‘butterfly’: a linguistic anomaly


How can we account for the world-wide variety in word ‘butterfly’? The most interesting essay on this linguistic mystery comes from William O. Beeman, of the Dept of Anthropolgy, Brown University, 2000: The Elusive Butterfly. He notes that since the 19th century, “one of the bedrock principles of linguistic analysis” has been that most words within the same linguistic family will derive from common linguistic ancestors, that is, they will be similar. ‘Butterfly’ is considered a fascinating linguistic curiosity, as it breaks this rule; for example, among all the European languages the word is completely different. Beeman’s article contains a very extensive list of the word in different languages, including, most extraordinarily, Sard of Sardinia that has 30 words for butterfly.

Beeman notes that the different words for ‘butterfly’ tend to have certain characteristics in common. In one group “they involve a degree of repetitious sound symbolism,” that is, the repetition of certain sounds –often b’s, p’s, l’s, and f’s– to suggest the way butterflies sound in flight, or as he puts it, “one can almost hear the gentle rustle of butterfly wings and see their repetitive motion. I’ve been calling this visual onomatopoeia and thinking of this both as referring to the insects symmetry and to its flitting motion, since I do not remember ever hearing a butterfly make a sound as it flies. In another group the words derive from metaphoric meanings.

Since, Beeman says, the range of words for butterfly cannot be analyzed using traditional linguistic techniques, he looked for “more basic tendencies in human language.” Referring to the ideas of several eminent linguists psychologists, and anthropologists, he proposes that “the linguistic realization for butterfly might be something welling up from the most basic creative processes. Something about the creature itself inspires special linguistic creativity. Beeman quotes linguist Haj Ross (North Texas University), who is responsible for the majority of the article’s list of butterfly words:

“The concept/image of butterfly is a uniquely powerful one in the group mind of the world’s cultures, with its somewhat unpromising start as a caterpillar followed by its dazzling finish of visual symmetry, coupled with the motivational unforgettability of the butterfly’s flipzagging path through our consciousness. 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.”

How satisfying to find Beeman’s interesting and convincing explanation for the significance of the linguistic variety world-wide of the word ‘butterfly.’ Even more satisfying is his and Ross’ support for my thesis that something about the way the butterfly touches our imagination may account for this variety.


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