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Note 3: The Verb Hertsi
by Larry Trask
One of the most interesting verbs in Basque is <hertsi>. This verb illustrates a number of points about the history of Basque, and about the history of languages generally.
In all the northern dialects, there is a verb <hertsi>, meaning 'squeeze, constrict', 'close', and in places also 'approach'. In these dialects, <hertsi> also appears as an adjective meaning 'narrow, constricted, tight, closed'. I presume the adjective results from a specialization of the participle of the verb, though I can't be sure that the verbal use is older than the adjectival use, for lack of data (both functions are recorded very early).
All the northern dialects also exhibit variant forms of this word. Alongside <hertsi>, we find also <ertsi>, <hersi> and <hetsi>, in the same senses.
South of the Pyrenees, the verb appears as <etsi> 'close' in part of High Navarrese. In Bizkaian and Gipuzkoan, the verb appears as <itxi> 'close'; the development here must have been roughly <etsi> > *<itsi> > <itxi>.
(Amusingly, this development has made the verb fall together in form with the unrelated <itxi> 'leave', a common B and G form of the verb which appears elsewhere as <eutzi> or <utzi>.)
In the long-extinct Basque dialect of Alava, the verb for 'close' is recorded as the curious <ysci>, with c-cedilla; I presume this represents an attempt at spelling <itxi> or something similar.
In Roncalese, only the adjectival function has survived, and we find <ersi> 'tight, narrow'. In part of High Navarrese, we find the adjective <ersi> 'pressing, urgent', representing a semantic development which we will see again later.
Now, I mentioned the other day that Basque verbs are sometimes transferred from the <-i> class to the <-tu> class. This has happened with <hertsi>, though not everywhere in the same way.
In some varieties, the participial suffix <-tu> was simply tacked on to the existing participle. This development yields Low Navarrese <hesitu> 'close off, enclose', Roncalese <ersitu> 'approach', and High Navarrese <ersitu> 'press, be urgent'.
Old Lapurdian and Old Low Navarrese exhibit a slightly different development, with change of final /i/ to /a/. The result is the verb <hertsatu>, variant <ertxatu>, 'squeeze, constrict', and also 'arrive' and 'join'. This verb is now archaic and perhaps obsolete, but it is well recorded in the early literature.
Elsewhere, we find the more normal development, in which the older participial <-i> is simply replaced by <-tu>. This gives us Old Lapurdian and Old Low Navarrese <herstu>, which is a verb meaning 'squeeze, constrict, narrow, close' and an adjective meaning 'closed'. This form too is now largely obsolete, though it survives in Lapurdian as a verb meaning 'arrive' and as an adjective meaning 'pressing, urgent'. But the verb's nominal derivative <herstura> ~ <erstura> 'squeezing, compression, tightening' is still widespread in the north. And Roncalese retained the verb <erstu> 'squeeze' right down to the extinction of that variety a few years ago.
More commonly in the north today, we find the reduced form <hestu> as a verb meaning 'squeeze, tighten, contract'.
Presumably the form *<estu> formerly existed also in Bizkaian and Gipuzkoan, but, in the historical period, we find only the adjective <estu> 'tight, constricted, narrow' -- though <estu> is recorded in a small area of B as a verb meaning 'attach'. In Landucci's 1562 dictionary of the extinct Alavese, we do find a verb <eztu> [sic] recorded as meaning 'squeeze, tighten, narrow'; I presume this is a simple typo for intended *<estu>, especially since Alavese also has a noun <estu> 'strait' (at sea).
Finally, in Bizkaian and Gipuzkoan, and in part of High Navarrese, something really interesting has happened. The fossilized porticiple <estu>, now confined to an adjectival function, has given rise to a new verb, <estutu> 'squeeze, compress, put pressure on', by the addition of a *second* occurrence of the participial suffix <-tu>. This <estutu> thus contains, historically speaking, two occurrences of <-tu>, though the first one has now been absorbed into the stem.
The history of <hertsi> thus illustrates very well a number of significant developments: phonological reduction, morphological re-formation, and fossilization of verbal participles as adjectives. The case of <estutu> further illustrates the process we call 'renewal'.
Quite an interesting word, really.
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)