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Note 7: Palatal Consonants
by Larry Trask
The so-called "palatal" consonants of Basque are <x tx tt dd ll and ņ (that's n-tilde)>. In ancient Basque, it appears, these consonants had a very special place: they could not occur in ordinary words, but only in "expressive" variants of those words. Another consonant was replaced by one of these special consonants in order to create a special form used as a kind of diminutive -- expressing either small size or merely some kind of familiarity or warmth.
It appears that there was a general pattern of replacements, and that, for the most part, only the ordinary consonants we call 'coronals' could be replaced.
The sounds <s z> were both replaced by <x>, except that, in some varieties, the result was <tx> in word-initial position. Examples:
<zoko> <xoko>, <txoko> 'corner' <gozo> <goxo> 'delicious' <zuri> <xuri>, <txuri> 'white' <zezen> <xexen> 'bull' <Jose Mari> <Txema> 'Joseph Mary' <Santiago> <Xanti> 'James'
The affricates <tz ts> were replaced by <tx>. Examples:
<atso> <atxo> 'old woman' <motz> <motx> 'short'
(In fact, in this case it is possible that <motx> is the older form, since the word is borrowed, and that <motz> was obtained by back-formation.)
The consonant <t> was replaced by <tt> or <tx>, according to region. Examples:
<guti> <gutti>, <gutxi> 'few, little' <tipi>, <tiki> <ttipi>, <txiki> 'small' <tu> <ttu>, <txu> 'saliva'
The consonant <l> was replaced by <ll>, or occasionally by <tx>. Example:
<labur> <llabur>, <txabur> 'short'
The consonant <d> was usually replaced by <dd> (sometimes spelled <j> in the north), but word-initially sometimes by <tx>. Examples:
<eder> <edder>, <ejer> 'beautiful' <Madalen> <Maddalen> 'Madeleine' <Domingo> <Txomin> 'Dominic' <andere> <anddere> 'lady'
The nasal <n> was replaced by <ņ>. Example:
<nabar> <ņabar> 'many-colored'
The rhotic <r> was replaced by <ll>. Examples:
<bero> <bello> 'hot' <Peru> <Pello> 'Peter'
Clusters were sometimes replaced. Examples:
<mando> <maņo> 'mule' <Martin> <Matxin> 'Martin'
(This last, of course, is the source of the noun <matxinada> 'insurrection'.)
Words with initial vowels could acquire initial <tx>. Examples:
<ingude> <txingure> 'anvil' <onil> <txonil> 'funnel' <in(a)urri> <txin(a)urri> 'ant'
Occasionally, a non-coronal consonant was replaced. Examples:
<popa> <txopa> 'poop' (of a boat) <Gergorio> <Txergorio> 'Gregory' <Martin> <Txartin> 'Martin'
This process is still fully productive in some regions today. In other regions, it has ceased to be productive, and new examples are not created, though older formations remain in use. Instead, suffixes are increasingly preferred for diminutives. Today, somebody called <Martin> is more likely to be addressed as <Martintxu> than as <Txartin> or <Matxin>.
In some cases, the original diminutive has taken over as the ordinary form of the word, and the original form has become confined to elevated styles, has acquired a specialized meaning, or has been lost entirely.
Some northerners use <xuri> as their ordinary word for 'white', in preference to <zuri>. Almost everybody prefers <gutti>, <gutxi> for 'not much', and <guti> is now largely confined to very formal writing. Likewise, almost everybody prefers <ttipi>, <txiki> for 'small', and <tipi>, <tiki> is encountered only occasionally.
Practically everywhere, the ordinary word for 'dog' is now <xakur>, <txakur>, and the original <zakur> is either specialized to 'big dog' or lost altogether. For 'house', <etxe> has long been the only word in use, and we can't even tell whether the original form was *<etze> or *<etse> (both are possible).
But my favorite example is the word for 'bird'. This was originally <zori>, but for centuries now the only form in use has been the diminutive <xori>, <txori>. However, the original <zori> has not disappeared: it has merely undergone a striking shift in meaning. In the 16th century, it meant 'omen', but today, of course, it means 'luck'.
This shift came about because of the ancient practice of seeking omens in the flight of birds. The Romans, who took this very seriously, had an official called the <auspex> (literally, 'bird-watcher') to perform this function and to advise the state.
So, when you wish somebody <Zorionak!>, you are, historically speaking, wishing him 'Good birds!'
This etymology, of course, is the reason that <Zorionak> is plural in Basque.
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)