Buber’s Basque Flashback: Larry Trask’s Introduction to Basque

Larry Trask, who died in 2004, was a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex. He published prolifically, with numerous books to his credit. In particular, he was an internationally recognized authority on Euskara, both its grammar and history. He almost fell into his studies accidentally, starting off as a chemist, only going into linguistics after he realized he didn’t have the skills to be a lab chemist. He fell into Basque almost as randomly, having encountered a Basque speaker at the university. He started learning Euskara, but became much more than just a proficient speaker; he became an expert in all aspects of the language. As Michael Mullan wrote in this obituary:

There is a popular myth in the Basque country that, many centuries ago, Satan arrived on a proselytising mission but, after 10 years of trying to lead the Basques from the path of righteousness, he gave up because the only words of Euskera he could master were bai eta ez (“yes and no”).

Trask was one of the few outsiders to succeed where the Devil had failed. 

Larry was prolific on online forums related to Euskara and the Basque Country. While I never met him, I exchanged emails with him and read much more. At the time of his death, he was working on what he called “bongo-bongo” theories of the origins of Euskara, with the goal of debunking some of the outlandish claims that have been made and reemphasize a more scientific approach to the language.

There are numerous articles on Buber’s Basque Page that were originally penned by Larry, including, with the permission of his family, an archive of his Basque website. One of the first writings of Larry’s I put on Buber’s Basque Page was this overview of the Basque language which, for such a brief document, is remarkable for its comprehensiveness, covering the history of the language, its phonology and morphology, syntax and lexicon, and even an example deconstruction and translation of sentences in Euskara.

Larry made an impact on linguistics beyond Basque, though he likely will be most remembered for his work on Euskara. One of his last books, published posthumously, was an etymological dictionary of Basque. Larry had a no-nonsense attitude towards his subject, and had little patience for all of those who wrote him with their bongo-bongo theories. This interview with The Guardian gives some sense of Larry’s personality.

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