This article by William O. Beeman (Department of Anthropology, Brown University) fuels my worst suspicions about anthropologists’ shaky grasp of the concepts of linguistics; the first two sentences indicate a distilled confusion such as is rarely achieved: “One of the bedrock principles of linguistic analysis since the nineteenth century has been the principle of the regularity of cognate borrowing. It forms the basis of the ‘comparative method’ not only in linguistics, but in all of social science.” A little later comes a paragraph with a more expansive form of the confusion:
However, there is a limited, but powerful countervailing tendency in language behavior—words that absolutely resist borrowing even from their closest linguistic relatives. These words seem to be coined anew by each population group. Because we expect cognate borrowing as a norm, it is surprising when we encounter these fascinating examples. It makes us wonder about the cultural processes that govern the development of communication systems, and the functional differences between segments of vocabulary.
This leads into his main point, the often-observed fact that most languages, even closely related ones, have entirely different words for ‘butterfly.’ He then lists all those he has collected, which is what makes the page worth linking to. Ignore the miasma and enjoy the variety of (often semi-onomatopoeic) words, to which I will add cipelebesha (Bemba), balanbaalis (Somali), ekiwojjolo (Luganda), ihe n’efe-efe or uru baba (Igbo), lolo (Malagasy), vannatti pucchi (Tamil), titernig (West Armenian), peperuga (Kalderash Romanes [“Gypsy”]), fepule or minni or tirtirk (Kurmanji Kurdish), metelik (Ukrainian), palomma (Neapolitan Italian), kubelek (Tatar), kapalak (Uzbek), göpölök (Kyrgyz) (notice the interesting variations among these three and Turkish kelebek), khovagan (Tuvinian), pepela (Georgian), polla (Chechen). A few corrections: according to my Basque dictionary, the first word should be tximeleta (rather than txipilota), the Hausa word is malam-bude-littafi (first and last a‘s long), and the Latvian word is taurinš (not taurių); furthermore, there is no such language as “Senegalese” (anybody know what language lupe lupe is from?). And a couple of alternative Zulu terms: ijubajubane and itwabitwabi. What fun!
For further amusement, I reproduce here the last thing on the page, a footnote quoting a mind-bogglingly lunatic theory of “universal word derivation” that Prof. Beeman apparently takes seriously:
2. However, Isaac Mozeson, author of The Word, a treatise on common word origins, contributed this commentary based on his own theories of universal word derivation:
I had in my “PYRALIDID” entry (appendix A) the PR Greek, the PPL Latin, the Malay PPL and the Nahuatl PPL terms for butterfly. All should be influenced by Hebrew PaR PaR (butterfly) and the PR root of PiRPooR (to twitch). I am grateful for the Tagalog paruparo, and would like to credit the contributor. As for the Paiwan/Taiwan term, two phonemes are at work. One, kali, could be like Hebrew KAL (light, swift), and the other is a duplicated dungudungul, which appears to be a nasalized DIGDAIG (Hebrew for the tickle-like wavering motion of DAG (fish) and DeGel (flag). Needless to say, TICKle itself is a form of this Daled-Gimel root from Edensprach. Lastly, the Autronesian KUPO root could be a form of Ayin-Peh, KHuPh (to fly—see “AVIATE” in THE WORD, p. 26).
(Via wood s lot.)