From Europe to India and beyond: bugs, birds, wings, flowers, gods
Butterflies can have an incredible range. It’s not just that they’re found on every continent except Antarctica (I presume the penguins simply ate them all, ha ha), it’s that some species of butterflies migrate for thousands of kilometres (or, when migrating across the US, thousands of miles). Monarch butterflies are famous for this, covering much of North America, but the British variety of the painted lady butterfly migrates even farther, from the edges of the desert in northern Africa to beautiful pastures in northern Europe and back, nearly 7,500 kilometres each way.
How does one butterfly fly so far? It doesn’t. No butterfly completes the whole migration. In fact, they can take up to six generations to make the whole round trip. Somehow the route is followed – again and again – by chains of generations of butterflies in a massive instinctive relay race of painted ladies of the sky. What a butterfly effect, for a movement to be carried across the globe by a chain of individuals that are connected in spite of their disconnection!
It takes the butterflies a year to make their round trip. Meanwhile, you could fly from, say, London, England, to Ahemedabad, Gujarat, India, a distance of 9,000 kilometres one way, in just over nine hours. On the other hand, the languages of the two places – English and Gujarati – are separated by about 5,000 years of language evolution (depending on whom you ask) from their common root in Proto-Indo-European.
On the other other hand, the Gujarati word for ‘butterfly’ is બટરફ્લાય (baṭaraphlāya).
Yes, baṭaraphlāya certainly does look awfully similar to butterfly. Of course, that doesn’t trace all the way back to Proto-Indo-European and then all the way back up to English. It’s a loanword. Like if a butterfly got on an airplane. And all the other Indo-European languages of India (at least the ones I could look up ‘butterfly’ in) have words that look nothing like the English word, and for that matter often nothing like each other either.
You probably know that Sanskrit is to India and Hinduism what Latin is to western Europe and certain branches of Christianity, and you probably know that Sanskrit and Latin are related – in fact, it was Europeans in India noticing similarities between Sanskrit and European languages that led to the realization that they all traced back to a common ancestor, what we now call Proto-Indo-European (or PIE when we’re getting tired of typing). But if all the words for ‘butterfly’ in PIE languages of India descended from Sanskrit, you would expect them all to resemble चित्रपतङ्ग (citrapataṅga) or पुष्पपतङ्ग (puṣpapataṅga) – which is pataṅga ‘flier, flying insect’ plus either citra ‘bright, conspicuous; speckled; strange, wonderful’ or puṣpa ‘flower’.
Needless to say, they do not.
It’s not that their words are all complete different from one another. The Hindi word for ‘butterfly’, तितली (titlī), and the Punjabi word, ਤਿਤਲੀ (titalī), are obviously versions of the same thing – whatever that thing may originally have been. I don’t have ready access to etymological dictionaries of either language, but I do note that the word in Nepali, another language of the family, is पुतली (putalī), which in Hindi means ‘puppet, doll’, which could conceivably have been altered with an endearing reduplication to the Hindi and Punjabi words.
On the other hand, if we look to the west, to another more distantly related (and distant) PIE language, Armenian, we see թիթեռ (t’it’err), which is made by reduplication from PIE *pter- ‘wing’, and that same origin is no less plausible for the Hindi/Punjabi word, either by direct descent or by loan. But it is worth pointing out that the Sanskrit word for ‘wing’ is पक्ष (pakṣa), which is descended not from *pter- but from *peg- ‘side, flank’. And also that the Sanskrit pakṣa does have descendants in modern India meaning ‘butterfly’: Assamese পখিলা (pokhila) and Marathi फुलपाखरू (phulapākharū – literally ‘flower bird’).
For that matter, the modern Greek word for ‘butterfly’ has nothing to do with *pter- either. Lepidoptera, the Greek-derived Latin word for the whole genus – which, as I mentioned last time, is from λεπίς (lepís, ‘scale, flake’) and πτερόν (pterón, ‘wing’ – there’s that pter-) – was invented from classical roots in the 1700s. If you’d tried to use it in ancient Athens, it would have flown right by them. In modern Greece, you can call a butterfly πεταλούδα (petalouda), which came from an ancient word for ‘locust’ or perhaps from one meaning ‘spread open’. Or you can call it ψυχή (psykhé, the word that came to English as psyche), which in both modern and classical Greek literally means ‘soul, spirit’ and, poetically, ‘butterfly’ too.
If there is a soul, is there a psychopomp – a leader of the soul? There is, if you’re in Persia (Iran): the Persian word for ‘butterfly’ is پروانه (parvâne), from a Middle Persian root meaning ‘guide’ or ‘leader’. But where does the guide lead your soul? Perhaps to the creator – Bengali for ‘butterfly’ is প্রজাপতি (prajāpati), which is a Sanskrit name for a creator god, and literally means ‘lord of creatures’ (I’d rather meet a Bengali butterfly than a lion – let alone a Bengal tiger). But perhaps it leads it instead to one of the Hindu goddesses: Sīta, the wife of Rama. In Telugu, the word for ‘butterfly’ is సీతాకోకచిలుక (sītākōkaciluka), from సీత (Sīta) plus కోక (kōka, ‘woman’s garment or cloth’) plus చిలుక (ciluka, ‘parrot’). So, if I’m reading that right, it’s the Sīta’s robe parrot.
But Telugu is not an Indo-European language. It’s a Dravidian language, like a number of other languages in India. They’re historically unrelated to Indo-European – aside from the inevitable effects of being neighbours (such as “borrowings” like the name Sīta). So, for instance, the Tamil word may mean ‘colourful insect’ – not so different from the meaning of Sanskrit citrapataṅga – but the word is வண்ணத்துப்பூச்சி (vaṇṇattuppūcci) (and any resemblance of Tamil letter shapes to butterfly flight paths is pure coincidence). And the Malayalam word also means about the same as citrapataṅga, but it’s ചിത്രശലഭം (citraśalabhaṁ) – from… Sanskrit citra plus शलभ (śalabha) ‘cricket, locust’. Heh. Sanskrit flaps its wings and unrelated nearby languages feel the breeze, even while related languages show no effect. As for Kannada, the word is ಚಿಟ್ಟೆ (ciṭṭe), and I don’t know its etymology, but it does look suspiciously a bit like citra, doesn’t it.
There are, by the bye, other Indo-European languages of the same sweep across the west of Asia that I have words from but haven’t mentioned. This is because I don’t know their etymology. But I think it’s worth telling you that the word in Sinhala is සමනලයා (samanalayā), and in Kurmanji Kurdish it’s pinpinîk – note once more the reduplication. And on the way from Greece to the east, we passed Georgia, where the language is not Indo-European – it’s Kartvelian, a completely unrelated family – but the word for ‘butterfly’ also has a curiously familiar look: it’s პეპელა (p’ep’ela), from a reduplication of the Proto-Kartvelian root *ṗer- ‘to fly’.
We also passed over Turkey, and I would not want to pass over Turkey, nor over the Turkic languages, which have a range of more than 6,500 kilometres – from Turkey all the way to Yakutia, in northeastern Siberia, although with gaps between clusters. The Turkish word for ‘butterfly’ is kelebek; it comes from Proto-Turkic *kepelek ‘butterfly’, with a flip of the middle consonants and a voicing of the “p” to “b”. The word has flown with little flaps and flutters into other Turkic languages too: in Azerbaijani, it’s kəpənək; east across the Caspian Sea in Turkmen, the word is kebelek; farther north and east, in Kazakh, the word is көбелек (köbelek); in Southern Altai, spoken in southern Siberia near Mongolia and China, the word is кӧбӧлӧк (köbölök); in Uyghur, the language of an ethnic group widely spread but mostly in Xinjiang, in northwestern China (as you may have heard), the word is كېپىنەك (këpinek).
That is, truly, a long trip on the silk route to find a word so little changed: it is a trip of 4,700 kilometres – and countless generations of speakers of the languages – from Istanbul to the largest city in Xinjiang, Ürümqi (the name of which means ‘beautiful pasture’, though it has desert at every edge of it – a whole painted lady butterfly migration course in itself).
But when we get to the farthest reach of Turkic languages, the Sakha language of Yakutia has many loanwords from other languages of the area. So naturally you might expect a completely different word for ‘butterfly’. And, though you have to fly 3,400 kilometres from Ürümqi to Yakutsk to find one, you at last do: the Sakha word for ‘butterfly’ is үрүмэччи (ürümečči). Which, by such references as I can find for Sakha, seems to mean… yes, ‘beautiful pasture’: we’ve returned to Ürümqi.