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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 22a: Pronunciation and Change
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Note 22a: Pronunciation and Change

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.

Like everything else in languages, the pronunciation is always changing. Since the Roman period, the pronunciation of Romance has changed rather dramatically in all Romance languages, perhaps most dramatically of all in French. The pronunciation of English has changed beyond recognition in just the last few centuries: we would find Chaucer's pronunciation wholly incomprehensible, and most specialists doubt that we could even understand Shakespeare's pronunciation without at least a good deal of practice.

Strangely, during the last 2000 years the pronunciation of Basque appears to have changed much less than has occurred in most European languages. Certain words, such as <buru> and <etorri>, are probably pronounced today much as they were pronounced 2000 years ago. But, of course, there have certainly been some important changes in the pronunciation of Basque during this time. In the next few postings, I propose to take a look at some of these changes in pronunciation. I'll begin with one of the biggest changes.

At some time in the Middle Ages, the consonant /n/ disappeared from Basque when it stood between two vowels. I have dubbed this process "Michelena's Law". Michelena was not the first person to notice it, but he was the first person to give a complete account of it. What is interesting is that the /n/ did not simply disappear: instead, its fate was more complicated.

Let's start with the word for 'ram', 'sheep'. In Pre-Basque, this was *<anari>. When the /n/ disappeared, it left behind nasalization on both neighboring vowels -- as always happened when an /n/ was lost. Below I'll use a following tilde to mark a vowel as nasalized -- so, for example, <a~> represents a nasalized /a/. At the same time, an aspiration [h] was inserted to separate the two vowels. Hence, *<anari> developed to *<a~ha~ri> everywhere.

But this form has developed differently in different places. In Zuberoan, nothing happened, and the word is still <a~ha~ri> today. In Roncalese, the consonant [h] was lost, and we would expect to find *<a~ri>, but in fact the recorded form is <ari> -- apparently the nasality was irregularly lost in this word in Roncalese. In Lapurdian and Low Navarrese, the nasality was lost, but the [h] remained, yielding the modern form <ahari>. In the other dialects, both nasality and [h] were lost, producing <aari> or <ari>.

In fact, the nasal vowels survived until the 16th century in Bizkaian, where their presence is expressly recorded by two 16th-century writers, but nasality was lost there soon afterward.

The same thing happened to words borrowed from Latin and early Romance, of course. Latin <honorem> 'honor' was borrowed early as *<onore>, which developed everywhere to *<o~ho~re>. Modern Zuberoan has <u~hu~re>, with the usual later Zuberoan change of /o/ to /u/. Roncalese has <o~re>, this time preserving the nasality. The other northern varieties have <ohore>, while the remaining dialects have <oore> or <ore>.

Sometimes, though, something else happened: the nasalization on the vowels was reinterpreted as a *following* /n/. For example, Latin <granum> 'grain', or a Romance development of this, was borrowed as *<garanu> (since Basque at the time did not permit word-initial clusters like <gr->). This, of course, developed to *<gara~u~> -- with no [h], because the language did not allow an [h] to occur later in a word than the beginning of the second syllable. In some varieties, this word has simply lost its nasality, producing modern <garau>. In others, though, the nasality was reinterpreted as a following /n/, yielding instead <garaun>.

In a handful of cases, something happened that was different again: when the nasal vowels were preceded by /d/ or /t/, the nasality was transferred to this consonant, converting it to /n/. Take the native word *<ardano> 'wine'. This became *<arda~o~>, as usual. Bizkaian has simply lost the nasality, producing <ardao>. In all other varieties, the awkward /ao/ was reduced to /o/, yielding at first *<ardo~>. In Zuberoan, the nasality remained, but the /o/ was again changed to /u/, producing modern Zuberoan <ardu~>. In Gipuzkoan and High Navarrese, loss of nasality left modern <ardo>. But, in Lapurdian and Low Navarrese, the nasality was transferred to the /d/, producing modern <arno>.

This set of related changes has affected the forms of many Basque words. A few examples:

  *<katena> --> <katea> 'chain'
  *<anate> --> <a~ha~te>, <ahate>, <aate>, <ate> 'duck'
  *<artzani> --> <artza~i~>, <artzai>, <artzain> 'shepherd'
  *<burdina> --> <burdia>, <burnia> 'iron' (and other forms, by other
  *<zunur> --> <zu"~hu"~r>, <zu~r>, <zuhur>, <zuur>, <zur> 'prudent'
  *<biLanu> --> <bilau>, <bilaun> 'peasant'

But this is far from the whole story. There were various other changes happening to Basque pronunciation, and these often applied to the words containing /n/ between vowels, producing more complicated outcomes. On another occasion, I'll talk about some of these, but that's enough for now.

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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