Ergative & Basque

Larry Trask larryt at
Wed Aug 4 08:39:01 UTC 1999

On Fri, 30 Jul 1999, Inaki Agirre Perez wrote:

> AFAIK, in English 'He's dead' is both Spanish <Esta' muerto> and <Ha
> muerto>.

Yes, although the second is more literally equivalent to English `He has

> The translation in Basque would be <Hil da>, with <izan> verb.
> A momentary sense could be achieved by <Hilik dago>, as if you have just
> discovered the fact that he's dead, but <Hil dago> is ungrammatical in
> my Basque (western).

Very interesting.  In the Lapurdian Basque which I learned first, `He's
dead' is usually <Hila da>, with <Hil da> as a possible alternative.

In the Bizkaian Basque which I learned later, `He's dead' is usually
<Hil dago> or <Hila dago>, and <Hil da> is strictly `He has died'.

Perhaps this example is unfortunate.  First, <hil> in Basque is both an
adjective meaning `dead' and a verb meaning `die', something which is
rather unusual in Basque.  Moreover, there is a pragmatic overlap
between `He has died' and `He's dead', which further clouds the issue.

I'm a little surprised that you don't accept <Hil dago> at all, since
the form is very familiar to me, and I've even seen it in writing.
But I guess that's the way things work in languages.

In my own NE American English, `That's a lousy show any more' is
perfectly normal, while people not so many miles away from me find it
hopelessly ungrammatical, and perhaps even incomprehensible.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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