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The Elusive Butterfly

I am indebted to wood s lot for pointing me to this fascinating piece by Brown University anthropologist William Beeman about the significance of the curious fact that the word for “butterfly” is different in nearly every language, even closely related European ones. (The article has a broad lsting of how you say “butterfly” in numerous European and non-European tongues; see for yourself.)

“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 effort–the linguistic equivalent of the study of yawning by biomedical researchers.”

Beeman finds that the terms for butterfly usually

“involve a degree of repetitious sound symbolism” and “use visual and auditory cultural metaphors to express the concept; …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 the absence of a process of inheritance from a mother tongue or borrowing from a neighboring language, Beeman says that

“the linguistic realization for butterfly might be something welling up from the most basic cognitive creative processes.”

What is it about butterflies, however, that makes them worthy of such distinctive linguistic treatment? Beeman quotes sources which suggest that the butterfly is a uniquely powerful archetype of transformation, although he is not convinced, and concludes that the status of the butterfly in human linguistic cognition may well remain elusive and mysterious.

And here, also thanks to wood s lot, is a page with an extensive list of links to phonosemantics and linguistic iconism.

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Wow. In one of those synchronistic moments, soon after writing the above, someone (and I cannot for the moment reconstruct who it was) pointed me to these posters of letters and numbers found in the designs on the wings of butterflies, about which I have marvelled in the past (and occasionally given as presents). Even if it is a little forced — I would say something like, “Not only does the concept ‘butterfly’ enjoy distinctive human linguistic treatment but the butterfly apparently gives us a distinctive visual-linguistic treat” — such juxtapositions in FmH are so aesthetically pleasing to make…