May 22, 2013

Basque language: a criticism of Joseba Lakarra

Further correction to authorship (Jun 2): Euskararen Jatorria as a whole collectivity are the authors of this study (see comments in their entry), so it's not anonymous but collective (yet the various individual co-authors are not named anywhere).

Original article edited in order to clarify authorship:


Euskararen Jatorria collective have recently published a paper in which they criticize the excessive reliance of Basque language studies on the work of Prof. Joseba Lakarra, whose shadowy control of the Basque Academy on this matter is most worrying, notably since his key defamatory intervention against the extraordinary finds of Iruña-Veleia, which challenge to some extent the foundations of his work.

Sadly for many readers of this blog, the new study is published only in Spanish and Basque languages. In spite of that I feel the need to briefly discuss it here.

Euskararen Jatorria (collective work), Joseba Lakarra a examen. Sobre el Diccionario Histórico Etímologico Vasco. Euskararen Jatorria 2013. Freely accessibleLINK 1 (Spanish), LINK 2 (Basque)
 

The paper begins with a pondered praise of Lakarra's efforts to go beyond Mitxelena's paradigms. However they feel that he should also be much more self-critical and humble and ready to back when he's clearly wrong, what he does not. A key concern is that the Academy of Basque Language (Euskaltzaindia) and University of the Basque Country are focused on a major work: the creation of an etymological dictionary, which will be founded almost only on Lakarra's work, what could well be a total disaster and waste of resources if he is mostly wrong.

Naturally Lakarra is the director of the project himself. While a few other authors (Tovar, Trask) are cited in Lakarra's magnum opus project, they are almost only mentioned in a negative manner. The result can therefore be foreseen as a monument to Lakarra's own vanity.

Nothing new in fact, as Lakarra is infamous for citing almost exclusive his own works, often unpublished, what is not accepted as a healthy academic praxis anywhere... except in his own feudal domain, it seems. This problem of self-citation is discussed in section 4 of this paper.

The criticisms of Lakarra's work can be synthesized following the structure of the study:
  1. The monosyllabic root theory of Lakarra is too daring. The available evidence does not support this in most cases.
  2. There is no process of critical revision. This makes Lakarra models mere hypothesis or conjectures and not at all proven theories. Larry Trask did not include a single root by Lakarra in his own etymological dictionary. Michael Morvan and J.B. Orpustan frontally rejected Lakarra's ideas.
  3. All reconstructions are purely theoretical.
  4. Abusive self-citation, often of unpublished materials. Lakarra almost never cites other authors than himself.
  5. No systematization. Lakarra's model has never been systematically described, something that the professor seems to prefer, as it allows him for unlimited freedom in his ramblings.
  6. Frequent changes in the etymologies, revealing extreme insecurity and improvisation in Lakarra's own thought.
  7. Abusive use of typological comparativism. Even if systematically criticizes comparativism, because he only believes in internal reconstruction for the case of Basque, he constantly relies in  grammatic comparison with other unrelated languages.
  8. Incoherence with the reality of languages 3000 years ago. For Lakarra, Basque in that time only had the most rudimentary vocabulary and grammar, while the reality we know is that all languages were as complete as they are today, and therefore (proto-)Basque must have been as well.
  9. Monosyllabic root theory has serious issues. Words like lur (earth, land, soil) are ancestrally monosyllabic for Lakarra, however they are attested in bisyllabic forms like luur or luhur, suggesting that it is in fact a shortening of longer ancient words. There are many other such cases.
  10. It does not even consider dialectal variation. Lakarra invariably uses only the modern standard form (Euskara Batua), totally ignoring the well attested dialectal variation.
  11. It ignores Aquitanian toponymy. For example eihar for Lakarra derives from Lat. cremare, while it is attested as such []eihar in Aquitaine c. 87 CE.
  12. Some proposed evolutions are absolutely incredible. For example:
    *goi-bar ('up-down') > *gwibar > *bi-z-bar > bizkar (anat. back, geog. hill, mountain).
  13. Some etymologies suffer of serious anachronisms. For example, bazter (edge, corner, riverside; secondarily: field, land, place) is made by Lakarra to derive from Lat. praesaepe via Castilian Spanish pesebre and a claimed intermediate word presepre (actually unattested). Sp. pesebre is attested only 130 years after Basque bazter is. [I believe that bazter is actually present in an ancient Iberian text from Mula, Murcia, see note below].
  14. Breaches the principle of regularity when we consider Basque dialects.
  15. Ignores Basque culture. For example hogi (bread) is for Lakarra derivate from hor (dog) and -gi (-gi/-ki common for meat kinds), meaning in his mind originally something like dog-meat. This is simply absurd... but so are so many things around this peculiar individual in his ivory tower.
  16. Sometimes misinterprets words. For example atseden (to rest, turn off, breath, satisfy) is mistranslated by Lakarra as to die.
  17. Does not help at all to the reconstruction of Aquitanian onomastics. Nothing at all in Lakarra's work helps the understanding of this key ancient reference of Basque studies.
  18. Risk of unitary or monolithic thought. Lakarra's single-handed effective domination of Basque philology in the Western Basque Country has almost stopped independent research altogether. His followers limit themselves to make comments to his theories without daring to think independently, much less being critical.
  19. Conclusions. Warning on the use of public funds for the vanity project of this man, who is no doubt fallible.


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Note on bazter: in the Ibero-Ionian text on lead from El Cigarralejo (Mula, Murcia - pictured), in line #7 it reads:

ZABARBAZDEŔKBIDEDENEDIZBEZANELAZ

Which I tentatively read in modern Basque as follows:

Zabal bazterrak bide denetik bezainelako; i.e. something like: such as the ample margins through the whole path. Uncertain particularly about the last word bezanelaz.

Other fragments of this piece, as well as of other Ibero-Ionian texts also sound terribly Basque-like, although of course not identical. Once I asked a friend from Ondarroa, native speaker of Basque, of his opinion on this text and, laughing, he replied: not from Ondarru but maybe from Lekitto (Lekeitio: the nearby town, which has a distinct dialect).

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