Linguimericks, Etc.—Book १४ SpecGram Vol CLXXI, No 4 Contents Endless Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira

On the Mytholinguistic Significance of Butterflies

Mary Hadlitt-Lamb
Grimm Institute of Folkloristics

A remarkable cross-linguistic pattern can be observed in the words for butterfly. While these words seldom appear to be cognate even in closely related languages, they are surprisingly similar between apparently unrelated languages. In practically all languages studied, they exhibit at least one of the following features:

  1. The presence of at least one bilabial sound, and usually more.
  2. The reduplication of some phonological material within the word.

A few examples will serve to illustrate this

Hawaiian   pulelehua
Numbami  kaimbombo

While most linguists attribute this to sound symbolism, and Berish and Lemma-Lunn reconstruct the Proto-World *mbwambwali, there is a second, crucial observation that these theories overlook. A second class of words exists that exhibits the same cross-linguistic features, namely childhood terms for parents. Words such as mama, papa and abba are found the world over.

It can therefore be seen that the origin of this pattern lies in deeply-rooted folk memories of the cult of an ancestral butterfly god, which must have been pervasive at the time of the migration out of Africa. Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that the Japanese chouchou (one of the few butterfly words that does not contain a bilabial) strongly resembles chichi (own father), the Russian бабочка resembles бабушка (grandmother), and the Spanish mariposa references Maria, the sacred mother figure in Catholic belief. We can see that this phenomenon has its roots in the deepest levels of the collective subconscious, and will lead us to valuable insights about the minds of our earliest ancestors. To investigate this further, I am planning to send a graduate student to do fieldwork with a tribe that believes in an ancestral butterfly god, as soon as I can find one somewhere.

Linguimericks, Etc.Book १४
Endless Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
SpecGram Vol CLXXI, No 4 Contents