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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 19: Voiceless Alveolar Sibilants
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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>?

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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