Basque language

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Names Basque, Vascuense, Euskera, Euskara
Dialects Guipuzcoan (Guipuzcoano, Gipuzkoan, Gipuzkera)
Alto Navarro Septentrional (High Navarrese, Upper Navarran, Goi-Nafarrera)
Alto Navarro Meridional
Biscayan (Vizcaino, Bizkaiera)
ISO codes eu, baq, eus
Region Spain, France

 Navarro-Labourdin Basque
 Souletin Basque


Basque is an agglutinating language isolate spoken around the Pyrenees in the north of Spain and the south of France. It has approximately 700,000 speakers in that region (the exact number on the French side is unknown), and an unknown number of speakers in other parts of the world. Many Basques emigrated to the USA, and there may still be some who speak the language there.
A number of linguists and hobbists have been interested in Basque because of its status as one of the few European isolates, and there have been many attempts to link it to an existing language family, but so far all have failed. The most commonly proposed links are to the various families of Caucasian languages and also to some of the languages of North Africa such as Berber, but no proposals have been more than possibly chance resemblances between small numbers of words, and no one has so far reconstructed a proto-language for Basque and any of the proposed linguistic relatives.
Indeed, it may be impossible to prove such a relationship, since all the evidence suggests that the Basque people and their language have been in their current home for many thousands of years at least, and the comparitive method has not been used to reconstruct proto-languages much further back than 4,000 or 5,000 years, except in the cases of Indo-European languages - a culmination of over one and a half centuries of comparative linguistics, and, possibly, Proto-Uralic - once more studied than Proto-Indo-European; recently, serious notions have begun to appear comparing Proto-Uralic and Proto-Indo-European, assuming they are more than just neighbours.

Basque Phonology

Point of Articulation Stop Nasal Trill Tap Fricative Lateral Approximant Affricate
Bilabial p b m
Labiodental f
Alveolar t d n rr r s z l ts tz
Post-Alveolar x tx
Palatal tt dd ñ ll
Velar k g j
Glottal h
  1. f is quite rare, and mostly occurs in loan words such as kafe. It is arguably not a sound originally present in Basque. The same is true of /m/, which mostly arises from nasalization of /b/ in various environments, and to a lesser extent /p/, which in native words occurs mostly in clusters.
  2. the distinction between s and z is not one of voicing, but rather that s is apical (the tongue tip rather than the blade creates the sound) and z is laminal. s sounds somewhat like [S].
  3. ñ and ll are not that common in the written language. They occur most commonly in names. The sounds [J] and [L] however commonly occur in various dialects because of sound changes involving the palatization of some consonants after i. Diminutives of words often include palatals ... typically, all non-final coronal consonants in a word will be palatalized, so that for example zakur changes into xakur.
  4. Voiced stops are also often softened inside words until they become fricatives (b -> B, d -> D, g -> G) or vanish entirely.
  5. The pronunciation of j varies between dialects, with [x] and [j] being the most common realizations.
  6. h is not pronounced in the Spanish part of the Basque Country.

The Basque vowel system is a standard i e a o u similar to Spanish, with no distinction for length, and no nasal vowels (except in one dialect). There are several diphthongs including eu au ai ei oi ui. Few native words begin with a voiceless stop, but words beginning with the voiced stops /b d g/ are common. This is because the voiceless stops of modern-day Basque evolved from fortis stops, which could not occur word-initially. In fact, Old Basque could be described as having only eight consonants, /p t k z s n l r h/, if the fortis:lenis distinction (which could only contrast between vowels), is ignored. Arguments in favor of ignoring the fortis:lenis distinction include that it could only contrast between vowels and that inscriptions in Aquitanian usually show double (geminate) consonants where a fortis consonant has been reconstructed in Old Basque. Since there were only five vowels, this would put Old Basque very close to the world record for the smallest phonology (Rotokas, with 6 consonants and 5 vowels, is the smallest known. Hawaiian has 13 if vowel length is ignored.) However, if the sequences such as as /kh/ in Old Basque are analyzed as single consonants rather than clusters, the phonology would be larger again since it is believed that all of the phonemes except the fricatives could occur before /h/.

There are also a significantly large number of words that begin with vowels, leading some scholars to propose that in an earlier stage of the language, certain consonants may have disappeared in initial position.

The Basque Noun Phrase

Constituent Order in the NP

The Basque noun phrase is structured as follows:

(genitive) (relative clause) (enumerator) noun (adjective) (determiner)

where everything in brackets is optional. However, this diagram alone doesn't represent in full the usage of enumerators, quantifiers and determiners, since Basque requires at least one such element to be present in every NP. See the following section for more details.

Determiners, Quantifiers and Enumerators

All Basque Noun Phrases require a determiner, and with few exceptions exactly one. The most common determiners are:

-a suffixed article added to the last element of the NP. Often translated as "the", but tends to function as the default article
bat "one" unlike other numerals occurs at the end of the NP, typically indefinite in meaning
batzu "some"
asko "many"
hau this one
hori that one
hura that one over there
zein "which" This occurs with numerals and other quantifiers before the noun.

The exceptions in which multiple determiners occur are: beste "other", which precedes the noun and when definite (the other ....) occurs with the suffixed article -a, and when indefinite (another...) occurs with the numeral bat, and numerals, which may also occur with the suffixed article, although in this case it is not required.

The Case System

Case affixes, like the suffixed article -a, attach to the last element of the noun phrase, which may often be a demonstrative or adjective and not the noun itself. Many of the case suffixes combine with the definite article and there are some irregular forms (mostly minor stem changes) when the case endings are added to the other determiners.
The case system has a three way number distinction: singular, plural and indefinite. The indefinite endings (which in most cases are extremely similar to the plural endings and in some cases the same) are used when some other element of the noun phrase such as a numeral, demonstrative or determiner indicates the number and thus expressing it in the case ending would be redundant. The cases Basque distinguishes are: Ergative, Absolutive, Dative, Local Genitive, Possessive Genitive, Partitive, Comitative, Instrumental, Locative, Allative, Benefactive, and Ablative.

The Case Endings

After vowels:

Case Singular Plural Indefinite Proper Nouns
Absolutive -a -ak - -
Ergative -ak -ek -k -k
Dative -ari -ei -ri -ri
Possessive-Genitive -aren -en -ren -ren
Benefactive -arentzat -entzat -rentzat -rentzat
Comitative -arekin -ekin -rekin -rekin
Instrumental -az -ez -z, -taz -z
Locative -an -etan -tan -n
Allative -ra -etara -tara -ra
Ablative -tik -etatik -tatik -tik
Local Genitive -ko -etako -tako -ko

After consonants:

Case Singular Plural Indefinite Proper Nouns
Absolutive -a -ak - -
Ergative -ak -ek -ek -ek
Dative -ari -ei -i -i
Possessive-Genitive -aren -en -en -en
Benefactive -arentzat -entzat -entzat -entzat
Comitative -arekin -ekin -ekin -ekin
Instrumental -az -ez -ez, -etaz -ez
Locative -an -etan -etan -en
Allative -era -etara -etara -a (-era)
Ablative -etik -etatik -etatik -tik, -dik
Local Genitive -eko -etako -etako -ko, -go

It should be noted that some cases like the benefactive are in fact formed from another case (the genitive) and an additional ending (-tzat). For this reason the number of cases in Basque is debateable, with the number commonly given as 12 to 18.

The Relativizer -ko

In the tables above -ko has been listed as it usually is in Basque grammars, as a case, the "local genitive". It is used in this sense to express things such as origin, or association with a place, for example "Donostiako autobusa", the bus for Donostia. This analysis is however a little misleading, and doesn't cover the entire usage of -ko. In reality, the ending functions as a relativizer allowing adverbials to be subordinated to a noun. The "local genitive" is simple one example of this. For some other examples that more clearly illustrate what -ko does, consider the following:

zuretzako opari bat
zu-re-tza-ko opari bat
A present for you

Now, "zuretzat" means "for you" in Basque. But without the relativizing ending -ko (which eliminates the final t), it would be interpreted as belonging to the clause rather than the following noun phrase. Here is another example:

egiazko hitzak
egia-z-ko hitz-ak
truth-ins-rel word-pl

This means "true words", but a more literal translation would be "words by truth". Not that "egiazko" ("true") is formed from "egia" ("truth") the instrumental ending, and then the relativizer -ko to make it associate to the following noun rather than the whole clause.
The suffix -ko may be used with most of the oblique cases, like the instrumental, allative, benefactive, comitative and so on. It cannot be used with the ergative, absolutive, dative, possessive genitive or ablative.
It should also be noted that relativization can be applied more than once to produce quite long complicated words, for example:

that one for you

The (one) with the (one) for me

It's rare to encounter examples this complicated however, although they are grammatical. Like the English "Antidisestablishmentarianism", they're technically correct but unlikely to be produced.

Headless Noun Phrases

A noun phrase need not have a noun as its head in Basque. The possessive genitive can take the suffixed article or a determiner directly, as can phrases relativized by -ko and adjectives. You've already seen some examples of -ko phrases recieving the suffixed article above. Some examples of possessives with the article:

My one

The one of Naroa's

The Basque Verb

Verbal Participles and Verbal Nouns

Most Basque verbs have only a few forms, which express mainly aspectual notions. The form of the verb which will be given in most dictionaries is a perfective (passive) participle, which can have one of several common endings. These endings are: -n, -i, -tu (-du). There are also a number of verbs which don't have any ending added onto the stem at all in their dictionary form. Here are some examples of each category:

Category Examples
-n egin, egon, joan, jakin, eman
-i ikusi, eduki, iritsi, irakurri, idatzi
-tu gustatu, sartu, hartu, jarraitu, ahaztu
no ending irte, erre

New verbs almost all have the ending -tu, which has become the most productive suffix for forming verbs from nouns, various adverbials etc. Its origin is in the Romance passive participles, and the large number of borrowings from Vulgar Latin and later Spanish and French into Basque.
From these participles verbal nouns can be formed in the following way: remove any ending present (-n, -i, or -tu) and add -te if the ending was -n, or -tze otherwise unless the stem ends in either s, z, ts or tz. In the case of s or z add -te, in the case of ts or tz, reduce these to s or z and then add -te. Some examples:

egin "to make" -> egite "making"
irakurri "to read" -> irakurtze "reading"
ikusi "to see" -> ikuste "seeing"
iritsi "to arrive" -> iriste "arriving"
idatzi "to write" -> idazte "writing"
gustatu "to like" -> gustatze "liking"

These verbal nouns must usually be used with the suffixed article -a, or a case ending which includes it.
From these verbal nouns a "progressive form" (actually an imperfective form) is formed by adding the locative ending -n. So from "egin" we get "egiten", and so on.
And finally, there is a form involving adding -ko (-go after n) to the passive participle, which is used mainly in future constructions. So for example "egin" becomes "egingo", "gustatu" becomes "gustatuko" and so on.

Verbs with Simple Forms

In Basque most verbs have only the forms listed above, which don't indicate tense, mood or agree in person. There are however a small number (12 in common use) of verbs which do have forms which mark: past vs present tense, the person of the ergative, absolutive and dative arguments (if present) and various moods also. None of these simple forms however make aspectual distinctions, which are an innovation (see the section above on how the progressive form comes from the locative ending). Some of the verbs with simple forms are:

Verb Meaning
izan to be. Expresses equality, permanent qualities, etc.
egon to be. Expresses location or state, much like the Spanish estar.
ukan to have. The simple forms remain but "ukan" is never used in modern Speech, the verb now sharing its participle with "izan".
joan to go.
etorri to come.
jakin to know. Generally not used to express acquaintance. Much like saber in Spanish.
eduki to have, to possess.
ibili to walk, to move around, to wander around
esan to say
edin used as an auxilliary to form some of the irrealis moods. THe form edin isn't used in the modern language and is only found in grammatical descriptions.
ezan used as an auxilliary to form some of the irrealis moods. THe form ezan isn't used in the modern language and is only found in grammatical descriptions.

The Auxilliary System

This Article Is A Work in Progress