North American butterflies: can you name them?
When was the last time you saw a butterfly?
Can you name what kind it was?
I don’t see butterflies too often, and when I do see one it is for a fleeting moment, and I could not possibly tell you what kind of butterfly it is. I am an etymologist, not an entomologist. And I almost never have my camera at the ready, so I have very few photographs of butterflies – which is why I haven’t included any photos of them yet.
But I do have four that I took nearly 20 years ago. I was using quite a large and clunky camera (a Bronica SQ-A, for the curious), and yet I managed to get reasonably close. Here:
As I said, I don’t know what kinds of butterflies those are (maybe you do!). They may not even all be members of the same family, taxonomically – they could be Hesperiidae, Papilionidae, Pieridae, Lycaenidae, Riodinidae, or Nymphalidae (which in turn has 13 subfamilies). Not that most of us could tell which family they belong to by looking. For example, the monarch butterfly belongs to the Nymphalidae, whereas the common Jezebel butterfly, which to the casual observer could be a different-coloured cousin of the monarch, actually belongs to the Pieridae.
Not that butterflies care about taxonomy. Neither do most of us humans – nor do most of us know or care that the monarch is Danaus plexippus and the common Jezebel is Delias eucharis, names that have been given to them for the sake of tidiness on the basis of what was convenient and somehow appealing to the European men who came up with them (Danaus plexippus is named after Danaus and Plexippos, mythical twin brothers, sons of a king of Egypt; Delias eucharis is from an ancient Greek male name plus Greek for ‘charming’).
And how did I manage to get those photos? I was in the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory. It’s not a butterfly board – the butterflies are live – but it’s still butterflies kept under glass… a glass roof.
“Under glass” is also like how we typically encounter words from the languages of North America. I don’t mean English, Spanish, and French – though those are far and away the most widely spoken languages in North America, they’re like many of the butterflies in the conservatory: brought from elsewhere to a place they didn’t evolve in. No, I mean the languages that were here long before Europeans. They’re the languages from which (sometimes much changed) the names of half the states in the United States of America got their names, and four of ten provinces and two of three territories in Canada – and the country of Canada, and the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, and Panama (yes, I’m including Central America in North America – it’s a distinct cultural sphere but not a different continent).
And that shows us yet another kind of butterfly effect: the curse of the charming and decorative. Here in North America, we don’t often notice words from indigenous languages of the places we live in, and when we do, we don’t get to know any more about their origins and actual use in their source language than we get to know about the butterflies used in decor or jewelry. Occasionally indigenous words are used in commercial branding for the flavour their associations give them, especially if they happen to look the right kind of exotic – for instance, with lots of Ks and Xs and perhaps Zs. But for most of us, actual conversation in an indigenous North American language is entirely opaque and unidentifiable – if and when we ever hear it.
But people do still speak these languages, and sometimes – just sometimes – it’s possible to find some resources on them. Such as lexicons that include translations for ‘butterfly’.
I should note, as I head into the words, that the Americas aren’t sharply divided; some language families extend across the official divide between North and South. The Chibchan languages are spoken from Colombia to Honduras, and they include Kuna, in which words for ‘butterfly’ include achamommor, mommor, and sussua, and Bribri, in which words for ‘butterfly’ include kua’kua, kuàkua, and kua’. The Arawakan languages are spread throughout South America and into the Caribbean, but they also include Garifuna, spoken on the Caribbean coasts of Central America; its word for butterfly – or at least one of its words for butterfly – is wurigabagaba.
Central America also has its own language families, an especially well known one of which is Maya. The word for ‘butterfly’ in the variety of Maya spoken in the Yucatan part of Mexico is péepem – the plural of which is péepemo’ob, which to my English eyes conjures up a mob of butterflies, but that’s something I’m bringing to it, not something it’s bringing to me.
And then there are the Aztecs, the people whose great capital, Tenochtitlan, situated in the middle of a lake a mile above sea level, became Mexico City, which is a very different place now. Their language is still spoken – it’s called Nahuatl. It’s the language that gave us words such as avocado (from ahuacatl), cacao (from cacahuatl), chili (from chilli), chocolate (possibly from xocolatl), coyote (from coyotl), guacamole (from ahuacamolli), mesquite (from mizquitl), ocelot (from ocelotl), shack (possibly from xahcalli), tequila (from tequitl), and tomato (from tomatl). (That tl, by the way, is a voiceless lateral affricate – which means it’s like if you tried to say the cl in clue with a “t” instead of a “k” – and the ll is just an l held longer.)
Given those words, you might reasonably expect the word for ‘butterfly’ also to end in tl. And this time, you won’t be disappointed: it’s papalotl (three syllables, stress on the second syllable), plural papalomeh (and again, there is nothing meh about butterflies – what I see in it has nothing to do with what it comes from).
Nahuatl belongs to a family of languages that extends north: the Uto-Aztecan languages. Other members include Tohono O’odham, in which ‘butterfly’ is hohokimal; Paiute, in which it’s tsoapu; and Hopi, in which it’s masivie. But if we’re talking about families of languages that extend a long way or leap over long gaps, the Uto-Aztecan languages – though they cover as much ground as the western monarch butterfly migration – are not the farthest travellers of North America. The Algic languages, for one, stretch farther, covering more ground than the eastern monarch migration: they include Arapaho and Cheyenne, spoken in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas, but – leaping across the Great Plains – they also include languages spoken in the Midwestern and Eastern US as well as across Canada from the Rocky Mountains to the east coast.
And of course the Algic languages all have words for ‘butterfly’, since there are butterflies where their speakers live. In Arapaho: nihˀoːteibeihiː. In Cheyenne: hevávȧhkema. In Siksika (also called Blackfoot), spoken in western Canada: apánii. In Cree, spoken across a wide sweep of Canada: ᐧᑳᐦᐧᑳᐱᔒᔥ (rendered in the Latin alphabet as kwâhkwâpišîš) – and, I’m sure, some other words, since there are several varieties of Cree. In Ojibwe, an Anishnaabe language also spoken across a swath of Canada, closer to the Great Lakes: memengwaa. In Mi’kmaq, spoken in the Maritime provinces of Canada: mimikes.
And what about the other Algic languages, including those of the Midwestern and Eastern US, languages from which several states from Illinois to Massachusetts got their names? It’s much harder to find out what their words for ‘butterfly’ are because the languages are mostly not spoken anymore – they’re just randomly fossilized in such things as place names, and you know that a fossil, be it of a butterfly or a language, does not shimmer with colour.
There are other language families in the same parts of the continent, too. The Iroquoian languages are spoken in the area of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River, including Mohawk – in which the word for ‘butterfly’ is tsiktsinēnsawen – and Seneca (in their own language, Onödowáʼga) – in which the word for ‘butterfly’ is utsiʼtanôwêʼ. But they also include Cherokee, which is spoken (when it’s still spoken) in Southern states such as North Carolina, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Cherokee is unique among indigenous American languages in having a distinct phonetic writing system developed by a member, not an outsider (the Cree syllabics, as in ᐧᑳᐦᐧᑳᐱᔒᔥ, were developed by a missionary). Cherokee has a syllabic writing system created by Sequoyah in the early 1800s. And the Cherokee word for ‘butterfly’ – like many others in the world, as we have been able to observe – can appear reminiscent of a butterfly’s flight path: ᎧᎹᎹ. It’s rendered in the Latin alphabet as ka.ma.ma.
There are also the Muskogean languages of the “Deep South” states. They include Choctaw, in which the word for ‘butterfly’ is hatapushik, and Muksogee (also called Creek), in which the word is tvffolupv (the v stands for a vowel like the a in about – so you could read the word as “tuffolupa”). They also include Chickasaw and Seminole, but I don’t know what their words for butterfly are – or, largely, were, since very few people still speak either language, and soon they, too, are likely to be found only fossilized or preserved under glass.
For all their transcontinental spread, the Algic languages do not have the greatest stretch or the greatest gap in North America. That distinction goes to the Athabaskan languages. In the southwest of the USA, there are two prominent groups that speak Athabaskan languages: the Navajo (their own name for themselves is Diné) and the Apache (by their name, Inde). Along the Pacific coast of Oregon and northern California, there are some other Athabaskan languages spoken in small areas. All the other groups that speak Athabaskan languages (such as the Slavey, or, by their own name, Dené) live near or above the Arctic Circle, in northern Canada and Alaska, with one slight outlier, the Tsuu T’ina (formerly called Sarcee in English), who are just west of Calgary.
How is it that these widely distributed languages are all Athabaskan? Well, about six centuries ago, a group of people headed from what is now northern Canada to what is now the southwestern US. And then they stayed there. Other groups also started in the north at different times but didn’t go as far.
Oh, wait, do you mean how do they come to be called Athabaskan languages? Just the same way nearly all other language families got their usual names: a linguist with European roots chose a word he found convenient. In this case, they’re named after Lake Athabasca, which is a large lake near the north end of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, the name of which comes from a Cree word (you’ll remember that Cree is an Algic language, not an Athabaskan one), and that name was applied to the languages and people by Albert Gallatin, a Swiss American who was US Secretary of the Treasury for a long time, but in later life took up the study of ethnology. So: a man born in Switzerland and living on the east coast of North America took a name for a lake given by speakers of one language and used it to name a group of entirely different languages spoken in several places on the far side of North America from him. That’s gotta be some kind of butterfly effect.
And what are Athabaskan words for ‘butterfly’? In Diné (Navajo), it’s kʼaalógii. In Inde (Apache), it’s doolé or dólé. In Dënesųłıné (Chipewyan – the language spoken in the Lake Athabasca region), it’s yágole or gálımák. In Dené (Slavey), it’s goménıa. In Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì (Dogrib), it’s gòmǫą, k’àmǫą, or k’òmǫą (by the way, the hooks under vowels indicate nasalization).
And in Gwich’in, spoken in Alaska – well, I ran into a bit of luck, resource-wise: a junior dictionary published by the Alaskan government, which gives me the words neenahotʼii and neenohtʼįį, and, for the Gwich’in spoken in the Canada, a dictionary that tells me not only that the Teel’ıit Gwıch’ın word is nanuht’ee and the Gwıchyah Gwıch’ın word is nanùht’yèe’, but also that both literally mean ‘it flies’.
That might seem to get us just to about the end of our journey, but we’re not quite done yet. For one thing, there are still languages that we’ve leapt over while following the Athabaskan languages northward.
There are the Salishan languages of the interior and coast of British Columbia and Washington State, and I can tell you that in Cowlitz Coast Salish from Washington, ‘butterfly’ is x̣alə́wʼx̣aləwʼ, and in the Nanaimo variety of Salish from Vancouver Island, it’s ťlamux̌un or ťluľamux̌un, but I don’t know the etymology of either.
And there are the Siouan languages, the languages of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda. (Why Siouan? Well, it’s from Sioux, a name given to the Dakota people and language by French traders and missionaries, shortened from Nadouessioux, which apparently comes from an unflattering Ojibwe word.) They stretch across the Great Plains of the US and into Canada. Their northwesternmost branch is the Nakoda, for a long time called the Stoney Indians. And that’s a personal connection for me, since I spent much of my childhood on their reserve west of Calgary, where my parents worked for them.
So you might expect that I would know Nakoda. Alas, although I was surrounded by it for much of my childhood, I was also surrounded – and much more accessibly and insistently – by English, the language of my own ethnic background. So, although my parents learned Nakoda fluently, I learned only a few words, mainly salutations, warnings, and some other interjections. It was like the butterflies I might see – and the birds I might hear, the flowers I might smell, and so on: I heard it and recognized it as the language it was, but I didn’t know anything more about what I was hearing. Place names, family names, and so on, were familiar to me, but only in the same way as butterfly designs on wallpaper might be.
But at least I know people who speak Nakoda, right? Certainly – not just my parents but members of the community who have spoken it since birth. So I had no real trouble finding out that, while the Dakota word for ‘butterfly’ is kimimi and the Lakota word is kimímela, the Nakoda word is unrelated: it’s sâwîwîn (the circumflexes indicate nasalization). But no one I could ask had any idea where that word came from. It doesn’t mean anything else. It flapped in at some point, and it’s just there.
That almost finishes our circuit of the world by butterflies. There are many gaps I haven’t mentioned, but we’ve started in Europe and covered all the continents except Antarctica (which has neither butterflies nor indigenous languages), and now all that’s left is the Arctic Ocean and its shores. So we’ve run out of butterflies, right?
Nah. There aren’t a lot of butterflies in the Arctic, but there are at least a dozen. And though the languages of the Arctic can reasonably be expected to talk more about bears than butterflies (even the name Arctic comes from Greek for ‘bear’ – a coincidence; it’s referring to the constellation Ursa Major), they do indeed have words for ‘butterfly’.
In the far west, at the western edge of Alaska and spreading into Siberia, are the Yupik languages, and I find that Central Yupik for ‘butterfly’ is caqelngataq. In Iñupiaq, also spoken in Alaska, it’s taqalukisaq. In Inuktitut, spoken across the north of Canada, it’s ᑕᕐᕋᓕᑭᑖᖅ (tarralikitaaq – notice that Inuktitut uses a version of the syllabics originally developed for Cree, and in fact you’re more likely to have seen them used with Inuktitut). Are the Iñupiaq and Inuktitut words related? I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet on it, and I’m sure there are people out there who could settle that bet. And what is their etymology? I notice, casually, some possible connection to words for ‘looking’ (such as words for mirrors and movies) or perhaps words for colour, but I have no real information.
But there’s one more language to connect us back around to Europe. Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) is – aside from being a very large island mostly covered with ice – an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and consequently, though it’s still geologically North America, it’s part of the European Union. And although there are Danish speakers there and it has a long history of connection to Europe, the most common language is Kalaallisut, which is related to Inuktitut; its speakers are Inuit. And in Kalaallisut, the word for ‘butterfly’ – of which there are five kinds in Greenland – is pakkaluaq.
The most common kind of butterfly in Greenland, by the way, is the Arctic fritillary (fritillary means ‘checkered’ and comes from a Latin word for ‘dice-box’), which in Danish is the arktisk perlemorfugl (literally ‘Arctic mother-of-pearl bird’). I don’t have a picture of one, but you can Google it easily enough. It’s a member of the Nymphalidae; its taxonomic name, given as usual by European men more than a century ago, is Boloria chariclea (Boloria is from Greek for ‘fishing net’; chariclea is from a Greek personal name meaning ‘grace’ and ‘fame’). In Kalaallisut, according to the Language Secretariat of Greenland, it’s called pakkaluaq qillaalasortalik.