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Note 19: Voiceless Alveolar Sibilants
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.
Historically, Basque has a contrast between two voiceless alveolar
sibilants: a laminal, written <z>, and an apical, written <s>. (It also
contrasts the two corresponding affricates <tz> and <ts>, of course.)
It seems safe to project this contrast at least as far back as the
Pre-Basque of some 2000 years ago.
This contrast appears to be extremely unusual in languages. Ladefoged
and Maddieson, in their book The Sounds of the World's Languages, do
not report such a contrast for any language. (They overlook Basque.)
Some other languages, such as Polish and Mandarin Chinese, exhibit
other unusual sibilant contrasts, but I know of no other language that
has the same contrast as Basque.
More than 40 years ago, the American linguist Martin Joos proposed that
precisely the same contrast might have once existed in several medieval
languages of Europe, including Old French and Old High German, but sadly
we cannot investigate the phonetic details of these defunct varieties.
But, for several centuries now, the contrast has been disappearing from
Basque. Before the 17th century, it is clear that all Basques retained
the distinction. But, in the 17th century, we begin to find confusion
in spelling in Bizkaian between <z> and <s>, and between <tz> and <ts>,
suggesting strongly that the difference in pronunciation was beginning
to disappear, in the process we call a 'merger'.
Around 30 years ago, informal investigation suggested that the difference
between <z> and <s> was completely gone in all of Bizkaia and in western
Gipuzkoa. The merger was apparently spreading eastward across Gipuzkoa,
but in a classical manner: it was jumping from town to town, and skipping
over the intervening rural areas. In Azpeitia, for example, people born
in the town had lost the difference, while those born in the baserris
outside the town still had it. Further east, there was no sign of the
merger, and all speakers retained the difference.
I confess I don't know what has happened since then. Maybe the loss
of the difference is continuing to spread. Maybe it has stopped
spreading. Maybe the growth of Basque-language education is tending
to reverse the merger, and to re-introduce the difference into Bizkaia
and western Gipuzkoa.
Does anybody know? Do most people in your home area pronounce <zu> and
<su> identically or differently? Or <hotz> and <hots>?
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