Known as Euskera, it is one of the most mysterious of the world's languages - an "isolate" unrelated to the Indo-European languages which surround it. Its origins have puzzled scholars for generations, some thinking it related to the languages of the Caucasus, some that it derives from the non-Arab languages of North Africa and others believing it developed in isolation.
The obscurity of its origins is matched only by the difficulty of its grammar, syntax and pronunciation. Among other complications, it possesses a grammatical form known as the ergative case, which forces the addition of a "k" to the subject when it has a transitive verb; the form of auxiliary verbs can convey a lot of information about the subject in a sentence, and about the direct and any indirect objects.
There is a popular myth in the Basque country that, many centuries ago, Satan arrived on a proselytising mission but, after 10 years of trying to lead the Basques from the path of righteousness, he gave up because the only words of Euskera he could master were bai eta ez ("yes and no").
Trask was one of the few outsiders to succeed where the Devil had failed. He was an honorary member of the Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language, and the author of several textbooks and monographs on the subject as well as on broader themes of language and linguistics.
Trask's interests centred on the pre-history and evolution of Euskera, though on his personal website he recorded an 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 such as etymology, classes of verbs, borrowings into Euskera from the Romance languages or the neologisms created by Basque cultural nationalists, brought a fresh breeze into the study of the language.
Robert Lawrence Trask was born on November 10 1944 at Olean, New York state. His family background was a blend of Celtic, German and Scandinavian, and his path towards Euskera was a circuitous one.
His first degree was in Chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, followed by a Master's at Brandeis University. He signed up to serve a year with the Peace Corps as a chemistry teacher in Turkey, but had to flee his university post in Ankara when political turmoil exposed him to danger.
In 1970 he paused for a fortnight's holiday in England, a visit that was to last 34 years. In London he made his first acquaintance with Euskera and immediately became fascinated by the mystery of its origins. Diverting his scientific curiosity towards linguistics, he not only mastered the language but developed a formidable grasp of historical morphology, grammar, orthography and other branches of his new discipline.
After completing a doctorate on the language at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Trask began an academic career which took him from the Polytechnic of Central London to the University of Liverpool, where he lectured for nine years until his department fell victim to education cuts in the 1980s. In 1988 he went to Sussex University, where he became a leading figure in its School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences.
His impressive output of academic works included Towards a History of the Basque Language (1995) and The History of Basque (1996), as well as more general studies: A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics (1993); Language Change (1994); Language: The Basics (1995); and A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology (1996).
His writings were laced with good humour and readily accessible to the non-specialist; and the modesty with which he wore his learning endeared him to students and scholars both in Britain and in the Basque country, where he made many friends.
His first wife, Esther Barrutia, was a Basque from Elorrio, 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.
After they divorced, Trask married his second wife, Jan. In his final years, he suffered a long illness which deprived him of the power of speech - though he maintained a lively correspondence with his peers by e-mail.
He died just as colleagues were preparing to present him with a festschrift.
- Robert Lawrence Trask, linguist; born 10 November 1944; died 29 March 2004
[PUBLISHED IN THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, 16 April 2004. Photo from University of Sussex Bulletin]