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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 23: History of the Basque Nasals
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Note 23: History of the Basque Nasals

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.

This posting is going to use the n-tilde a lot; on your screen, n-tilde looks like this: <ņ>.

There is another element in the history of the Basque nasals. Earlier, I mentioned that original */n/ was lost between vowels. But there was a complication: around the same time this change was happening, another change was competing for some of the same words. This second change was assimilation to a preceding high vowel, and it applied to the original sequences */inV/ and */unV/.

In the sequence */inV/, the /n/ was often palatalized to /ņ/, which protected the nasal from loss. So, for example, original *<burdina> 'iron' developed in some places to *<burdi~a~>, by loss of /n/, leading variously to modern <burdia> or to modern <burnia>, as explained earlier. In other places, however, *<burdina> underwent palatalization to *<burdiņa>. In this case, the nasal did not drop, and this *<burdiņa> has developed variously, remaining <burdiņa> in many varieties but undergoing later depalatalization to <burdina> in others.

In the same way, *<ipini> 'put' was palatalized to *<ipiņi>, leading to modern <ipiņi> or <ipini>, according to region.

A further example is Latin <vaginam> 'sheath', which was borrowed into Basque as *<magina>. In some varieties, this underwent loss of /n/ and became modern <magia>. In other varieties, it underwent palatalization, leading to modern <magiņa>.

In a similar way, though much less often, original */unV/ underwent assimilation to /umV/. For example, Latin <cunam> 'cradle' was borrowed as *<kuna>. In some varieties, this underwent loss of /n/, yielding modern <kua> (or sometimes <ua>, by further loss of the /k/). In others, it underwent assimilation, yielding modern <kuma>.

Much the same happened with native *<zunar> 'elm'. Some varieties lost the /n/, leading to modern <zuhar> or <zuar>, while others underwent assimilation, leading to modern <zumar>. And native *<zunai> 'hay' went the same way: some varieties lost the /n/, leading to *<zu~ai~>, and from there to modern <zuhai>, <zugai> or <zuhain>, while others assimilated the nasal, producing modern <zumai>.

This kind of thing is called "competing changes" by linguists, and the Basque data provide an exceptionally interesting case of competing changes. At some time in the past, there were two changes in pronunciation which were "trying" to happen to the same words. For each word, in each locality, one change or the other finally won out, but different changes won out for different words even in a single place. Most interesting.

Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK


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