butterfly, part 12

Butterflies of the mind

Picture a butterfly. What does it look like? What is its dominant colour?

Did you say blue? You might not have, but when I look at renditions of butterflies in art and crafts, they seem to have quite a lot of blue. For example, a business near where I live calls itself Monarch Dentistry, and its sign features a blue butterfly. 

As you may know, monarchs are not blue – they’re orangeish and black.

I’ve flown across the continent to visit my parents; I’m sitting at their table writing this. They happen to have a few art and craft butterflies around the house, so I’ve taken pictures of them (and mixed in one from my own place). Have a look at them. All but one has at least some blue (or at least bluish-purple) in it.

Do you reckon they’re representative of butterflies in the real world, or do they skew in a certain direction? If they skew, is it because we think of butterflies as pretty, and of certain colours and features as prettier than others? Is there something essentially butterflyfish about blue, or vice versa? I won’t say there is, but I certainly wouldn’t say there is something un-butterflyish about it. A language might or might not distinguish ‘butterfly’ and ‘moth’, but you wouldn’t expect a language to have one word for ‘butterfly’ and a different word for ‘blue butterfly’.

This brings us again to the butterfly effect. No one has observed the butterfly effect; it’s not observable. It’s an imagining produced by observation, inference, and desire. Likewise, we see butterflies, we infer things about what butterflies are like – from that and from other things that seem relevant, such as that pretty things have pretty features – and we decide what is so on the basis of what we want to be so. Let’s call that the blue butterfly effect. It may be why blue seems to be a butterfly colour. Or it may just be why I think blue seems to be a butterfly colour. Perhaps my data is skewed. Perhaps it just makes for something catchy to write about.

But we definitely expect pretty things to have pretty features, and we definitely think of butterflies as pretty – pretty, decorative, insubstantial, unserious. A “social butterfly” is someone who flits around from person to person and has no depth. It is, as I said in part 11, the curse of the charming and decorative. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario last week and looked at all the art in all the galleries to see what butterflies I could find. In total, in all the artworks in all the galleries, I saw four butterflies, and all of them were in the same painting (The Wisdom of the Universe, by Christi Belcourt). Then I went into the gift shop, where I immediately saw several times as many butterflies just on one item (a jigsaw puzzle box) – and more elsewhere around the store. 

Butterflies, in our minds, are decoration, not art; they are for gifts, not presence. Butterflies are not deep and moody. Well, perhaps they are, but we don’t think of them as such. No one ponders the inner life of a butterfly. In our culture, we have projected on them an insubstantial, carefree quality, because that’s how they seem and that’s what we want them to be, and we can neither confirm nor disconfirm it; it’s a blue butterfly effect.

So, now, what about words for ‘butterfly’? Imagine you’re creating a language – a whole new language, with new grammar and all new words. What will be your word for ‘butterfly’?

I’m genuinely curious at what word comes to mind right away – and whether you would change it to something else after a bit more reflection. Will you choose a pretty word? Pretty in what way? Or will you deliberately choose something unpretty – hengzkog, say, or, um, boterschijte? As we’ve seen, the words for ‘butterfly’ in the languages of our planet are diverse. But if I were to present you a few made-up words – say, gayokhenjitumdwespfenufon, and pilapila, which one would you say is most suitable for a butterfly?

I have no statistics, and it would be difficult to produce ones that didn’t have confounding factors skewing them, but my impression, from the words we have seen over the course of my articles, is that there are three things that seem more common than chance in words for ‘butterfly’: a liquid (/r/ or /l/), probably in the middle of the word somewhere; a labial or labiodental (/p/ or /f/ or sometimes /b/ or /m/) at or near the start of the word; and reduplication. Of these, reduplication is probably the least common, but it still stands out, as we have seen. And, on the other hand, velar consonants (/g/ and /k/ in particular) seem relatively uncommon, as do back vowels (/o/ and /u/). In general, butterfly words are at or near the front of the mouth – they are not, physically, deep.

But is this a real tendency, or just my impression of a tendency? How much is observation, how much is inference, and how much is desire? And if it is a real tendency, is it an effect of something – such as sound symbolism (the same thing that causes people to tend to assume that a word like kiki is better suited to a pointy shape and a word like bouba is better suited to a round shape) or ideas of what sounds are prettier? As with any butterfly effect, we have no real way of knowing for sure. Still, we might get a better idea from words that people have made up for ‘butterfly’ when they’ve made up their own languages.

That’s just might, though. Among constructed languages (“conlangs”), some were based (a little or a lot) on existing languages, and others were made up on the basis of particular features, ideas, and desires. Some were made up as part of a fictional world, while others were made for use in the real world. The ones that were made up for fiction will tend to have features that the author thinks of as appropriate for the kinds of characters who speak them, which might lead to different choices than if the author were making up a word for more general use. Ones that are made for real-world use tend to lean towards learnability and usability – and they often have a European bias.

Among the fictional languages, the two great early examples are the ones J.R.R. Tolkien invented for his Lord of the Rings trilogy: the elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin. He modeled Quenya generally on Finnish and Sindarin generally on Welsh, but that’s not to say there’s a discernible resemblance between his languages and the ones that inspired them. What we do see is a resemblance between the words in the two languages, and there’s no reason to call it mere coincidence: the Quenya word is wilarin and the Sindarin word is gwilwileth or gwiwileth. The w and land th are very characteristic of Tolkien’s elvish languages, and consequently now of ideas of mystical magical languages, and this has connected back to Welsh and ideas of Welsh. (Tolkien also created the rudiments of an evil language of Mordor, which he called the Black Speech, but it’s no surprise that it seems not have a word for ‘butterfly’.)

Perhaps the most popular fictional language, however, is Klingon, from the Star Trek TV and movie series. At first, there was no actual developed and schematized language, but in 1985 Marc Okrand was commissioned to create a well-developed and usable Klingon language for the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and his results – which were intentionally “alien” – were published in the wildly popular Klingon Dictionary. Why so popular? Klingons represent something that fans enjoy: a very un-butterflyish culture, a culture in which you can wish a person “May all your meals be served live.” But does their language have a word for ‘butterfly’? It does, and not a pretty one: Duj (D stands for /ɖ/, which is a retroflex d).

A very similar group are the Dothraki, from the TV series Game of Thrones, based on books by George R.R. Martin. That language, too, has a word for ‘butterfly’: zhalia. In Valyrian, a more high-toned and noble language from the same fictional world, the word is sōvion.

There are other fictional languages, too, of course, if not as well known. Suzette Haden Elgin, in her novel Native Tongue, set in a dystopian future in which women have had many of their rights taken away, features Láadan, a language created by and for women. Its word for ‘butterfly’, the etymology of which is described as a “visual/aural analog,” is áalaá. And the Indian epic adventure film Baahubali: The Beginning uses the language KiLiKi, created by Madhan Karky; its word for ‘butterfly’ is susutiri.

And what do all these fanciful words suggest to us about what the writers have observed, inferred, and desired about languages and their speakers, and the particular kinds of speakers they have in mind? And how much of what it’s suggesting to me or to you is just our own blue butterfly effects?

Then there are the conlangs intended for actual use, generally as auxiliary languages – easy-to-learn neutral languages that people of different countries can use to talk to each other, rather than learning (not necessarily well) each other’s languages. As they are meant to be easy to learn, their vocabularies are often intended to be as familiar as possible to the intended users. The three best known of these are Volapük, Esperanto, and Interlingua, and you can immediately see what community of speakers they particularly had in mind: their words for ‘butterfly’ are, respectively, pabpapilio, and papilion. Another one, Glosa, also uses papilio. And Sambahsa, which is based on Proto-Indo-European, has pelpel.

But there are others, too, and some of them are more pointedly neutral. Staren Fetcey, of Canada, developed Kotava specifically on the principle of cultural neutrality, with a vocabulary that does not give an advantage to any language or family of languages. And what is the Kotava word for ‘butterfly’? It’s bord.

And there is Mirad (also known as Unilingua), developed by Noubar Agopoff, of France. It is a very carefully constructed language; every letter maps to a semantic value. And, unsurprisingly, its vocabulary is not based on any existing language. Its word for ‘butterfly’, I learn, is gopelat. But its dictionary also gives another word, gipelat: it means ‘blue butterfly’.

2 responses to “butterfly, part 12

  1. Oh, thank you so much for mentioning the Klingon Dictionary! Years ago, I was its production editor, and I loved it with all my heart.

  2. Pingback: butterfly, part 11 | Sesquiotica

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