I’m reading a fascinating paper (open access at Insula magazine
, issues no. 3, 4 and 5) by US linguist Roslyn M. Frank
(earlier mentioned in Leherensuge
in relation with the Iruña-Veleia controversy), which among other things deals with the cosmological and mythological importance of the bear, preserved in the astonishingly similar carnival performances of some Basque and Sardinian towns (see in my previous linguistic musings
how I strongly suspect that the name of the Mediterranean island comes from the word sardine
, which has a quite unmistakable Basque/Vascoid etymology).
Bear: ursus, arctos, hartz
While reading it I realized that I had forgotten to mention another likely Vascoid widespread European (primarily Mediterranean) group of words: those meaning bear.
Bear is said hartz
) in Basque, arctos
in Greek and ursus
in Latin (and so the brown bear is known in biology as Ursus arctos)
. The similitude of hartz and arctos should be strikingly obvious. I suspect that ursus is also related (and this makes me think of the attested Basque deity Urtzi
, which in turn relates with the divine or supernatural importance given to the bear in pre-Christian European mythologies, preserved until recently under a Christian varnish).
Update: a reader mentions that this term seems Indoeuropean, with quite clear cognates in Eastern IE and Hittite. Asian IE is generally a good control, so I accept the correction. I was surely mislead by the fact that neither Germanic nor Slavic use this word, but their specific terms seem to have arisen as taboo avoidance, meaning “brown” and “honey eater” respectively (see this).
In this case it’d seem Basques imported the word from Celtic, whose terms (art, arth) are very close in sound. Why this borrowing? Maybe taboo avoidance as well?
Of course there’s always the possibility that it’s a well conserved pan-European word, which would bring me to whether IE and Basque could be distantly related. But this is too complicated for what I dare to explore with my limited means.
Update (Nov. 25): There are at least some qualified opinions that do support the Indoeuropean root *h₂ŕ̥tḱos being a cognate of Basque hartz, maybe in the context of ancient pan-European cosmologies in which this animal seems to have played a major role. See this new post for a more complete explanation.
Ram and billy-goat: aries, ahari and aker
Related to this Mediterranean spread, I must mention another striking similarity and most likely Vasco-Greek cognate which is the word for ram (male sheep). As anyone minimally acquainted with Astrology knows, the Latin word for ram is aries. Curiously enough the Basque term for ram is ahari.
The h is silent in the peninsular dialects (/a:ri/) but aspired in the continental ones (and that’s why it’s written in fact). As I have mentioned it is generally believed that this /h/ sound was once a /k/ (or /g/ maybe occasionally). What happens when you deconstruct this phonetic change? Ahari becomes akari, which is strikingly similar to the Basque word for billy-goat: aker.
I used to think this ahari word was a Neolithic loanword but maybe not after all.
Anyhow what really pushed me to write these musings, this note, was to realize that English word cub could also have a Vascoid etymology. Suddenly I read hartzkume, mistranslated as “little bear”. But it is more accurately “bear cub” (kume: cub, whelp, related ume: child) and, thanks to that tiny translation error, I just realized how close is that word to its Basque equivalent kume (the m<>b phonetic change is relatively common, it seems, and it has even been argued for Basque that all /m/ sounds were once /b/ – though not too convincingly, as /m/ is attested in Iberian and is a too common distinct phoneme).
offers two possible etymologies: Old Norse kobbi
) and Old Irish cuib
, modernly nest
). I would think that the Irish connection seems stronger and more clear, with a likely Vascoid substrate in the end related to Basque kume
Update: However, if the Irish etymology would be wrong, and considering that the word “cub” is first registered in English in the 16th century, it could be a case of borrowing in the context of the Hundred Years’ War, in which parts of the Basque Country and Gascony were joined to the English crown.
This is also hypothesized for the English expression “by Jingo” (modernly derived into “jingoism“), which would have derived from Basque Jainko (God) in that 15th century context of the Angevin empire.