butterfly, part 9

Oceania: wandering butterflies, wandering people

The world’s second largest migration of butterflies takes place every year in Taiwan.

Given what I’ve said about the long distances that some butterflies travel, you may wonder “between Taiwan and where?” But I don’t mean the second longest distance – this migration covers only about 400 kilometres. I just mean the second largest number (after the monarch butterflies): millions of purple crow butterflies fly from the north of Taiwan to the south, and it can stop traffic – partly because they’re so beautiful and there are so many of them, and partly because some of them can end up on windshields. I suppose occasionally, on the other hand, some of them might fly into a car or truck and get a free lift. Perhaps they will wander from their flight path. But not all those who wander are lost.

Words for ‘butterfly’ also wander, with the languages that carry them. And it happens that one of the world’s longest-distance wanderings of languages started in Taiwan millennia ago: the Austronesian languages.

You may think of Taiwan as a Chinese-speaking country, and that’s true, but it’s true in about the same way as Australia is an English-speaking country. Chinese speakers arrived later and generally crowded out the indigenous languages – of which there were many. But by that time, the spread of languages across the islands to the south, west, and east had been in progress for a long time. By 6,000 years ago, the Austronesian languages had started spreading south to the Philippines. From there they moved, with the people who spoke them, to New Guinea, Borneo, and all of what is now Indonesia. And they kept going: west all the way across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar; east into Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean. Now their spread goes halfway around the world – Madagascar is almost exactly on the opposite side of the globe from Hawai‘i.

They have subdivisions, of course. The deepest divisions are between the languages of Taiwan itself, which is one way that historical linguists know it all started there – the farther from origin languages of a family are, the less concentrated the diversity. Alas, the indigenous languages of Taiwan have few speakers and a long history of suppression, and consequently few resources, so I have been able to find a word for ‘butterfly’ in only one Taiwanese indigenous language: in Paiwan, it is kalidungudungul.

Does that have a familiar characteristic? Yes: you see the dungul twice. Reduplication, as we have seen, shows up in many other places with words for ‘butterfly’ – but in Austronesian languages, it shows up very frequently throughout the language. It is one of the signal characteristics of many Austronesian languages. 

Another characteristic that is not universal among them but very common is one the Paiwan word does not show: very limiting phonological rules. Austronesian languages typically have relatively few phonemes – Hawai‘ian famously uses only twelve letters (well, thirteen, counting the ‘okina, which is  ) – and in many languages their syllables can have only one consonant followed by one vowel (or in some cases a diphthong) or just a vowel by itself.

You’ll see what I mean when we fly across the waters from island to island seeing their words for ‘butterfly’. In Filipino (Tagalog) it’s paruparo. In Balinese, Indonesian (aka Bahasa Indonesia), and Malay – which are all very closely related – it’s kupu-kupu, and in Javanese (from Java, where Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, is) it’s kupu. In Malagasy – from Madagascar, much closer to Africa than to Indonesia, and yet – it’s lolo

It’s not that they all have these characteristics. When we look to Micronesian languages, we see Nauruan iyewaeoe and Palauan bangikoi. Meanwhile, Melanesian languages, which include the languages of Papua New Guinea, have the world’s greatest density of languages per square kilometre of land, but Melanesian languages are a geographic grouping, and the Papuan languages in particular include quite a few languages that don’t appear to be related to each other and aren’t part of the Austronesian language family. And I don’t have the resources to tell you what ‘butterfly’ is in any of the Papuan languages, even though some of them have more than a hundred thousand speakers.

But one well-known member of the Melanesian languages is definitely Austronesian, and is also culturally and geographically close to Polynesia: Fijian, in which ‘butterfly’ is bebe. And when we move into the Polynesian languages, which have the simplest syllables and the most reduplication, we see that in Samoan, Tuvaluan, Tahitian, and – I suspect – several others, ‘butterfly’ is pepe; in Māori, of New Zealand, it’s pēpepe, though Google gives me pūrerehua (and I have also gotten pūrehua as an alternative in Tahitian); and in Hawai‘ian, it’s pulelehua, though Google Translate gives me lelelele. (But I’ll trust my actual printed-and-bound dictionaries of Māori and Hawai‘ian over Google Translate.)

That is not much variety over quite a dispersed area, spread originally by boat across long distances with no land in sight for long stretches. And it took time – Samoa has had humans on it for perhaps 5,000 years; Tonga, 3,000 or so years; Tahiti, at least 2,500 years; Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and Hawai‘i, both about 1,000 years; New Zealand (Aotearoa), about 700 years. And over most of Polynesia, the first humans arrived with their Polynesian language.

And then, mostly in the last half millennium or less, other humans arrived with Indo-European languages. It’s like if a butterfly hopped into a car – or onto a boat, as the monarch butterfly did. We know that monarch butterflies are from the Americas, but there are lots of them in Australia, and have been since… the late 1800s. At first there weren’t so many, but then Europeans planted the kinds of plants that monarch butterflies like, and now there are lots, wandering (but not lost) all over the continent. Oh, by the way, monarch butterflies are called wanderer butterflies in Australia.

It’s not that Australia didn’t have butterflies before then. Of course it did! Australia, famous for its odd animals and big bugs, has the largest kind of butterfly in the world: the birdwings, which can have a wingspan of up to almost a foot (although the very biggest of them are actually found in New Guinea, not Australia). And the wanderers haven’t crowded out the indigenous butterflies in Australia. But the same can’t be said for people and languages. There were more than 250 Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia at the time Europeans first arrived. Now there are not much more than 100, and all but about 10 of them have very few remaining speakers. And I can’t tell you too much about them, alas, but I can tell you words for ‘butterfly’ in three of them, according to Glosbe.com: in Dhuwal, it’s buurnba; in Murrinh-Patha, it’s manman; in Warlpiri, it’s cinci-maɭu-maɭu.

And in most of Australia now, the word for ‘butterfly’ is… butterfly, of course, since English speakers are dominant throughout the country now. Indo-European languages have wandered and left their mark throughout the region. Consider the place names, so many of which are formed from our usual Latinized Greek linguistic Lego kit: Oceania, obviously related to oceanAustronesian, from roots meaning ‘south island’; Micronesia, ‘small islands’; Melanesia, ‘black islands’ (as in dark-skinned people); Polynesia, ‘many islands’; Australia, ‘south place’; and then there are names like New GuineaNew ZealandPhilippines (named after Philip II of Spain), Marshall IslandsGilbert Islands

Wait, though: the Gilbert Islands are now called Kiribati. That’s good, right? It’s a Polynesian word? Well… it’s really the name Gilbert as adapted by the local language: gi becomes kil becomes riber becomes bat becomes ti (actually pronounced “s” but that’s just the way t is said before i in that language, sort of like how ng in English is not the usual “n” sound plus “g”).

So, yes, as we have seen before, languages can take words that have wandered in and make them local. But the process can happen in a much more involved way, too. Local people and international traders develop business languages using reduced versions of the grammar and phonology of the local language along with modified words from the traders’ language, to create what is called a pidgin – in fact, the word pidgin comes from a modified version of the word business in one such. Pidgins are simplified languages, but once a pidgin becomes well developed and situated in a community, children start to grow up speaking it and it becomes a fully elaborated language, known as a creole. There are several of these throughout Oceania; the most widely known one is Tok Pisin (Tok Pisin is from the words talk and pidgin), a language of Papua New Guinea, with about a million people who speak it as their main language and a few million more who are conversant in it; as it spreads it’s increasingly dominating other languages of Papua New Guinea. 

And what is the Tok Pisin word for ‘butterfly’? It’s bataplai.

Next: panambi, pillpintu, and more.

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