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buber.net > Basque > Euskara > Larry > Note 9: Uko
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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 reduction.

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 *<sagar-ardo>.)

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 *<ur-bil> 'water-round'.

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 and Germanic.

Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK

larryt@cogs.susx.ac.uk Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad) Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)

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