Basque 101

Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. The subject of an intransitive verb is in the absolutive case (which is unmarked), and the same case is used for the direct object of a transitive verb. The subject of the transitive verb (that is, the agent) is marked differently, with the ergative case (shown by the suffix -k). This also triggers main and auxiliary verbal agreement.

The auxiliary verb, or periphrastic, which accompanies most main verbs, agrees not only with the subject, but with the direct object and the indirect object, if present. Among European languages, this polypersonal system (multiple verb agreement) is only found in Basque, some Caucasian languages, and Hungarian. The ergative-absolutive alignment is also unique among European languages, and rather rare worldwide.

Consider the phrase:

    Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit.
"Martin buys the newspapers for me."

Martin-ek is the agent (transitive subject), so it is marked with the ergative case ending -k (with an epenthetic -e-). Egunkariak has an -ak ending which marks plural object (plural absolutive, direct object case). The verb is erosten dizkit, in which erosten is a kind of gerund ("buying") and the auxiliary dizkit indicates:

    * di- marks a verb with the equivalent of both a direct and an indirect object, in the present tense;
* -zki- marks the equivalent of a plural direct object (in this case the newspapers; if it were singular there would be no infix); and
* -t is the equivalent of the indirect object mark: "to/for me".

    * in this instance an unmarked or "null case" equates to the "nork", which in most European languages would be the subject.

The phrase:

    "you buy the newspapers for me" would translate as:

    Zuek egunkariak erosten dizkidazue

The auxiliary verb is composed as di-zki-da-zue

(equivalent terms in European languages)

    * di- = direct object
* -zki- = marks plural of direct object
* -da- = indirect object (to/for me) {-t becomes -da- when intercalated.}
* -zue = subject (you pl.)

Modern Basque dialects allow for the conjugation of about fifteen verbs, called synthetic verbs, some only in literary contexts. These can be put in the present and past tenses in the indicative and subjunctive moods, in three tenses in the conditional and potential moods, and in one tense in the imperative. Colloquial Basque, however, only uses indicative present, indicative past, and imperative. Each verb that can be taken intransitively has a nor (absolutive) paradigm and possibly a nor-nori (absolutive-dative) paradigm, as in the sentence Aititeri txapela erori zaio ("The hat fell from grandfather['s head]"). Each verb that can be taken transitively uses those two paradigms for passive-voice contexts in which no agent is mentioned, and also has a nor-nork (absolutive-ergative) paradigm and possibly a nor-nori-nork (absolutive-dative-ergative) paradigm. The last would entail the dizkidazue example above. In each paradigm, each constituent noun can take on any of eight persons, five singular and three plural, with the exception of nor-nori-nork in which the absolutive can only be third person singular or plural. (This draws on a language universal; *"Yesterday the boss presented the committee me" sounds at least odd, if not incorrect.) The most ubiquitous auxiliary, izan, can be used in any of these paradigms, depending on the nature of the verb it is used with.

There are more persons in the singular (5) than in the plural (3) for synthetic verbs because of the two familiar persons—informal masculine and feminine second person singular. The pronoun hi is used for both of them but where the masculine form of the verb uses a -k the feminine uses an -n. This is a property not found in Indo-European languages. The entire paradigm of the verb is further augmented by inflecting for "listener" (the allocutive): even if the verb contains no second person constituent, if the situation is one in which the familiar masculine may be used, the form is augmented and modified accordingly; likewise for the familiar feminine. (Gizon bat etorri da, "a man has come"; gizon bat etorri duk, "a man has come [you are a male close friend]", gizon bat etorri dun, "a man has come [you are a female close friend]"[8]) Notice that this nearly multiplies the number of possible forms by three. Yet the restrictions on contexts in which these forms may be used is strong: all participants in the conversation must be friends of the same sex, and not too far apart in age. Some dialects dispense with the familiar forms entirely. Note however that the formal second person singular conjugates in parallel to the other plural forms, perhaps indicating that it used to be the second person plural, started being used as a singular formal, and then the modern second person plural was formulated as an innovation.

All the other verbs in Basque are called periphrastic, behaving much like a participle would in English. These have only three forms total, called aspects: perfect (various suffixes), habitual[9] (suffix -t[z]en) and future/potential (suffix. -ko/-go). Verbs of Latinate origin in Basque, as well as many other verbs, have a suffix -tu in the perfect, borrowed from the Latin -tus suffix. The synthetic verbs also have periphrastic forms, for use in perfect tenses and in simple tenses in which they are deponent.

A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It's been estimated that at two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms (Agirre et al, 1992).

Basque word order is generally topic-focus, meaning that in neutral sentences (such as sentences to inform someone of a fact or event) the topic is stated first, then the focus. In such sentences, the verb phrase comes at the end. A more tightly binding rule, however, is that the focus directly precedes the verb phrase. Notice that this applies, too, for question words in questions. "What is this?" can be translated as Zer da hau? or Hau zer da?, but in both cases the question word zer immediately precedes the verb. This rule is so important in Basque that, even in grammatical descriptions of Basque in other languages, the Basque word for "focus", galdegai, is used.

Within a verb phrase, the periphrastic comes first, and then the auxiliary.

In negative sentences, the order changes: the negative particle ez must always directly precede the auxiliary, the topic most often comes beforehand, and the rest of the sentence afterward. This includes the periphrastic, if there is one: Aitak frantsesa ikasten du, "Father is learning French," in the negative becomes Aitak ez du frantsesa ikasten, in which ikasten ("learning") is separated from its auxiliary and placed at the end.

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