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Note 5: Colors
by Larry Trask
Let's look at the Basque color terms. There are five that are more or less universal in the language:
<beltz> 'black' <zuri> 'white' <gorri> 'red' <hori> 'yellow' <urdin> 'blue'
Now, <beltz> undoubtedly contains the ancient element *<bel>, or perhaps better *<beL>, 'dark'. This item is nowhere recorded as an independent word, but its former existence is certain, since it appears as an element in so many words. Some examples:
<ospel> 'shady place' (possibly <osto> 'leaf'?) <harbel> 'slate' (<harri> 'stone') <ezpel> 'box tree' (<*ez-> as in <ezkur>, <ezki> , <ezku>?) <bele> 'crow, raven' (?) <goibel> 'cloudy' (<goi> 'high place') <ubel> 'purple, livid' (<ur> 'water'?)
It seems likely that <beltz> is a contraction of *<beletz>, since an element BELESS- ~ BELEX- occurs in several male names in Aquitanian.
For <zuri> , <gorri>, and <hori>, I have already mentioned Azkue's proposals, which are the only ones on the table.
Now, <urdin> is exceptionally interesting. Today this word commonly means just 'blue', but it was not always so. Even today, it is commonplace to describe gray hair or gray beards as <urdin>, and a common word for 'old maid' is <mutxurdin> -- literally, 'gray-c*nt'. (I use the asterisk, not because I'm squeamish, but because otherwise some of you may find that your server refuses my posting.) So, <urdin> once covered 'gray' as well as 'blue'.
Moreover, there is a kind of mushroom called a <gibelurdin>. Now, apart from meaning 'liver', <gibel> is also an old word for 'back'. On the face of it, then, the name is 'blue-back'. However, the striking thing about this mushroom is that it has a vivid green underside. And, as Michelena once remarked, it is easier to believe that <urdin> has changed its meaning than that the mushroom has changed its color. So, <urdin> once covered all of 'green', 'blue' and 'gray'.
This, in fact, is a common state of affairs in languages. Before the 20th century, Welsh <glas> meant 'green, blue, gray', though in modern Welsh the influence of English has led to the specialization of this word as 'blue', with other words pressed into service for 'green' and 'gray'. The same thing has happened in Basque.
For 'green', the Romance word <berde> is now the most usual term, though some northerners use <musker>, derived from the name of the lizard. And, of course, a few enthusiasts cling to Sabino Arana's coinage <orlegi>. Arana constructed this by adding to <hori> 'yellow' the mysterious element <-legi>, found in Bizkaian <beilegi> 'yellow-orange', apparently from <behi> 'cow'.
Like its neighbors, Basque has acquired some new color terms from obvious sources, like <arrosa> 'pink' and <laranja> 'orange'. But there remain a number of other more or less localized color terms, most of them for dark, dull colors like brown, gray and dark blue.
An interesing example is western <arre> 'gray, dun, drab', which does not appear to be recorded in the east but which looks as if it might be old. Michelena once suggested that the common word <arrats> 'early evening, twilight' might be a derivative of <arre>, in which case the original sense of <arrats> would have been something like 'the gray part (of the day)'. This makes an amusing contrast with the now largely archaic English word of the same meaning, 'gloaming', which derives from 'glow', meaning 'be bright'.
Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK
Tel: 01273-678693 (from UK); +44-1273-678693 (from abroad) Fax: 01273-671320 (from UK); +44-1273-671320 (from abroad)