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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 20: The Basque Word for Rabbit
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Note 20: The Basque Word for Rabbit

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 'rabbit' are a big headache. The Bizkaian word <kui>, which is recorded only from about 1800, probably derives from earlier *<kuni>. And this *<kuni> must surely be connected somehow to Latin <cuniculus> 'rabbit', the source of Castilian <conejo> -- but nobody is too sure just what the nature of the connection is.

The other word is the bigger problem. The modern standard form is <untxi>, which is recorded only from 1842. The earliest citation of the word is Larramendi's <enchea> in 1745, which we interpret as the definite form of <entxe>. In addition, Roncalese has <untxe>, wrongly reported as <untxi> by Azkue.

Now, this <entxe> ~ <untxe> ~ <untxi> might derive from an earlier *<euntxe>, which might in turn derive from a still earlier *<enuxe> or something similar. And this is just similar enough to the Latino-Romance word to make us wonder if it is borrowed from Romance. The Latin accusative <cuniculum>, with its long /i/, should have yielded a Romance form *<conixo>, though the Castilian form points rather to *<conexo>. Now, loss of the word-initial /k/ in borrowings into Basque is possible -- there are several parallels -- and so we might ask if Romance *<conexo>, or whatever, might have been taken into Basque as something like *<onexu>.

But is this hypothetical *<onexu> close enough to our seemingly required *<enuxe> to be a source? Not obviously. If the Basque word has been borrowed from Romance in this way, then some very strange things have happened to it along the way. A Romance origin is therefore just about possible, but the evidence for it is hardly overwhelming, and a native origin is at least equally likely. But note that <tx> in the Basque word. If the word is native, then we must be looking at a diminutive of an earlier form containing <tz> or <ts> -- much as <(t)xakur> has displaced earlier <zakur> as the ordinary word for 'dog'.

But there's another proposal on the table. This is that <untxi> derives from a diminutive of *<kuni>. The idea is that *<kuni>, before losing its /n/, took the diminutive suffix <-txi> to produce *<kuntxi>, after which the /k/ was lost. This is actually quite good as a source for <untxi>, but sadly it has nothing to say about Larramendi's <entxe>, which doesn't look at all like a plausible development of <untxi>.

Nobody knows, and the origin of <untxi> is a great mystery. Since deriving it from Latin or Romance requires such tortured developments in pronunciation, I lean slightly toward a native origin -- possibly with some contamination from the Romance word. But I doubt we'll ever know.

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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