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Note 22b: /n/ in Basque
by Larry Trask
Last time I talked about the loss of /n/ between vowels in Basque. But there was another, and earlier, change involving /n/, one which has greatly affected the forms of certain words.
Pre-Basque apparently had no consonant /m/. But, very early, the consonant /b/ changed to /m/ in the configuration /bVn/, where /V/ is any vowel. In many cases, the /n/ which induced the change disappeared later, because it stood between vowels.
For example, the Latin word <sabanum> 'covering' was borrowed into early Basque as *<zabanu>. But the /b/ then changed to /m/, yielding *<zamanu>, after which the /n/ disappeared, leaving <zamau> 'tablecloth' as the modern result.
Likewise, ancient *<bene> 'slender' developed to *<mene>, then to *<me~he~>, by the changes I described last time. Zuberoan still has <me~he~> today, while the other dialects have variously <mehe>, <mee> or <me>.
A particularly interesting example is ancient *<bini> 'tongue'. This developed to *<mini>, and then to *<mi~hi~>. Zuberoan still has <mi~hi~> today, while the Roncalese form is <mi~>. Lapurdian and Low Navarrese have <mihi>. In Navarra and in part of Gipuzkoa we find <mii> or <mi>. But, in Bizkaia and in part of Gipuzkoa we find that the intermediate form *<mi~i~> has developed into <min>, by reanalysis of the nasality as a following /n/. Much of Gipuzkoan has <mingain>, an obvious compound of <min> with <gain> 'top'.
The earlier form *<mini> is still recognizable in compounds. For example, in Lapurdian and Low Navarrese, in which the independent word has become <mihi>, with loss of nasality, the combining form of the word is still <min->, as in <mintzo> 'speech', <mintzatu> 'speak' and <mintzaira> 'language'.
In fact, we can still see traces of the ancient form *<bini> in a couple of old compounds. An eastern word for 'lightning bolt', 'thunderbolt' is <orzpin> ~ <ozpin>, which derives from *<ortzi-bini> 'sky-tongue'. And an obsolete word for 'plantain' (the plant, Spanish <llanten>) is <arpin>, which derives from *<ardi-bini> 'sheep-tongue'. The leaf of the plantain really does look very much like a sheep's tongue, and in fact the ancient Greeks called the plant 'lamb-tongue'. I guess Greek shepherds and Basque shepherds made the same observation.
Another example is *<banats> 'grapes', which has developed into modern <mahats> and other variants.
We can also derive <mahain> ~ <mahai> ~ <mai>'table' from earlier *<manai>, and this from still earlier *<banai>, by the same processes.
In all likelihood, words like <mendi> 'mountain', <mende> 'century' and <min> 'pain' derive from original *<bendi>, *<bente> and *<bin>, but we have no independent evidence in these cases.
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)