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Basque Color Terms and Their Origin
by Larry Trask
This, we think, derives from *<beletz>, and contains the ancient element *<bel> `dark', found in a number of other words, such as <bele> `crow', <ospel> `dead leaves', and <goibel> `cloudy sky'. Aquitanian BELEX(-) is probably the same word.
This may contain the ancient adjective-forming suffix <-i> (as in <gazi> `salty'), and Azkue suggested a derivation from <zur> `wood' -- hence -wood-colored', `light-colored'. Nobody knows.
Again <-i>, and again Azkue, who suggested a stem *<gor> `raw flesh'. This would also be present in <gordin> `raw, crude', with the adjective-forming suffix <-din>, probably `resembling'.
Again <-i>, and this time Azkue wants <(h)or> `dog' as the source: hence the original meaning would have been `tawny' (lion-colored).
This originally covered all of green, blue, and gray: note <gibelurdin>, a mushroom with a bright green underside, and <mutxurdin> `old maid', but literally `gray-cunt' (and also <urdin> applied to gray hair and beards). Again we seem to have <-din>, and the first element looks like <ur> `water'. The semantics is great: `resembling water', but the form is funny. The ancient combining form of <ur> is <u->, and so we would have expected *<udin>.
These are the only color terms that can be securely reconstructed. Others are loan words, like <berde> `green', <gris> `gray', <arrosa> `pink', and <laranja> `orange'. There are modern compounds, like <gorrimotel> `weak red' for `pink'. Bizkaian <laru> `pale yellow' is from Latin <claru>, and Bizkaian <beilegi> `yellow' appears to derive from <behi> `cow'. And <orlegi> `green' is one of Sabino Arana's. Some northerners have <musker> for `green', but this is taken from the name of a green lizard, and the word does not look native.
Otherwise, we have several words of variable meaning. The most interesting is <arre>, today usually `brown' but formerly `gray', and possibly the source of <arrats> `evening'. The word <nabar> means all of `gray, drab, multicolored'. Eastern <dundu>, which cannot be ancient, is `blue' in Roncalese but `dark' in Zuberoan. Exceptionally interesting is <ubel>, which in many places is `purple, violet', but elsewhere it just means `dark' or `livid'. This doubtless contains *<bel> `dark'. And <beltzaran> `brunette, sun-tanned' is mysterious: it certainly contains <beltz>, but what the hell is the second element?
Ah, yes -- I forgot about this one. This is yet another word that sometimes means `(dark) gray' but sometimes just `turbid' (of water), or even `bitter'. I confess I don't know its etymology, but it does look as if it might be derived from <ur>, though the second element is puzzling.