From: Robin Allott <rmallottpercepp.demon.co.uk>
Subject: 'Butterfly': A New Approach
The word 'butterfly' again (and corresponding words in other languages): a
Over many years there has been active but inconclusive discussion about the
origin of the word. Many different origins have been confidently offered
and vigorously resisted. There have been surprising, sometimes even
bizarre, explanations (Dutch: butterflies' excrement) (witches as
butterflies stealing butter) (Greek petaloudia: the shape of the butterfly
resembles the Minoan labrys or possibly derived from ''pteroda'' by
anaptyxis and lambdacism) (German schmetterling: dialect loan-word from
Czech ''smetana'', meaning ''cream'', referring to butterflies' proclivity
to hover around butterchurns) (English: butterfly from a metathesis or
Spoonerism of ''flutterby''). Can the methods of historical
linguistics be applied? Are the words sound symbolic,
A few points from LISTSERV messages:
William Beeman (who revived the discussion):
''The curious fact that the word for ''butterfly'' was different for every
European language. The explanation for this phenomenon defies analysis
using 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 likely
semantic areas to look in for root sources.
The list of words for ‘butterfly’ in 204 languages on the website
offers an opportunity to test the application of the motor theory of
language to the origin of individual words.
The word for butterfly is a transfer of a gestural mimicking. The different
words in the various languages are the result of a motor transfer from the
gestural motor program to a structurally corresponding articulatory motor
program, a manifestation of what neurologists have termed 'motor
equivalence'. The words all derive from visual perception
of the characteristic pattern of flight of the butterfly; the words are not
arbitrary but reflect the structure of what is seen. The articulatory
(motor) pattern of the word is directly related to the visual or motor
pattern of an object or action; the gesture associated with each word
mirrors the meaning of the object or action word. In the case of words
listed for ‘butterfly’, the associated bodily gesture generated by the
sound-structure of each word is a flapping movement of
the arms and hands which represents the flight of the butterfly (a parallel
pattern is seen in sign languages forms).
To see the gesture associated with the word in many languages:
http://www.percepp.demon.co.uk/animalsnew.htm (butterfly and other visually
http://www.percepp.demon.co.uk/basicmotor.htm (motor theory principles)
http://www.percepp.demon.co.uk/motorthy.htm (motor theory NATO/ASI)
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