Basque Fact of the Week: Relatives of Flesh and Bone

Because of their mysterious origins, the Basques fascinate historians and linguists. Linguists try to reconstruct the prehistory of the Basque language in the hope of understanding where it came from. Geneticists examine the DNA of populations all over Europe to try to establish a link. While these efforts shed greater light on the origins of the Basques and their language, there is still much that is opaque. Perhaps analyzing the origins of Basque kinship terms can reveal new insight. This is precisely the approach taken by Juan Inazio Hartsuaga Uranga.

Basque kinship terms.
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, in the course of developing his theories of kinship and alliance, compiled evidence from Asian cultures, including China and Tibet, that they distinguished between relatives of the bone and relatives of the flesh; that is, relatives of the father and of the mother, respectively. This concept seems to be rooted in the idea that “considering a new born baby, its bones have been put in by the father, and that those bones have been covered with flesh by the mother.” This concept isn’t found in Indo-European cultures.
  • In his analysis of Basque kinship terms, Hartsuaga Uranga notes how odd the Basque word for in-laws is. That word, ginarreba, offers a number of apparent contradictions. It ends in the traditional -ba, a root that Basque etymologists have connected to kinship — think alaba (daughter), seme from semebe (son), arreba (sister of a brother), ahizpa (sister of a sister), neba (brother of a sister), osaba (uncle), izeba (aunt), (i)loba (nephew/niece), aitaginarreba (father-in-law), amaginarreba (mother-in-law), and asaba (ancestor).
  • However, it seems to have, buried in there, the word arreba — sister of a brother. Etymologists have struggled to figure out how ginarreba — in-laws — could be connected to arreba — sister. Hartsuaga Uranga suggests a different origin for the word. He breaks it down as giharre-ba, or related to the word gihar, meaning flesh or muscle. That is, he suggests that the Basque word for in-law, ginarreba, originally meant “relative of the flesh,” a concept similar to what Lévi-Strauss described for Asian cultures. This would suggest that ginarreba originally meant something like “relatives on the mother’s side.”
  • Hartsuaga Uranga uses this etymology to make a Paleolithic link to the Basques. He argues that, if the pre-historic Basques believed in this theory of bone and flesh, that links them to these Asian cultures and must mean that they had the belief when they first came to the Bay of Biscay. They wouldn’t have borrowed it from any of the Indo-European cultures that later surrounded them as those cultures didn’t have this concept of relationships.
  • One gap in this theory is that there is seemingly no word for “relative of the bone” in Basque. Maybe it got lost. Or maybe it changed so much that it is now unrecognizable. But, Hartsuaga Uranga recalls the expression hezur berriak izan — literally meaning “to have new bones” — used to say someone is pregnant, possibly related to this old idea of relatives of bone.

Primary sources: Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio [et al.]. Paleolithic Ancestry of the Basques. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at:; Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio. Parentesco Vasco. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:

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