Aspiration in Basque

  • José Ignacio Hualde


The distribution of aspiration in Basque — with ‘aspiration’ referring to both the occurrence of [h] and of aspirated stops — shows some puzzling aspects. In some words, aspiration is ancient, in the sense that it must be assumed for the earliest reconstructable stage. In some other instances, however, it has arisen seemingly ex nihilo, as can be observed in borrowings from Latin and Romance, e.g. Latin/Romance īra > Basque hira ‘ire’, Romance taula > Basque thaula ‘board’. Most surprisingly, in some words aspiration has developed after a sonorant consonant, e.g. Romance solatz > Basque solhas ‘conversation’. Aspiration may also continue intervocalic /n/, e.g. Latin anāte > Basque ahate ‘duck’. Another unusual development is the phonologization of the contrast between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops triggered by a shift of the stress in some words without affecting the properties of consonants. Finally, an interdialectal alternation /k-/ ~ /g-/ ~ /h-/ ~ Ø in demonstratives and related adverbs appears to have involved fortition, contrary to initial expectations. Here we describe the environments in which aspiration is found in Basque and discuss the most likely historical developments that could have given rise to the state of affairs that we find, paying particular attention to what would appear to be unusual or unnatural sound changes. We build on prior scholarship, but this paper also contains some new hypotheses, especially regarding the aspiration in words like ahate ‘duck’.  We have also tried to contribute to the dating of the different processes and to the understanding of in their causes.