buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 9: Uko
For security reasons, user contributed notes have been disabled.
Note 9: Uko
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.
The <uko> words form a very interesting subset of the Basque
lexicon. Now, <uko> is an old Basque word for 'forearm'. It is
well recorded in the 17th century, but since then it has dropped
out of use in favor of various other words like <besaurre>, literally
'arm-front'. But some of its compounds are still in the language.
Note first that the combining form of <uko> is <uka->. This is
entirely regular, of course. Compare, for example, <zulo> 'hole',
whose combining form is <zula-> in formations like <zulatu> 'dig',
and <asto> 'donkey', whose combining form is <asta-> in formations
like <astaputz> 'donkey's breath' (sort of).
First, we have <ukondo> 'elbow'. This is a transparent compound
with <ondo> 'bottom'. The original form was <ukaondo>, which is
in fact recorded in Old Bizkaian. And Azkue reports that some
Bizkaian varieties have <ukando> for 'elbow', showing a different
Next, we have <ukarai> 'wrist'. The second element here is <garai>
'high'. The original formation would have been *<uka-garai>, but the
reduction of this to <ukarai>, by the process we call 'haplology',
is completely regular in Basque. (Compare <sagardo> 'cider', from
Finally, we have <ukabil> 'fist', whose second element is the ancient
item *<bil> 'round'. This item is nowhere attested as an independent
word, but its former existence is certain. It occurs in a number of
other formations, such as <gurpil> 'cartwheel, wheel', from *<gurdi-bil>
'cart-round', with regular phonology, and <ubil> 'whirlpool', from
Now, note what's going on here. For the medieval Basques, the wrist
was the high part of the forearm, while the elbow was the bottom of
the forearm. Clearly, the medieval Basques oriented their arms by
putting them into something like the "stick 'em up" position of
western movies. This conclusion is reinforced by the observation that
<besondo> 'arm-bottom' is a widespread word for 'upper arm'.
Since western <aurre> 'front' is in origin the same word as eastern
<ahur> 'palm of the hand', we may further surmise that the earlier
Basques not only held their arms up when naming them but also
turned their palms to the front -- though I'm not sure which
direction they regarded as the front.
Finally, it is a little unusual for a language to have a short
and unanalyzable word for 'forearm'. I therefore wonder whether
<uko> 'forearm' might once have meant 'elbow', and undergone a shift
of meaning. A shift in meaning from 'elbow' to 'forearm' is in fact
very common in languages, and we can find examples in Greek, Romance
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad)
Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)
This page is part of Buber's Basque Page and is maintained by Blas Uberuaga.
Please report any problems or suggestions to Blas.