Daily Archives: December 2, 2022

butterfly, part 7

Middle Eastern and African butterflies: keep on flapping

As we flew eastward into Asia, we bypassed Africa and much of the Middle East, so we’re going to double back now. I wanted to treat all the language families of Africa together, and one of the language families – Afro-Asiatic – is also dominant in the Middle East – particularly two of its members: Arabic and Hebrew.

You may not think of Arabic and Hebrew as African languages, but it’s not just that Arabic is spoken (in several varieties) across northern Africa; it’s that all of the other languages of the Afro-Asiatic family are found in Africa: Afar, Amharic, Berber, Hausa, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya, and more. The languages are not all closely related, but you’ve already seen how much diversity there can be in a language family (a.k.a. phylum, such as Indo-European). And, as you might expect, the words for ‘butterfly’ in the different Afro-Asiatic languages are diverse: Amharic ቢራቢሮ (bīrabīro); Berber aferṭeṭṭu; Hausa malan boɗe ido; Oromo billaacha; Somali balanbaalis; Tigrinya ጽንብላሊዕ (ṣəmbəlaliʿ); Afar laahinti (which means ‘cow’s eye’).

For that matter, Arabic itself is diverse; it has quite a few varieties, just as English has. But the standard Arabic word for ‘butterfly’ is فراشة (farāša). I don’t know its etymology, alas, but I do notice that the word in Hebrew – which is closely enough related to Arabic that you can often notice similarities between the two – is פַּרְפַּר or, without the vowel marks, פרפר (parpar), which has par where Arabic has far.

And what is that par? Well, after we’ve seen papilio, farfalla, pilipala, pilipilinpauxa, peperutka, perhonen, and parvâne, it seems just about par for the course – both its form and its reduplication. I am told by a regular reader of Sesquiotica, Israel (Izzy) Cohen, that in Hebrew you can use parpar as a verb – specifically, l’parper – to mean ‘be indecisive’, i.e., ‘flounder, flip-flop’. And he says that the butterfly is called parpar in Hebrew “because of its spasmodic flight-pattern.” So it is, I think, imitative – like some other words for ‘butterfly’ we have seen.

Imitative? Well, you see those flat wings flapping up and down, and you can picture in your head how they must sound when you can hear them (which you seldom can). And of course it’s not just one flap; it keeps on flapping – ergo the reduplication.

I keep mentioning reduplication (repetition of part or all of a word, either exactly the same or in modified form), and that’s because it keeps showing up. Worldwide, languages use reduplication in varying amounts for an assortment of reasons, as we sometimes do – not always so formally – in English. Some use it for pluralization (“Cheeseburger! cheeseburger! cheeseburger!”). Some use it for emphasis or clarification (“a drink drink”). Some use it for an endearing diminutive or to express fond familiarity (“Night-night, choo-choo”). Some use it to indicate repetition (“tap-tap-tap”; “pitter-patter”). 

This last kind is quite common in many African languages – specifically, it is used as a frequentative form, which means it means something keeps happening. For example, in Swahili, the reduplicating verb root -pepea means ‘wave back and forth’. And when you add the right noun class prefix and the right suffix to it, you get kipepeo, which means a thing that waves back and forth… specifically, a butterfly.

Which is fun because, though kipepeo seems like it would be related to parpar, Swahili doesn’t even belong to the same language family as Hebrew. But of course languages in the same area can influence each other: for example, the Arabic word for ‘book’ is كتاب (kitab, pronunciation varying between kinds of Arabic) and the Swahili word for ‘book’ is kitabu – note that same ki- noun class prefix as on kipepeo: the Arabic word was reanalyzed as root -tabu plus noun class prefix ki-.

What language family does Swahili belong to? There are ongoing terminological discussions, but the established name (and the one I learned when studying African languages in university) is Niger-Congo, because they all seem to trace from the area around the Niger and Congo rivers, at the angle of the African west coast. They have spread widely from there, throughout sub-Saharan Africa all the way to the east coast and the southern tip, and there are a lot of them. Not only do I not have the resources to look up ‘butterfly’ in all of them, I don’t even have the resources to name all of them (nor the space here either). But I do have more than a dozen I have at least been able to find in online resources – though I can’t always vouch for the reliability of the resources (mutters something about the uneven distribution of resources and attention between colonizers and colonized).

The first language I’ll name, Bambara, spoken in Mali, may not even be Niger-Congo; the Mandé languages of the northwest of Africa are quite different from the rest of the Niger-Congo languages. But I cannot not tell you that the Bambara word for ‘butterfly’, according to Google Translate, is nfirinfirinin, which seems to me like a whole tree full of butterflies all taking to wing at once. On the other hand, Glosbe.com gives me two words: dimago and npɛrɛnpɛrɛ. The first seems dull, but the second is glorious to behold. Fula, a not-too-closely related language spoken throughout west Africa, uses bedelallah, and I would love to know if there’s an Arabic influence, but I don’t. Wolof, related to Fula and spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauretania, uses lëp-lëp, and I have a guess that it might be formed in about the same way as the Yoruba word.

Yoruba is definitely a Niger-Congo language, spoken in Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, and it uses a feature common in languages of the family (and many others around the world): ideophones. The Yoruba word for ‘butterfly’ is labalaba, from an ideophone indicating ‘light and floppy’. What’s an ideophone? A sort of demonstrative, expressive interjection; we use them some in English – “Bam, the lights come on, and whoosh, it’s like someone sucked all the air out of the room.” They’re like onomatopoeia but don’t necessarily imitate actual sounds. Think of the kinds of standardized interjections you often accompany with hand gestures. 

For instance, in Ewe, spoken in Ghana, Togo, and Benin, lilililili on a high tone means “nice good sweet smell” and on a low tone means “very bad smell.” I don’t know whether ideophones affected the Ewe word Google Translate gives me for ‘butterfly’, akpakpaluʋui, or either of the words Glosbe.com gives me, bakboloowhen and dyekpakpa. But I can see kpakpa in two of those words, and I can tell you that kpakpaxe means ‘duck’. (By the way, the syllables are kpa-kpa; you say the “kp” with the back of the tongue and the lips at the same time. These coarticulated stops are a common feature in Niger-Congo languages.)

I see something resemblant (though without the coarticulations) in lipekapeka, a word for ‘butterfly’ from Lingala, which is spoken in the region of the Congo river and nearby countries, but I don’t know whether it’s related. In Igbo, which is spoken in Nigeria, I find the word is urukurubụba. On the other hand, Twi, spoken in Ghana, has a soft and floppy word: afafrantɔ (by the way, that ɔ represents the vowel sound English speakers make in “court”).

As we follow the sweep of Niger-Congo languages across Africa to the east coast and then southward, we find the word in Kikuyu (spoken in Kenya) is kĩĩhuruta and the word in Luganda (spoken in Uganda) is ekiwojjolo. But in others we come back to the common theme of republication: in Kinyarwanda (spoken in Rwanda), it’s ikinyugunyugu; in Chichewa (also called Nyanja, spoken in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia), it’s gulugufe; in Shona (spoken in Zimbabwe), it’s shavishavi; in Sesotho (spoken in Lesotho), it’s serurubele.

The Niger-Congo languages – and their speakers – made it all the way to South Africa, arriving within about the last five hundred years; the two most spoken languages in South Africa, Zulu and Xhosa, are both Niger-Congo languages… but with quite a lot of influence from languages that were already spoken in the area when they arrived. (The third most spoken is Afrikaans, a creolized language based on Dutch; its word for ‘butterfly’ is skoenlapper, which means ‘shoe-patcher’.) Zulu and Xhosa so famous for their “click” sounds that it may surprise you to know they’re not actually part of the famously click-using Khoisan family of languages, spoken by mainly desert-dwelling people of the region from time immemorial. And it should surprise you; it’s unusual for a language to pick up a striking and difficult sound from an unrelated language. But this is a thing that can happen when speakers of different languages get together and meld families and customs; indeed, research suggests that the clicks started appearing in Zulu and Xhosa specifically as a way of getting around taboos against saying names of certain relatives and animals (especially ones you’re afraid of).

Naturally, as I’ve said so much about clicks in these languages, you can only be expecting that their words for ‘butterfly’… have no clicks in them at all. Sorry. The Xhosa word is ibhabhathane; the Zulu word is uvemvane (though there is also ijubajubane – which is apparently related to ijuba, ‘pigeon’ – and itwabitwabi). Well, heck, butterflies don’t click, do they? And no one’s afraid of them. But the words do reduplicate!

But what about the Khoisan languages, which have a much higher density of click sounds? Alas, they have a much lower density of lexical resources available. Not Khoekhoe, not !Kung, certainly not any of the ones with very few speakers, and for that matter not Sandawe – spoken farther north, in Tanzania – not one of them is well enough covered in online resources that I can find its word for ‘butterfly’, though I’m sure they all have one, because butterflies live where they live.

But I have not quite covered all of the language families of Africa. There is one more, the Nilo-Saharan, a family of languages of the central-northeast part of Africa, including Dinka and Maasai; more than a dozen of the languages have over a million speakers. To say they are not all closely related is an understatement, however; in fact, many scholars view Nilo-Saharan not as an actual family but simply as a catch-all for languages not part of the other three families. 

But they’re still in Africa, and at least some of them also use reduplication. The Kanuri word for ‘butterfly’ it’s fátáfátámà (why all the accents, by the way? Kanuri, like many languages in Africa, including most Niger-Congo languages is a tone language – in fact, the majority of the world’s tone languages are in Africa, but their use of tone is somewhat different than the use of tone in East Asian languages). In Maasai, it’s ɔsámpúrimpúri. In Lugbara, it’s alapapa. And in Dinka? In Dinka, at least when referring to a small butterfly, I’m told it’s dap.

Next: lepidoptera of East Asia.