LINGUIST List 8.671

Wed May 7 1997

Review: Trask: The History of Basque

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  • 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 (p.35).

    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, e.g. 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 nit-pickers.

    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 e-mail:


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


    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 2.1:3-54. - ---. 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