LINGUIST List 8.671

Wed May 7 1997

Review: Trask: The History of Basque

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  1. Paul James Sidwell, Review of Trask for LList

Message 1: Review of Trask for LList

Date: Mon, 5 May 1997 20:03:31 +1000 (EST)
From: Paul James Sidwell <s_pjseduserv.its.unimelb.EDU.AU>
Subject: Review of Trask for LList

R. L. Trask. The History of Basque. London & New York, Routledge. 1997.
(xxii + 458 pages) US$79.95 (Hb).

Reviewed by Paul Sidwell, University of Melbourne

0. Larry Trask has written a handbook on the history of Basque which is
both thorough and scholarly. Frequently vasconic research has been
presented in Spanish, and to a lesser degree in other European languages.
This has contributed to widespread ignorance about Basque language and
culture, and for too long the area has been considered exotic - it is
still possible to find works on Basque topics grouped with Aliens and
Templars in catalogues and on bookshelves. Recently there has been an
explosion of interest in the possible external relations of Basque (partly
due to the anticipated release of this very book) and recently there also
appeared an excellent collection of papers in English (Hualde, Lakarra &
Trask 1995) which included contemporary material as well as translations
of two classic papers of the great vasconist Luis Michelena. With the
present volume by Trask we now have a comprehensive and accessible source
for the English speaking world.

1. The first chapter provides a useful and informative introduction to the
present health and distribution of the Basque language. Trask informs us
that Basque is not restricted to the rural domain, but perhaps half of all
Basque speakers are urban dwellers, particularly in the industrial centres
of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. Furthermore, although Basque has been losing
ground historically, there are many so called euskaldun berriak (new
Basques) speakers and Basque enjoys a degree of official standing (p. 1)
in the province of Navarre. Unfortunately, although hardly surprising,
Basque has no official status in France. We are given information about
the geography, climate and history. Trask believes that the survival of
Basque can be credited largly to geographical features - the country is
mountainous, and the ports faced uselessly (from the Roman point of view)
onto the Atlantic. (p. 11) Still, the area had some military significance
to Rome, as roads were built close to and through the Basque territory, in
order to connect Iberia to the rest of the Empire. The Basques lived
peacefully alongside the Romans, only later powers attempted to conquer
them. The Basques resisted rule by both Visigoths and Franks, and in 778
and 824 inflicted the only significant military defeats suffered by armies
of Charlemagne. Reflecting the utter humiliation of these events,
subsequent Charlemanic recollections credit the defeats to huge but
ficticious Muslin forces (e.g. Chanson de Roland). Sensibly the Basques
largly maintained a hostile attitude to Christianity for most of the first
Millenium, although ultimately they adopted the west-Asiatic sect over
their own native religion. Typical of converted communities, much evidence
of former beliefs and rituals has been lost, although tantalizing remains
such as the lauburu, a sort of swastika, is found everywhere in the
country as a decorative emblem. (p. 13).

Trask offers a concise and well balanced history of the Basques throughout
the middle ages, renaissance and through to the present century, including
the trials of the civil war and Franco period. The nationalism of many
Basques, often expressed in an extreme way, is somewhat understandable
when we recall that as recently as the early 1970s Spanish police were
occasionally still machinegunning innocent civilians simply for being
Basque. We are now a generation removed from that era, and today the
Spanish Basques enjoy reasonable prosperity and participation in national
life. The Basques are more heavily built than their neighbours, and are
known more for their physical prowess than artistic or intellectual
achievements - as Trask points out the Spanish national (football) team is
typically almost half Basque, and the goalkeeper is always a Basque

 The introduction also gives a rundown on the present state of work in
Basque linguistics, reference works, dictionaries etc. There is also a
description of Basque's orthography and standard language, with copious
comments about historical and dialectal variants. Trask's writing style is
refreshingly direct and a delight to read, and this is well illustrated by
the following quote in which he comments on a particular orthography
commonly used in the first part of this century.

	"Finally, I must comment on the bizarre orthography devised
	 by Sabino Arana in the late nineteenth century. This daft
	 system puts a tilde over each of the letters t d s n l to
	 represent the palatal consonants now written tt dd x ll, 
	 [....] Thankfully, it is now extinct, but scholars consulting
	 Azkue's writings and other materials of the period
	 must still get used to it. (p.78)

2. Chapter 2. A Thumbnail Sketch of the Language is a concise grammar of
Basque in 42 pages. We are given a linguistic description of the phonemics
and phonotaxis, and descriptions of the case system and verb morphology.
Treatment of the syntax concentrates on the parts of speech and sentence
structure, with copious examples and discussion. The terminology used is
the sort familiar to the generative tradition, but without diversions into
GB esoterica. Rather innovatively Trask finishes off with A Typological
Checklist - this is a superb 6 page summary of the typological
characteristics of Basque including aspects of phonolgy, morphology,
lexicon and syntax. Trask introduces this section with a brief discussion
of the recent new focus upon the rle of typology in Historical
Linguistics, with particular reference to the recent work of Nichols
(1992) (which elaborates a controversial theory inspired by fellow caucasianist
Klimov). The inclusion of the typological summary hardly requires the
justification that Trask seems to have felt necessary. An objective
discussion of Basque typology is a legitimate and valuable inclusion
regardless of any recent controversial claims as to the impotance of
typological features in historical investigation.

3. With the third chapter, 'Phonology', the substantial treatment of the
historical development of Basque begins. Trask presents and endorses the
reconstruction of ancient Basque phonology made by Michelena (1957 and
passim). It is remarkable that greats such as Saussure and Meillet had
expressed profound pessimism about the prospects for investigating the
history of Basque because of it's apparently isolated nature. In fact the
comparative method is only one of several methodologies available to us, a
fact made famous by Saussure. Basque is eminently investigatable by means
of internal reconstruction, and hypothesis can tested by comparison with
ancient records and examination of the vast body of loan words in the
language. Michelena reconstructs 5 vowels and parallel series of 8 fortis
and lenis consonants. The modern palatals are mainly secondary in origin
or restricted to expressives, and the voice contrast in stops is a late
development. A controversial claim is that Proto-Basque lacked /m/. This
usual, although not unprecedented, characteristic has been loudly condemed
by the long-rangers such as Bengtson who dismisses the Michelena
reconstruction (in a reply to Trask 1994-5) as based on "zero evidence"
(Bengtson 1995:91). He asserts that comparisons with Caucasic etyma
confirm a Proto-Basque *m. The "zero evidence" claim is both incorrect and
unnecessary, and even Bengtson's ally Blazek (1995:105) recognises the
latter with his excellent observation that, "Accepting Trask's point of
view, we can replace the equation [Baque m = North Caucasic *m] with
[pre-Basque *b = North-Caucasic *m]. Still, Blazek thinks that "a language
without m is rather strange." Actually Michelena is on fairly safe ground
deriving Basque /m/ from *b, *nb and /m/ in loan words. Initial /m/ is
lacking in ancient Aquitanian texts, and in medial position occurs in very
specific phonetic contexts, e.g.
	seme 'son' < *senbe (sembe is attested in Aquitanian)
	ume 'child' < *unbe (ombe is attested in Aquitanian)
Also we see Basque /m/ reflecting labial stops in Romance/Latin loans,
	zamau 'table cloth' < sabanu
	mika 'magpie' < pica
	mutil 'boy' < putillu
And crucially /m/ is entirely absent from Basque grammatical words or the
inflexional affixes. Actually it is significant that there is no evidence
for reconstructing a complete series of Proto-Basque nasals, although I am
not aware of any long-rangers complaining the lack of *n~ (palatal) or *N
(velar). If palatal and velar nasals were indicated by the internal evidence,
we would reasonably reconstruct a full set of nasals in parallel to the stops,
but this is not the case. The Michelena reconstruction of the Proto-Basque
system is both based a comprehensive treatment of the data, and is
spectacularly successful at explaining the facts of the language.
According to Trask (1995b,:182), it

	"is symmetric, economical, and appealing; far more importantly,
	 it works. For example, it accounts very successfully for the
	 forms of loan words from Latin and early Romance, and the few
	 and simple phonological changes he posits as having applied
	 to this system account with equal success for the forms occuring
	 both in medieval documents and in the several modern dialects."

The most remarkable claim about the history of Basque that one will
encounter in the present work is made by Michelena himself - an apparent
reversal of the merger of j and x in Gipuzkoan Basque. It is claimed that,
as in Navarre Basque, these phonemes merged as x, but later in Gipuzkoan
etymological j shifted to a velar while original x remained
palato-alveolar. This would constitute a violation of the logic of sound
change as we understand it, and we might conclude that there may not have
been a phonological merger at all. However, Michelena has an explanation
and this relates to the function of palatals being associated with
expressive meaning in Basque. The hypothesis is that in words so marked, x
simply failed to shift, possibly a beautiful example of functional
pressure on a sound system.

4. Chapter 4, 'Grammar' is not treated in detail here, suffice it to say
that the grammar of Basque has been rather stable for the period of
written records, so we can be confident of the summary offered by Trask.
Interestingly this chapter finishes with an uncharacteristically
speculative section on the possible shape of Basque grammar in the very
ancient past, particularly in relation to the origin of ergative syntax. A
model is advanced in which a shift from VO to OV syntax is posited (note
that the proposed earlier VO stage is offered speculatively) in which a
marked transitive construction is reanalysed as unmarked. Essentially
these musings reflect the current wisdom of grammaticalization theory
being imposed upon Basque rather drawn from it.

Chapter 5, 'Lexicon' is substantial at 109 pages. It is superb to see
appropriate emphasis placed upon the study of the lexicon - all
investigations into the history of a language can only proceed from a
thorough knowledge of the lexicon (as opposed to selective citation of
convenient forms). Trask covers the various means of word formation,
including affixation, compounding and sound symbolism. The enormous
contribution to the Basque lexicon from Romance/Latin is extensively
treated, a valuable counter to the mythology that Basque has been somehow
resistant to outside influences. Now that we understand the historical
phonological development of Basque we are in a position to recognise
hundreds of loans, including examples which have previously been compared
to Caucasic etyma in the mistaken belief that they are native Basque
forms. "Of the 300 or so Basque items which have been adduced as
"cognates" for words in North Caucasian, Burushaski, Yeniseian, Sumarian
or other "Dene-Caucasian" languages, more than half can be dismissed out
of hand: they are obvious loans from Latin or Romance..." (Trask
1995a:77). The text of the chapter etymologises an extensive and
representative selection of the Basque lexicon and finishes with a basic
word list of more than 2000 Basque words. Not only thorough and
informative, this chapter is also a delight to read, with the wonderful
Trask style shining through, bound to please more that just etymological

The final chapter, 'Connections with Other Languages' is a classic of
modern linguistic literature upon which alone one could justify erecting a
monument to act as centre piece in a linguistic hall of fame. Standing out
as a continent of common sense among oceans of preposterous proposals
which have marked the genre to date, Trask systematically analyses the
bulk of the published work which has sought to connect Basque with other
languages, convincingly showing that not one of the various proposals is
yet to be firmly demonstrated. The tone is profoundly sceptical,
frequently sarcastic and occasionally hilariously funny. Many among the
linguistic community will already be familiar with the contents of this
chapter, as your present reviewer oversaw the publication of an earlier
draft (Trask 1994-95). The appearance of this text had the desired effect
and duely electrified the long-ranger community, many of their more vocal
critics, and not a few interested vasconists. Hundreds of pages of text
were generated in response, ranging from outrage to sympathy, many of them
filling out the very thick first issue of the reborn Mother Tongue 1.1995.
It is deliciously ironic that the past decade's debates over external
relations of Basque owe their origins substantially to the seminal paper
by the Abkhazian scholar Slava Chirikba 'Baskskij i severokavkazskie
jazyki' (Chirikba 1985). An undergraduate essay offered to what was
expected to be an obscure volume on ancient Anatolia, it snowballed in
reputation as it was cited over and over by long rangers who sang its
praises as the demonstration of Basque-Caucasian affinity. Back in the
real world Chirikba himself was unaware of the whole froth and bubble,
never again returning to the subject of his brief undergraduate
flirtation. Very significantly in the recently published version of his
Common-North-West-Caucasian reconstruction (Chirikba 1997) the chapter on
external relations makes no mention of Basque, although the famous paper
is listed in the bibliography.

In conclusion, I can only suggest that Larry Trask deserves our respect
and gratitude for producing this magnificent volume. A History of Basque
fills an important gap in English language vasconic literature as well as
providing a stunning example of how good work can be done.

Reviewer's address:
Paul Sidwell
Dept. of Linguistics & Applied Linguistics
University of Melbourne, Parkville, 3052, Australia


I would like to thank my colleagues Neile Kirk, Liza Milan and Nick
Nicholas for helpful comments and proofreading in the preparation of this


Bengtson, J. 1995. Basque: an Orphan Forever? A Response to Trask. Mother
Tongue 1:84-103
Blazek, V. 1995. Towards the Position of Basque: A Reply to Trask's
Critique of the Dene-Caucasian Hypothesis. Mother Tongue 1:104-110.
Chirikba, V. 1985. Baskskij i severokavkazskie jazyki. In B. B.
Pietrovskij (ed.) Drevnjaja Anatolija, pp. 95-105. Moscow: Nauka.
- ---. 1997. Common West Caucasian. Research School CNWS, School of Asian
and Amerindian Studies, Leiden, the Netherlands.
Michelena, L. 1957. Las antiguas consonantes vascas. Miscelnea homenaje a
A. Martinet, vol. 1, pp. 113-157.
Nichols, J. 1992. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. 
Trask, R.L. 1994-95. Basque: the search for relatives (part 1). Dhumbadji
- ---. 1995a. Basque and Dene-Caucasian: A Critique from the Basque Side.
Mother Tongue 1:3-82.
- ---. 1995b. Responce to the Comments. Mother Tongue 1:172-201

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