East and Southeast Asia: the lepidopteran effect
The thing about butterfly effects is that they’re chaotic – the butterfly effect is an idea from chaos theory, after all. What that means is that sometimes it carries through to where you’d think it wouldn’t, and sometimes it doesn’t carry through to where you’d think it would. And, because it doesn’t generally give pictures of where it came from, sometimes – most of the time, in reality – you’re not entirely sure. You can have similar things happening at great distance and have no reason to think they’re connected – right? And you can have very different things happening close together that are connected …maybe.
We can make our best guesses, of course, and rate things as more or less likely. So just because, for instance, butterflies are Lepidoptera and that has given us words such as Croatian leptir, it does not mean that some butterfly word halfway around the world that also has lep- is related. As linguistics like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology! Yes, of course similar-sounding words may be related, and similarity of sound can be a lead to follow, but you can’t conclude anything on the basis of sound resemblance alone – for instance, isle and island are unrelated, and the s in island got there by mistake. And on the other hand, as we have already seen, words can sound quite different and yet still be related.
So when we look at the Proto-Sino-Tibetan *lep root, which meant ‘butterfly’, we have no good reason to think it’s related to lepidoptera, nor, for that matter, to flap or any other similar-sounding word from the farther west world. There are various theories on exactly where it comes from. Could be a root meaning ‘thin, flat’; could be one meaning ‘flash; lightning; glitter’; could be ‘flapping’. If you’re interested in more details, Wiktionary is a place to start. But we do know that it descended into Burmese လိပ်ပြာ (/leɪʔpjà/, often rendered as lippra) and to Tibetan ཕྱེ་མ་ལེབ (phye ma leb), with some added bits.
And we know that it added a prefix in Old Chinese to be *ɡaː l’eːb, which became Middle Chinese *ɦuo dep, which became modern Cantonese wu dip, Hakka fu tiab, Wu hhu diq, words in other varieties of Chinese that look more or less like one or more of the preceding, and modern Mandarin húdié. And all of the modern Chinese versions are written the same: 蝴蝶.
Let’s take quick look at those characters, because who doesn’t like to take apart Chinese characters to understand how they work? After all, they literally give you pictures of where they came from. If you’re wondering what the meaning decomposes to, since it’s two characters, the answer is that both of them mean ‘butterfly’ – a redundancy similar to the word pussycat, say, but they’re always used together. And the first thing you can see is that both of them, 蝴 and 蝶, have the same bit on the left: 虫. It’s the semantic component of each, and the right side is the phonetic component (Chinese compound characters are normally composed of semantic and phonetic parts – so they indicate ‘thing with this kind of meaning and this kind of sound’). Want to guess what it means? The answer is ‘insect’ – or ‘worm, snake, or other creepy crawly thing’. The original character looked more like a slithering snake, but it’s changed much over the ages.
As to the phonetic components, the hú, on the left, has 胡, which when used by itself has a lot of meanings, including ‘barbarian’ and ‘recklessly’, and – you may have noticed – it is itself made from two bits: the one on the left, 古, which by itself means ‘old, ancient’, is made further from the character for ‘ten’ (十, but it might originally have been something else) on top of the character for ‘mouth’ (口), and the one on the right looks like the character for moon (月) but is actually a simplified form of the character 肉, which is from something like a side of beef (hmm… maybe a tauriņš? Nah). Even the evidence before your eyes can mislead!
Meanwhile, the dié, on the right, has 枼, which by itself means ‘table, slat, slip, leaf’ and is also made of two parts: 世, made from three of the character for ‘ten’, and meaning ‘thirty’ as in years and thus ‘generation’, and 木, meaning ‘wood’ and looking originally – and still – like a tree. Each year’s worth of leaves are a generation for a tree, you see. Not that that has any reference to the generations of butterflies it takes to complete a migration.
That second half of the Chinese butterfly, 蝶, is also the character used in Japanese for ‘butterfly’. That’s not surprising, since Japanese uses a lot of characters of Chinese origin – although it also uses a lot of characters you won’t see in Chinese. And the Japanese language is historically unrelated to Chinese; grammatically and phonetically it is strikingly different, and, though it has many Chinese influences, its core of vocabulary is also altogether different, even when it uses characters from Chinese to represent the words.
Thus, in Japanese you can see a Chinese character with a pronunciation (sometimes more than one available pronunciation for the same thing) entirely different from any Chinese pronunciation. The way 蝶 is pronounced in modern Japanese (and rendered in Roman), for example is chō. That traces, historically, to teu, which came from tewu, from tefu, from tepu, from… Middle Chinese dep. Yes, Mandarin dié and Japanese chō not only use the same character, they come from the same original pronunciation. Don’t ask me why Japanese took its word for ‘butterfly’ from Chinese – it took quite a few things from Chinese, but far from everything!
We can’t talk about Chinese and Japanese without talking about Korean, though it’s not related to either of them (unless so far back that it’s all arrant speculation). The Korean word for ‘butterfly’ is 나비 (nabi), which might – might – originally have meant ‘flutterer’.
We also can’t move away from East Asia without looking at the other language families spoken in the area. One of them is the Austroasiatic family, the best-known members of which are Khmer (Cambodian) and Vietnamese, though it has a large number of other members spoken as far south as Malaysia and as far west as India. The Khmer word for ‘butterfly’ is មេអំបៅ (mei ʼɑmbaw). In Vietnamese, the word for ‘butterfly’ is bướm – but sometimes they call it bướm bướm, and some related languages also reduplicate the word: Wiktionary lists as cognates Thổ pəmpɨam, Hoà Bình Muong pɨəm pɨəm, Sơn La Muong pɨəm, Thanh Hoá Muong bɨəm, and Muong Bi pươm pưởm. All of those seem to mean just ‘butterfly’ and not come from anything else – though of course other things may be named subsequently after butterflies, and if you’re curious about what kinds of other things, you can always look at, for instance, the Wiktionary entry.
But when we turn to the Kra-Dai family of languages, which include Lao, Thai, and a number of other languages, including some spoken in inland southern China, we find a more poetic approach. In both Lao ຜີເສື້ອ (phi seu) and Thai ผีเสื้อ (pǐi-sʉ̂ʉa), the name of the insect means literally ‘tutelary spirit’. Tutelary? That means ‘guardian’ – as in your guardian angel, or, in this case, perhaps an ancestor who is there to guide you. You may remember Persian parvâne, from a root meaning ‘guide’. Of course it’s not related – for one thing, in Lao and Thai the word order is ‘spirit guide’ and so you can forget about connecting the p’s. But why wouldn’t people in different parts of the world look at the same airborne miracles and get similar ideas about them?
Mind you, I’m sure that they had different ideas of who the guide might be. But, as I’m thinking about guides and butterfly coincidences, I must also mention the Mongolic languages, which include Buryat, Kalmyk, Santa (yes, really – but it’s also called Dongxiang), and of course Mongolian. Their words – as far as I can see – are all pretty similar: Buryat эрбээхэй, Kalmyk эрвәкә, Mongolian эрвээхэй (apologies for not including the Mongolian-alphabet versions, but I can’t render them in the proper vertical orientation here). In case you don’t read Cyrillic letters, they’re pronounced erbeehey, ervəkə, and erveehey (the ee is like “ehh” not “eee”). And they all trace to Proto-Mongolic *herbekei. Which, I assure you, has an only purely coincidental resemblance to Harbeck, though I am serving as your butterfly guide here.
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