In the article The Elusive Butterfly. Iconicity in Language (2001), William O. Beeman draws attention to the fact that most languages do not share a root for their word for butterfly. In other words, there is a serious resistance against borrowing for this word among languages. He then points out that

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 languages where this reiteration does not occur (as is the case for German Schmetterling and English butterfly), the name is coined after culture-specific assumptions and myths. According to the author, this is one of those linguistic puzzles that have "lurked at the edges of scholarship".

Has any serious linguistic study been done on the topic ever since? If phonesthesia is really behind the phenomenon, why does it seem to occur only with that species – and not, let's say, with cats, flowers, birds etc?

  • That "farfale" in Italian, it's an old form, isn't it? – Alenanno Jan 15 '12 at 0:10
  • @Alenanno, I don't know Italian, but it may well be an old form. Steven Pinker, in "The Stuff of Thought" uses the modern form farfalla to illustrate the same problem. – Otavio Macedo Jan 15 '12 at 0:21
  • That's the modern form, so I suppose the other one is an old one... :D – Alenanno Jan 15 '12 at 0:22
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    It would be interesting if the paper itself delved into the etymologies of all the different words for 'butterfly' - it seems difficult to say that all of the cases of supposed sound symbolism are solely sound symbolism. The author perceives them as such but can't know the word-formation processes behind each word in each language. It's not particularly unusual that so many languages have their own word for butterfly - they are found virtually everywhere in the world. While cats and dogs are also widespread, many languages may have had species-specific rather than general terms for them. – Floating Tone Jan 15 '12 at 2:51
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    W.r.t. the Italian example, it's also possible that the author didn't do his research. I see that a lot when Italian examples come up. ;) – Fryie Jul 16 '13 at 20:53

Beeman writes "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.", and presents a list where he assumes this process did not take place: "These words seem to be coined anew by each population group." (1) The list presented in the article shows some interesting patterns, but let's take a look the words from the Indo-European languages:

Albanian: flutur
Bulgarian: peperuda
Icelandic: fithrildi
Swedish: fjäril
Dutch: vlinder (?)
Greek petalou'da
Irish: feileacan
Latin: papilio
French papillon
Italian: farfalla
Rumanian: fluturi
Portuguese: borboleta
Persian: parvaneh

It seems these could all be plausibly demonstrated to have a common origin. Compare this entry of Latin "pāpiliō" (2):

Indo-European cognates: OPr. penpalo 'quail', OPr. pepelis , [pl.] pippalins 'bird', Lith. píepala , Latv. paîpala , Ru. pérepel , Cz. přepel , křepel 'quail', OIc. fífrildi , OE fīfealde , OHG fīfaltra , MHG fīfalter 'butterfly' < PGm.*fīfalðrōn-.
Pā -piliō can reflect reduplication of a root *pl- 'to fly, flutter', which has also served to build the word for 'quail' in BSl. and 'butterfly' in Gm. It seems unlikely that this root *pl- is a very early variant of PIE roots such as *pleu- 'to swim, wander', *pleh3- 'to swim, float', *pelh1- 'to swing'.

Some forms that are conspicuously not cognates are butterfly, sommerfugl, Schmetterling, mariposa, but most of these languages used to have related forms (Old English, Old Norse, Middle High German, ...).

A statement like "The explanation for this phenomenon defies analysis using the traditional techniques of historical linguistics" seem untenable in light of the IE languages. Why would sound symbolism be incompatible with regular sound change? My guess is "repetitious sound symbolism" may well have been going on, but the more recent innovations would seem to indicate that this is not so productive anymore (given forms like sommerfugl, Schmetterling, butterfly), at least in European languages. It's certainly not supportive of the idea that "the linguistic realization for butterfly might be something welling up from the most basic cognitive creative processes". (I mean, sound symbolism is a valid field, but I don't see how 'butterfly' constitutes a special case, or that it's not amenable to historical-linguistic investigation).

P.S. But, adding to the list he presents, I have some more forms for 'butterfly' containing a labial and a liquid: Quechua (most variants, including Cuzco, Ayacucho, Wanka, Bolivian, Imbabura, Ecuadorian): pillpintu or pilpintu. Also: chabul, kapila (Imbabura Quechua, Quichua); pillpash (Ancash Quechua).
Aymara: taparaku.

(1) The author's use of the term 'borrowing' here is confusing, since in linguistics this is used to refer to horizontal, rather than vertical transmission.

(2) Michiel de Vaan. "pāpiliō" in: Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages. Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries Online. Edited by Alexander Lubotsky. Brill, 2012.

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  • Oh, I didn't directly address your question about research on sound symbolism (because I don't know...), but it's relevant that many cases may be explainable by postulating one original case of sound symbolism, rather than taking it as the explanation for each individual (daughter) language. – arjan Jan 16 '12 at 18:11
  • I'm not convinced: if these were cognate via regular sound shifts, the Romance languages' words in the list should be especially similar to the Latin. – Mechanical snail May 22 '12 at 1:10
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    In particular, the Portuguese is implausible: there's no regular process that inserted /r/ like that; at least one of the /b/s should have turned into a /v/; and /ili/ usually becomes /iʎ/ rather than /l/. Further, compare with pavilhão 'pavilion' which does exhibit the expected sound changes, and according to Wiktionary is cognate to papilio. – Mechanical snail May 22 '12 at 1:14
  • Georgian: pepela 'butterfly'. But, Russian "бабочка" is usually etymologized to "baba" 'old woman'. – Netch Nov 10 '12 at 20:34
  • Given the Latin word, the French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese do not add anything. – Anixx May 11 '15 at 10:14

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