LINGUIST List 11.1765

Wed Aug 16 2000

Sum: Idiosyncrasies of the Word "Butterfly"

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. William Beeman, Idiosyncrasies of the Word "Butterfly"

Message 1: Idiosyncrasies of the Word "Butterfly"

Date: Mon, 14 Aug 2000 11:44:14 -0400
From: William Beeman <>
Subject: Idiosyncrasies of the Word "Butterfly"

For Query: Linguist 11.1658

The Elusive Butterfly
William O. Beeman
Department of Anthropology
Brown University, Providence, RI 02912

One of the bedrock principles of linguistic analysis since the nineteenth 
century has been the principle of the regularity of cognate borrowing. It 
forms the basis of the "comparative method" not only in linguistics, but in 
all of social science. Within the same linguistic family it is expected 
that a large proportion of linguistic material will be recognizably related 
due to the derivation of that material from a common linguistic ancestor.

Historical linguists endeavor to show how the patterns of language exhibit 
regular change as they evolve from mother to daughter languages. The most 
ambitious theoreticians, such as Morris Swadesh, have claimed to be able to 
date the divergence of populations from each other "glottochronologically" 
by correlating presumed migratory movements with rates of linguistic change.

Others have used cognate similarities between languages to speculate on the 
earliest forms of human language. Stanford linguist, Joseph Greenberg, for 
example, notes that many languages have a form dik, dig, or tik that 
refers either to the number "one" or to the index finger, suggesting a 
bodily origin for words for numbers (the English term being "digit"). Paul 
Friedrich uses a compilation of common tree names in Indo-European 
languages to trace a purported geographical origin of the Indo-European 

However, there is a limited, but powerful countervailing tendency in 
language behaviorwords that absolutely resist borrowing even from their 
closest linguistic relatives. These words seem to be coined anew by each 
population group. Because we expect cognate borrowing as a norm, it is 
surprising when we encounter these fascinating examples. It makes us wonder 
about the cultural processes that govern the development of communication 
systems, and the functional differences between segments of vocabulary.


This little discussion started with an inquiry by a group of mathematician 
friends at Santa Clara University. They noted the curious fact that the 
word for "butterfly" was different for every European language, including 
those most closely relatedsuch as Spanish and Portuguese. I later found 
that the "butterfly problem" is one of those linguistic curiosities that 
has lurked at the edges of scholarship for some time without much in the 
way of a full research effortthe linguistic equivalent of the study of 
yawning by biomedical researchers. The first well-known linguist to note 
this phenomenon was Emmon Bach, but it has occupied the interest of a 
surprising number of people (1).

In modern mode, I went to and posted a query asking for 
the word for butterfly in different languages. I got fifty replies in two 
days, and they are still coming in. A large number of people have been 
collecting their own lists for years. Patricia Black, a Philosopher at Ohio 
University wrote:
I started out being intrigued by the variety of ways the European languages 
do the word "German" . . . But then the Spanish turned out to be almost 
the same as the French. Phooey. But I knew the English, French, Spanish, 
Italian, and German for butterfly. I met a Portuguese speaker and thought 
their word would be the same as the French or Spanish, but it was markedly 
different and I was off and running. Now no one is safe from me, once I 
learn he or she is from a country of which I do not have the word.

One of the nicest of the compendia I received was a short list from an 
unpublished paper compiled by linguist Haj Ross, formerly at MIT, and now 
teaching at North Texas University. Starting with Ross' list, I have added 
many additional terms contributed by email correspondents. This list has 
not been regularized. Some of these terms are phonetic transcriptions 
(Cantonese, Mandarin), others are transliterated, and still others reflect 
the orthography of their original language.

Afrikaans: sch�rlink, skoenlapper
Albanian flutur
Amharic: burabiro
Arabic: farasha
Arabic, Algerian bu frtutu
Baagandji: bilyululijga
 (New South Wales, Australia)
Bambura: dimago
Basque: 	txipilota, pinpilinpauxa
Bengali: prajapathi
Bulgarian peperuda
Buli (Gur language in N. Ghana): kpalo?
Byelorussian matylok
Cantonese: woo deep
Cape Verdean Criolu: gorgoleta
Cheyenne: hevavahkema
Czech: 	mot�l
Dagon: peplim (pee plim�)
Danish sommerfugl,
(N. Jutland) sommerflue,
(S. Jutland) skurvefugl
Djingli: marlimarlirni
 (Australian N.T.)
Danish: sommerfugl [ = summer + bird ]
Dutch: vlinder
Estonian liblikas
Finnish: perhonen
French: papillon
Fulani: lilldeh
Gaelic: dear badan-de, seillean-de
German: Schmetterling
Greek: petalou'da
Gujarati: popti
Hausa: bude-littafi
Hawaiian: pulelehua
Hebrew: parpar
Hindi: titli
Hungarian: lepke (fig.), pillango (insect)
Icelandic: fithrildi
Indonesian kupu kupu
Irish: feileacan
Italian: farfalla
Japanese: choochoo
Javanese kupu
Kitaita: kifurute
Konni (Gur language in N. Ghana): kpanjabi?
Korean: navi
Kwara'�e: b�be
 (a language of the Pacific)
Lan: fuf�
(another language on the
 same island as Kwara'�e)
Lao: maingkabula
Latin: papilio
Latvian: tauri��
Lithuanian: peteli�k�
Luo oguyo
Lingala (Congo) 	mpornboli
Majang (Nilo-Saharan): 	bimbilo
Malay: 	kupukupu/ramarama
Mandarin: huudye
Maori pulelehua
Masai osampurumpuri
Mayi-Kulan (Queensland, Austr.) 	pardirr
Mekeo: 	fefe, fefe-fefe
 (an Austronesian language of South East Papua)
Mekeo (West) pepeo
Motu (Papua): kau-bebe,
Nahuatl 	papalotl, huitzil
Navaho 	ho'o neno
Ngaju Dayak (Indonesia): kakupo
Norwegian: sommerfugl [ = summer + bird ]
Paiwan (native to Taiwan) kalidungudungul
Patois of St. Thomas zanimo
Persian: parvaneh
Polish: motyl
Portuguese: borboleta
Rumanian: fluturi
Russian: b�bochka
Senegalese lupe lupe
Serbo-Croatian: leptir
Setswana (Gabarone) serurubele
Shona: shavishavi
Sinhala samanalaya
Slovenian metulj
Sotho serurubele
Spanish: mariposa
Swahili: kipepeo
Swazi luvivane
Swedish: fj�ril
Tagalog: paruparo
Thai: pi sugnya
Tok Pisin (New Guinea) 	bataplai, bembe
Tiwi: kwarikwaringa
 (Melville & Bathurst Islands, Australia)
Trukese: nipwisipwis
Tshiluba (Zaire): bulubulu
Turkish: kelebek
Vietnamese: bayboum
Welsh: pili pala/bili bala, glowyn byw,
iar fach yr haf,
plyfyn bach yr haf
Wik-Ngathan kalpakalpay
 (W. Cape York Peninsula, Australia)
Xitchangani phapharati
(a Bantu language
 of Mozambique)
Yoruba: 	labalaba
Zulu: uvevane

One astonishing reply came from correspondent Gianfranco Unali, who gives 
all of the terms found in Sard, the Italian/Spanish/Catalan influenced 
variety spoken in Sardinia. In addition to farfalla, a clear borrowing, one 
finds: arr�ndza, �spu, bellagasu, bollank�u, kakare, kalare, karab�ttula, 
k�rru, k�su, kolare, farina, grattare, l�ppore, l�lliri, m�ma, mar�a, 
n�vas,marip�sa,papar�ddu, pappag�llu, pappare, pomp�ni, prebel�i, 
pummerib�lla, pudz�ne, ses�, spioni, tutare, and volare.

Ross contrasts these terms with the words for cat in some of the 
Indo-European languages in this group just to show the stark contrast
Danish: kat
Dutch: kat
French: chat
German: Katze
Greek: gata
Italian: gatto
Polish: kot
Portuguese: gato
Russian: ko�ska
Spanish: gato
Swedish: katt

The terms for butterfly have several things that generally unite them: they 
involve a degree of repetitious sound symbolism, (Hebrew parpar; Italian 
farfale) and they use visual and auditory cultural metaphors to express the 
concept. Inspecting the list of butterfly terms, it is easy to see how 
these principles play out in the construction of the terms. In each case, 
with the many cases of reiterated b's, p's, l's and f's (in widely 
separated language families) one can almost hear the gentle rustle of 
butterfly wings and see their repetitive motion.

In those cases where such sound symbolism is not present, more conventional 
metaphoric processes prevail. To give a sense of this, several examples 
follow. One internet correspondent, linguist Neal Norrick, gives a 
definitive explanation for the German term:
The German word for "Butterfly" is "Schmetterling." -ling is a diminutive 
suffix, but "Schmetter" comes from the Czech word for cream (smetana). Like 
the English butterfly, the connection with cream fits both with the 
behavior and color of the common yellow butterfly. So it seems German has 
in a sense borrowed a word for butterfly. German also has the word 
"Falter," literally 'folder', from the motion of the wings.

Bert Beynan offers this explanation for the Russian term:
The Russian word for 'butterfly' is babochka, a diminutive of baba, (old) 
woman. The explanation I have heard is that butterflies were thought to be 
witches in disguise in Russian folklore. It is or was therefore an 
emotionally highly charged word, which may be the reason for its resistance 
against borrowing.

Lameen Souag provides the following for the Algerian Arabic bu frtutu
buu means possessor of a certain attribute (lit. father) and f'rTuuTuu is 
onomatopoeia for 'flutter'.
Aesthetic Impulses

The explanation for this phenomenon defies analysis using the traditional 
techniques of historical linguistics. Looking for more basic principles of 
cognitive tendencies in human language seems more productive.

The eminent linguist Edward Sapir wrote a prominent paper entitled "A Study 
in Phonetic Symbolism," in which he suggests that there may be something 
inherent in human cognition associating particular sounds with particular 
concepts. His experiments were somewhat imprecise and nearly anecdotal, but 
no one reading the paper can fail to come away without a feeling that he 
"had something" in his formulation. In particular Sapir notes that "high" 
vowels, /i/, /e/ connote small things, and low vowels: /a/, /o/ connote 
larger things. Sapir also notes that onomatopoeic terms in all languages 
are iconic in nature, resembling the sound they represent.

The use of metaphor is also a universal process in language, both in the 
coinage of words as in the construction of discourse. George Lakoff, 
linguist and Mark Johnson, psychologist, of Berkeley have identified 
metaphoric construction as the basis for most semantic processes. Linguist 
Roman Jakobson, and anthropologists Paul Friedrich and James Fernandez 
point out that aesthetically conceived tropic structures are fundamental 
building blocks for all cultural materials.

All of these researchers lend excellent support to the idea that the 
linguistic realization for butterfly might be something welling up from the 
most basic cognitive creative processes, rather than from a process of 
inheritance from a mother language or borrowing from a neighbor language (2).

But why should this process be so universal? And why should butterflies be 
singled out as unique aesthetic creations of language whereas terms for 
cats and dogs get borrowed wholesale? Emmon Bach suggests that it has 
something to do with the creature itself. Whereas cats and dogs are 
commonplace, however much we may love them, butterflies are uniquely 
inspirational poetic creatures that by their nature demand special 
linguistic treatment.

Haj Ross puts this argument beautifully: "the concept/image of butterfly is 
a uniquely powerful one in the group minds of the world's cultures, with 
its somewhat unpromising start as a caterpillar followed by its dazzling 
finish of visual symmetry, coupled with the motional unforgettability of 
the butterfly's flipzagging path through our consciousnesses. Butterflies 
are such perfect symbols of transformation that almost no culture is 
content to accept another's poetry for this mythic creature. Each language 
finds its own verbal beauty to celebrate the stunning salience of the 
butterfly's being."

However, one then wonders about the other great poetic images found in so 
many cultures: flowers, clouds, trees, mountains, birds, and so many other 
objects of beauty and wonder. Although the terms for individual species of 
animals or plants, and for specific geographic features may be language 
specific, the generic terms for the categories are widely borrowed between 
language. It may be that the butterfly and its unique status in human 
linguistic cognition will remain as elusive and mysterious as the creature 

(1) One researcher early in this century was William Oehl (1922). 
"Elementare Wortschopfung: papilio, fifaltra, farfalla", in Miscellanea 
linguistica dedicata a Hugo Schuchardt, Gen�ve, Biblioteca dell'Archivum 
Romanicum, 1922, pp. 75-115.

(2) However, Isaac Mozeson, author of The Word, a treatise on common word 
origins, contributed this commentary based on his own theories of universal 
word derivation:
I had in my "PYRALIDID" entry (appendix A) the PR Greek, the PPL Latin, the 
Malay PPL and the Nahuatl PPL terms for butterfly. All should be 
influenced by Hebrew PaR PaR (butterfly) and the PR root of PiRPooR (to 
twitch). I am grateful for the Tagalog paruparo, and would like to credit 
the contributor. As for the Paiwan/Taiwan term, two phonemes are at work. 
One, kali, could be like Hebrew KAL (light, swift), and the other is a 
duplicated dungudungul, which appears to be a nasalized DIGDAIG (Hebrew for 
the tickle-like wavering motion of DAG (fish) and DeGel (flag). Needless to 
say, TICKle itself is a form of this Daled-Gimel root from 
Edensprach. Lastly, the Autronesian KUPO root could be a form of Ayin-Peh, 
KHuPh (to fly -- see "AVIATE" in THE WORD, p. 26).

William O. Beeman
Department of Anthropology
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
Tel: (401) 863-3251; Fax: (401) 863-7588
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