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Note 21: The Basque Gerund
by Larry Trask
Basque has a very prominent verb-form called the gerund. The gerund plays a central role in the syntax of the modern language, but its form is not everywhere the same. Several suffixes are used to form the gerund:
<-te>, as in <Zuk hori egitea nahi dut> <-tze>, as in <Zu hona etortzea nahi dut> <-keta> <-ta>
In most dialects, we find both <-te> and <-tze>, with a small difference in use. The suffix <-te> is used with verbs ending in <-n>, as in <egitea> above, from <egin>, and with verbs whose stems end in a sibilant, as in <Zuk hori ikustea nahi dut>, from <ikusi>, stem <ikus->. The suffix <-tze> is used with all other verbs, as in <etortzea> above.
In Bizkaian, <-te> is generally preferred with all verbs, and it is usually added to the participle, rather than to the stem, producing forms like <artutea> for common <hartzea>.
In Roncalese, the suffix used is <-ta>, which may perhaps be a variant form of <-te>. We also find <-ta> sometimes in Bizkaian, but here it seems to be clearly only a variant of <-te>.
In the west of Gipuzkoa, the suffix used is, or at least was in Azkue's day, <-keta>, producing forms like <ikusketa> for common <ikustea>.
Now, this regional variation in formation suggests that the gerund is not particularly ancient in Basque, and that it has developed in somewhat different ways in the several dialects. Moreover, we can probably identify the sources of the several suffixes.
Basque has a noun-forming suffix <-te>, which most commonly expresses duration, as in <eurite> 'rainy spell' and <gosete> 'famine'. It also has a noun-forming suffix <-tza> ~ <-tze>, which has several functions but often expresses abundance, as in <jendetza> ~ <jendetze> 'crowd, multitude' and <dirutza> ~ <dirutze> 'wealth, riches'. And, of course, it has a very frequent noun-forming suffix <-keta>, which again has several functions but most commonly expresses activity, as in <zezenketa> 'bull-running' and <hizketa> 'conversation', though it can also express abundance, as in <jendeketa> 'crowd'.
Some years ago I proposed that these three noun-forming suffixes were the sources of the three suffixes forming gerunds. The semantics looks good, since 'duration', 'abundance' and 'activity' are all plausible meanings for creating nominalized forms of verbs.
Moreover, all three of these suffixes, apart from forming gerunds, can also be added to verb-stems to produce ordinary nouns. Take <egin>, for example. This gives rise to a derived noun <egite> 'deed', as in <aitaren egite izugarriak> 'Father's terrible deeds'. Here <egite> is not a gerund at all, but just a plain old noun, behaving like any other noun, and showing no verbal properties. In contrast, in <Aitak hori egitea nahi dut> 'I want Father to do that', we have a gerund, a verb-form, showing typical verbal properties such as taking a suitably case-marked subject (<aitak>) and a suitably case-marked object (<hori>).
I conclude, therefore, that the three noun-forming suffixes were first added to verb-stems in order to derive simple nouns, but that these verbal nouns gradually came to be re-analyzed as verb-forms, and therefore acquired the verbal properties they have today -- even though verbal nouns like <egite> continue to exist in the language.
Support for this interpretation comes from the northern dialects, in which the gerunds are still not quite entirely verbal today. As is well known, a northerner says <Aitaren ikusterat noa> instead of <Aita ikustera noa>, with genitive <aitaren>, as though <ikustera(t)>, a case-marked form of the gerund, were an ordinary noun, requiring a genitive, and unable to take an object.
Today, the gerund always takes the article <-a>. But clearly this was not always so, since the imperfective participle is constructed by adding locative <-n> directly to the gerund, without the article. So, modern Basque, from <heldu> 'arrive', forms an imperfective participle <heltzen> 'arriving', as well as a locative form <heltzean> 'on arriving' from the gerund <heltzea>. Originally, <heltzen da> must have been *<heltze-n da> 'he is at arriving'.
All of this is astonishingly similar to the history of the English gerund. We form our gerunds in <-ing>, as in 'Deliberately tripping an opponent is a foul'. This gerund, like every gerund, is a verb-form, showing typical verbal properties, such as taking an object and an adverb. And we know where this gerund came from.
The Germanic languages have a noun-forming suffix of the original form *<-ung>. This suffix still exists in German today, in nouns like <Hoffnung> 'hope'. In English, the suffix developed to <-ing>, but it long remained only a noun-forming suffix. It still is today in many cases: 'sacking' (material for making sacks), 'roofing' (material for making roofs),'bedding' (stuff put on a bed), and so on.
Now, many centuries ago, English had lots of grammatical endings, and these endings usually marked parts of speech quite clearly. But then these endings gradually disappeared. As a result, it is now impossible to tell whether an English word is a noun or a verb just by looking at it. Consequently, English-speakers began to reanalyze the nouns in <-ing>. Even though 'lighting', for example, is historically derived from the *noun* 'light', it now looks as though it might be derived from the *verb* 'light'. Accordingly, we began sticking <-ing> onto verbs to make verbal nouns. We still do this, too. For example, in 'the hunting of the snark' or in 'the deliberate tripping of an opponent', the words 'hunting' and 'tripping' are just plain nouns, not verbs. These things can even be pluralized when the sense permits, as in 'comings and goings'.
But then, like the Basques, we began re-analyzing these forms as verb-forms, and treating them like verbs. And, like the northern Basques, we still have not gone quite all the way with this. Conservative English requires a gerund to take a genitive subject, as in 'I don't like his driving so fast'. This traditional form is now giving way to a form with no genitive: "I don't like him driving so fast'. This new form is now almost universal in Britain, though the older form still predominates in the USA.
And we obtained our imperfective ("present") participle in much the same way as the Basques. At first we used verbal nouns in <-ing> merely as nouns. These nouns occurred after the preposition 'on' in sentences like this one: 'He is on sitting on the porch'. Here 'sitting' is still clearly a noun. But then the preposition was weakened: 'He is a'sitting on the porch'. These forms can still be heard today in the Appalachian Mountains, and often in country music. But then, in most varieties of English, the preposition was lost altogether, producing the modern form: 'He is sitting on the porch'. And we now interpret forms like 'sitting' as ordinary verb-forms, not as nouns: 'She is washing the car'. (The old form would have been this: 'She is a'washing of the car'.)
So, Basque and English seem to have traveled down remarkably similar roads in acquiring their modern gerunds and imperfective participles.
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)