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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.|
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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>.
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