Etymological Basque Dictionary

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Etymological Basque Dictionary-French-Spanish-English
Etymological Basque Dictionary

by Michel Morvan, UMR 5478 CNRS.


I am much indebted first of all to Pr.Jean-Baptiste Orpustan my former PhD supervisor for his unvaluable help. He is one of the best bascologists of the world with a very deep knowledge of his mother language. He has become a friend now and keeps on to help me since many years so that I could keep honing steadily this etymological dictionary. My thanks also to the late Jean Haritschelhar, former President of The Royal Basque Academy (Euskaltzaindia) for his help and encouragements, to the also unfortunately late Henrike Knörr for the same reasons and to Jacques Allières of the University of Toulouse, to my late friend Michel Grosclaude, a great specialist of gascon. I am grateful also to the scholars Jean-Pierre Levet from the University of Limoges, Jean-Louis Rougé from Orléans, Claude Boisson from the University of Lyon, to Martine Robbeets of the University of Leiden and to many others, in France or abroad it would be too long to mention here.

Presentation: a prehistoric language

The Basque language, called also Euskara (as endonym or autonym) by the Basque people itself, probably from the aquitanian stem *ausk- (that gave the great aquitanian tribe people’s name Ausci) is the only still spoken non-indoeuropean language of Western Europe. It is much older than the arrival of the Indoeuropeans, so that we use to say that it is a pre-indoeuropean language. It seems to take its roots in the dark night of the remote prehistory. It survived miraculously to the romanization, contrary to dead languages like Iberian on the eastern coast of Spain in spite of its rich culture and written tradition. A part of the Basques were romanized and this process gave birth to the Gascons (older Wascons) and their roman occitan language that still shows an important basco-aquitanian substratic layer with specific features.

The origins of the Basque language

So far many linguists considered Basque as an isolated language without cognates in the world. But it is probably wrong, there is obviously something amiss. The time has come to abandon these erroneous preconceptions. It depends what we call "cognate". With a so old prehistoric language like Basque, it is not possible to manage like with traditional languages families. The only way to find cognates of Basque consists in doing it in a broader frame, the one of the Eurasian continent. The recent discoveries in the field of the so-called "super-families" or "macro-families" enable us to make a very important breakthrough in this prospection. Of course the links between Basque and other languages will be lighter than the links inside of a traditional family, but they do exist. Many relics (linguistic fossils) of this very old time are already visible. For instance words like Basque guti "few, little" and Dravidian guti, kuti "id.", Austronesian waray guti-ay "id." or Basque hagin "tooth", North-east-caucasian xagin, xagna "id.", or Basque bizar, mitxar "beard" and Caucasian bisal "id.", Dravidian misal "id.", or Basque eder "beautiful" and Vogul eder, ater "clear", Hungarian der-ül "to shine", Dravidian ter "id.", Japanese ter-asu "id.". The cognacy (eurasian root or base *der/ter) is here absolutely sure. In such a broad scale and in such an old time it is absolutely normal to find the cognates of Basque spread over different languages families. This is the reason why I call Basque a "proto-eurasian language". This is also very probably the reason why the linguists were not able until now to find a relationship between Basque and other languages. They tried to relate Basque to only one well delimited family, which is a mistake and is not possible, or they decided curiously that Basque cannot have cognates at all forever. It’s a nonsense. This would mean that Basque is self-born from the nothingness and coming...from Basque! And wherefrom would come its genuine native words and moreover their roots or stems? We will show that it is now possible to make the most important breakthrough in this research since two centuries.

The first European people arrived to Europe coming from Asia around 30.000 years ago. They were upper-palaoelithic hunter-gatherers. Of course they were not yet Basques. A part of them found a refuge in south-western Europe. These substratic people mixed later with the first non-indoeuropean farmers of the early neolithic time as shown by the clearly not indo-european vocabulary of the husbandry (agriculture and pastoralism)and the animals: behi "cow", behor "mare", idi "ox", ahuntz "goat", aker "he-goat", ahari "sheep", ardi "ewe", urde "pig", ahardi "sow", etc. And they settled down and became Basques forever.

Internal reconstruction

Internal reconstruction is very important as shown by the great pioneer Luis Michelena who tried to reconstruct the Proto-Basque language. If one observes that a word like ahate "duck" is coming from latin anatem we can see that the intervocalic -n- has become -h- by weakening and we can infer of it that it happened for other words, not only for loanwords. For instance basque ahuntz "goat" is very probably coming from a proto-form *anuntz and this is corroborated by a place name Anuntzibay "river of the goats" and Anuntzeta in Spain and another Bacu Anuntza "ravine of the goats" in Sardinia according to Blasco Ferrer. The evolution of the intervocalic phonemes -n- > -h- (lenition) was sometimes called "law of Michelena". The problem is that it seems dangerous to make an absolute law of this one. Basque h is not always etymological, far from it (but also not never etymological as claimed wrongly by R.L. Trask). So it would be a mistake to reconstruct always h < n. The bias of the reconstruction is the oversystematization. Unfortunately Michelena’s followers in the reconstruction of Proto-Basque are sometimes going too far and this is precisely due to the fact that they don’t want to accept the idea that Basque is not a complete isolate. The bias is very clear by J.A. Lakarra for instance with many absurd humongous internal reconstructions or pseudo-derivations or pseudo-borrowings from roman words like for instance Basque hagin "tooth" from Latin caninu "eyetooth"(sic), Basque aiher "slope" from Gascon cranhe "to fear" (sic) or Basque nigar "tear" from Latin lacrima (sic) and many other contrived absurdities, in order not to give hold to external comparisons. And even if sometimes a good analysis is done, like *e-der "beautiful" (the initial e- is however not a prefix as too comonly said but only epenthetic), J.A. Lakarra cannot see, because of his erroneous reluctance to comparison, the cognacy of this Basque word with Uralic, Dravidian and Japanese as shown hereabove. The isolationists are not abreast with many facts (and unfortunately those who accept relationships with other languages have often a too superficial knowledge of Basque like for instance J.D. Bengtson). I suspect also some sloth and also rather non-scientific reasons for maintaining the relentless myth of the complete isolation of Basque. All this is scientifically unsound.

Origin of the Basque people

As we said, about 30000 years ago the first modern Europeans arrived to Europe coming probably from Central Asia and another part from the Ural or from Siberia. The Basques were not yet Basques (this point is very important), but only Pre-Basques. During the last Ice Age they went to the refuge of the Pyrenees Mountains in south-west Europe where the climate was milder. They arrived probably mixed with other people from the whole Eurasia and their language contains many relics of the long eurasian way they have gone during the millenia. Then they became actually Basques in Western Europe. Of course there was probably also people who came later in the neolithic period and intermingled with the former. Some geneticists have found some genetic traces of the first farmers in a cave of northern Spain. It is noteworthy that these first farmers were not Indoeuropeans contrary to what was believed before by some scholars like the archaeologist Colin Renfrew.

We must add here a word about the Basque blood. It has very often been said that the Basques are considered as having a specific blood group O. But this is clearly a mistake or rather a misunderstanding. In fact many geographically isolated peoples have a tendency to get a high rate of O blood group. This is the case of the West Irish, the Scots or the Icelanders or of the australian Aborigines (76% of O) who arrived from Africa to Australia about 60000 years ago. By the Amerindians it is at the highest rate with 98% of O blood group according to the geneticist L.L. Cavalli-Sforza. The A and B groups have completely disappeared. This is due to isolation and genetic drift, in the last case of the Amerindians after having gone through the "bottleneck" of the Behring Strait and spread themselve all over America. The argument of the O blood group as specific to Basques is thus not convincing excepted for the very high rate of negative rhesus. The recent researches about DNA are better, but they show that Basques are not very different from other Old-Europeans generally. Only in the very deep detail can we see some specific traits (work of Behar et al., 2012, about mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the subgroups of the haplogroup H for instance).

Fazit. There is no more doubt at all that the Basque language is an old Eurasian language. Too many facts are proving the cognacy of many genuine native Basque words with other words of Eurasian pre-indoeuropean or non-indoeuropean languages. A word like Basque habuin "foam" is akin to Hungarian hab "foam" and to altaic Tungus xafun "foam", Yeniseian hapur "foam" or Eskimal qapu(q) "foam". The reason of it is that some layers of Basque are so old that they go back to a state where it is necessary to speak of the Eurasian macrofamily perhaps even before the split of the two so-called Nostratic/Eurasiatic (J.H. Greenberg) and Sino-Caucasian (S. Starostin) macrofamilies. Or in any case, Basque has connections with both macrofamilies. For instance Basque behi "cow" and behor "mare" are cognate with the sino-caucasian Burushaski behe "female animal" whereas Basque idi, iri "ox" is cognate with Nostratic iRi "big ungulate" (A. Dolgopolski).

Etymological Basque Dictionary


Contact : Michel Morvan