LINGUIST List 17.3007

Fri Oct 13 2006

Disc: New: 'Butterfly': A New Approach

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <>

Directory         1.    Robin Allott, 'Butterfly': A New Approach

Message 1: 'Butterfly': A New Approach
Date: 12-Oct-2006
From: Robin Allott <>
Subject: 'Butterfly': A New Approach

The word 'butterfly' again (and corresponding words in other languages): anew approach.

Over many years there has been active but inconclusive discussion about theorigin of the word. Many different origins have been confidently offeredand vigorously resisted. There have been surprising, sometimes evenbizarre, explanations (Dutch: butterflies' excrement) (witches asbutterflies stealing butter) (Greek petaloudia: the shape of the butterflyresembles the Minoan labrys or possibly derived from ''pteroda'' byanaptyxis and lambdacism) (German schmetterling: dialect loan-word fromCzech ''smetana'', meaning ''cream'', referring to butterflies' proclivityto hover around butterchurns) (English: butterfly from a metathesis orSpoonerism of ''flutterby''). Can the methods of historicallinguistics be applied? Are the words sound symbolic,phonosemantic,phonesthemes?

A few points from LISTSERV messages:

William Beeman (who revived the discussion):''The curious fact that the word for ''butterfly'' was different for everyEuropean language. The explanation for this phenomenon defies analysisusing the traditional techniques of historical linguistics.

Larry Trask: Sound-symbolic words arise spontaneously and are not stable,are not subject to analysis by the processes of historical etymology.Efforts at linking some of the Basque words to words in other languages(and also to one another) are without foundation.

Jess Tauber: The manner of beating wings, the often tumbling flight path,coloration, or propensity to go to flowers would be the most likelysemantic areas to look in for root sources.

The list of words for ‘butterfly’ in 204 languages on the website an opportunity to test the application of the motor theory oflanguage to the origin of individual words.

The word for butterfly is a transfer of a gestural mimicking. The differentwords in the various languages are the result of a motor transfer from thegestural motor program to a structurally corresponding articulatory motorprogram, a manifestation of what neurologists have termed 'motorequivalence'. The words all derive from visual perceptionof the characteristic pattern of flight of the butterfly; the words are notarbitrary but reflect the structure of what is seen. The articulatory(motor) pattern of the word is directly related to the visual or motorpattern of an object or action; the gesture associated with each wordmirrors the meaning of the object or action word. In the case of wordslisted for ‘butterfly’, the associated bodily gesture generated by thesound-structure of each word is a flapping movement ofthe arms and hands which represents the flight of the butterfly (a parallelpattern is seen in sign languages forms).To see the gesture associated with the word in many languages: (butterfly and other visuallydistinctive animals) (motor theory principles) (motor theory NATO/ASI)

Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science                             Historical Linguistics                             Neurolinguistics                             Psycholinguistics                             Semantics