the universal word <(h)atz> 'track, trace, trail, vestige, footprint', and the like. Westerners began saying things like <Jonen atzean>, literally 'in John's tracks', to express 'behind John' -- as indeed they still do. This too is a very common way of expressing 'behind' in the world's languages. And, once again, from inflected forms like <atzean> a new noun <atze> 'back' was extracted, just as with <aurre>.

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)

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