Balto-Slavic and Finno-Ugric butterflies: moths, mothers, bulls, and birds
Once you go east of the Germanic and Romance languages (and farther east of the Celtic ones), the linguistic landscape changes: it’s dominated by Slavic languages, which have a strong family resemblance, sort of like butterflies and moths do.
Not everyone who speaks English thinks of moths and butterflies as such similar things – butterflies are crisp and metallic-pretty, and moths are fuzzy and mottled-dull and generally unpleasant, not to mention self-immolating on open flames. But the line is not so sharply drawn in some languages – and sometimes it’s drawn in other places than English draws it. Belarusian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Slovenian, and Ukrainian all have words that seem vaguely similar to moth (and more so to mottle) – матылёк (matyliok), motýl, motýľ, motyl, metulj, and метелик (metelik) – that mean both ‘butterfly’ and ‘moth’.
More southern Slavs, however, beg to differ. First of all, they do not fold butterflies and moths together. Bulgarian пеперуда (peperuda) and Macedonian пеперутка (peperutka) have a peppy reduplication that may perhaps come from a Proto-Slavic *pero- root meaning ‘feather’ – but may rather related to Latin papilio; meanwhile, their ‘moth’ word is молец, molets. Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats, on the other hand, though having moljac and мољца (moljtsa) for ‘moth’, hew to Greek for ‘butterfly’: лептир and leptir, from the same roots as gave us the genus name Lepidoptera: λεπίς (lepís, ‘scale’) and πτερόν (pterón, ‘wing’).
And Russians? The Russian language is very similar to Polish and moreso to Ukrainian, so you would expect a word like motyl and метелик. But the butterfly is not the only thing that is chaotically motile and rather fanciful, and Western Europeans do not have the patent on larks of exaltation. Yes, yes, there is a Russian word мотылёк (motylyok) for a small night moth, and моль (mol’) for the kind of moth that eats your sweaters and suits, but the word for ‘butterfly’ – and for the rest of the mothly crew – comes from the idea that the spirits of the dead live on as butterflies. Does it mean ‘ghost’? ‘ghoul’? ‘gremlin’? No. It means ‘granny’. The word is бабочка (babochka).
If that seems like babushka, it is. Russian has a word for ‘grandmother’ – бабка (babka) – and Russian has two diminutive suffixes, ушка (ushka) and очка (ochka). You can see them (modified as necessary) in other words, including ones that have made it into English: matryoshka, those famous Russian dolls, and devotchka, a term for a charming young woman. Of the two suffixes, the latter has the cuter implication. So whichever of gramma or granny seems cuter to you, бабочка is it. And that is a Russian butterfly.
If that sounds like bull, perhaps you are thinking of Latvian. True, unless you are of Latvian heritage or (like me) married to someone who is, you probably don’t think of Latvian much at all, but Latvian and Lithuanian are both Baltic languages, part of the Balto-Slavic family – more distant cousins of the Slavic languages. But on the other hand, if you like classical music and live in Canada, you may have heard the Latvian word for ‘butterfly’ without realizing it, because it’s the last name of a noted Latvian Canadian conductor: Ivars Taurins. The Latvian word, to be completely correct, is tauriņš. And if you were to think of one other word that that word looks like, what might it be? Taurus, perhaps? Guess why.
Yes, that’s right. It’s from the same root, which made it all the way to Proto-Balto-Slavic as *taurás, also meaning ‘bull’ or ‘aurochs’ or ‘bison’, and then the Latvians looked at this pretty little thing and apparently focused on its long curving antennae and called it a bull.
The Lithuanians, on the other hand, did not. No, they gave the little flitterer a fair shake. Specifically, their word, drugelis, is the diminutive of drugys, which also means ‘butterfly’ – or ‘moth’, or ‘malaria’ – and comes from a verb meaning ‘shake, shiver, quiver’, with relatives that show up in Slavic languages with meanings such as ‘tremble’ and ‘shudder’.
On the other side of Latvia from Lithuania is Estonia. Estonians do not speak a Balto-Slavic language. They do not speak an Indo-European language. Their language is no more closely related to Latvian than, say, Basque is – except for the inevitable cross-effects of being neighbours. Estonian, along with Finnish, Hungarian, and Sámi (the language of the people erstwhile known by others as Laplanders), is a Finno-Ugric language. Hungarian only very distantly resembles the others, and only to a learnèd eye, but Sámi has resemblances to Finnish, and Estonian and Finnish are quite obviously related (“Give me a beer” translates in Estonian as “Anna mulle õlut” and in Finnish as “Anna minulle olut,” for example). Which is why their words for ‘butterfly’ are…
…completely different, of course. The Estonian word is liblikas, whereas the Finnish word is perhonen (which in turn is a diminutive of perho, which meant the same thing but has been replaced by the cuter word). I am sorry to say I lack the etymological reference resources to tell you the source of either. But the Sámi word – well, the North Sámi word; there are several varieties of Sámi, as it stretches along the curve of the Scandinavian peninsula – I can tell you about: it’s beaiveloddi, and that means ‘day bird’.
Meanwhile, the Hungarians, in their somewhat warmer climate, blissfully discontinuous with the snow-sparkled peri-Arctic, use the word pillangó. Which means ‘twinkling’.