Michael Mullan - Larry Trask


The Basques, who have straddled the border between northern Spain and southern France since long before either country existed, have a distinctive culture of which they are justly proud. Honesty is considered their prime virtue, so that in many Spanish-speaking countries, a solemn and binding promise is affirmed with the phrase "palabra de vasco" - I give you my word as a Basque. Professor Larry Trask, as one of the world's outstanding scholars of their famously unique language, was undoubtedly aware of the popular myth attributing the Basques' moral uprightness to the failure of Satan's proselytising mission among them many centuries ago: after ten years of trying to lead them from the path of righteousness, the Devil gave up because the only words of their language he could master were "bai eta ez" - yes and no.

Robert Lawrence Trask was one of the few outsiders to succeed spectacularly where the Devil himself had failed. He was an honorary member of the Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language, and author of several fundamental textbooks and monographs on this subject as well as on broader themes of language and linguistics. The death of the Sussex University professor, aged 59, has deeply shocked the world of Basque culture, already in mourning for the premature death of his young fellow-academician Andolin Eguzkitza.

Larry Trask was born on 10 November 1944 in Olean, in rural New York State, where the wildlife fascinated him. His family background was a blend of Celtic, German and Scandinavian and his path towards Euskera, the Basque language, was circuitous. His first degree was a BS in chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, followed by a Master's at Brandeis University. He signed up to serve a year with John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps as a chemistry teacher in Turkey, but had to flee his university post in Ankara when political turmoil exposed him to danger.

He paused in 1970 for a fortnight's holiday in England, but it was to stretch to 34 years. In London, he made his first acquaintance with Euskera, a language unrelated in its roots to any other on Earth. This prompted him to divert his scientific curiosity towards linguistics. He not only mastered the impenetrable language but developed a formidable mastery of historical morphology, grammar, orthography and other branches of his new discipline.

At the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Trask completed a doctorate on the Basque language and began an academic career which took him from the then Polytechnic of Central London to the University of Liverpool, where he lectured for nine years until his department fell victim to the rationalisation drive of the 1980s. In 1988, he found a new home at Sussex University in Brighton, where he became a jewel in the crown of its School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences.

His extensive bibliography includes Towards a History of the Basque Language (1995) and The History of Basque (1996), as well as more general works: A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics (1993), Language Change (1994), Language: The Basics (1995), A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology (1996) and other works on syntax, punctuation, historical and comparative linguistics.

Where Euskera was concerned, Trask's interests centred on its pre-history and evolution. Its character as an isolate, that is, a language not traceable to the same sources as those surrounding it, has down the years spawned some bizarre theories as to its origins: on his personal website, Trask left an amusing if exasperated plea for no-one to come near him with some preposterous new "discovery" linking Basque to "Minoan, Tibetan, Isthmus Zapotec or Martian". Instead, his diligent scholarship on subjects like etymology, classes of verbs, borrowings into Euskera from the Romance languages or the dubious neologisms created by Basque cultural nationalists brought a fresh breeze into the study of this unique tongue.

His writings were laced with good humour and readily accessible to the non-specialist. As his Sussex colleague Richard Coates remarked, "he wore his learning with real modesty", which endeared him to students and scholars in the Basque country itself as well as in his adopted homeland. His first wife, Esther Barrutia, was a native of Elorrio in the Basque country and when he attended a linguistics conference in Guernica, a famous bertsolari - an exponent of the Basque tradition of spontaneous oral versifying - declaimed an instant poem on the theme of love conquering language barriers.

Trask suffered a long illness which ultimately deprived him of the power of speech, though he maintained a lively correspondence with his peers by e-mail. His second wife, Jan, nursed him through his final illness. He died just as colleagues were preparing to present him with a festschrift, a collection of essays in honour of one of the very few outsiders recognised and celebrated by the Basques themselves as a master of their extraordinary language.

Michael Mullan - Obituaries...

Spanish translation by Juan Manuel Grijalvo (pending)...