My brother, perhaps out of sheer sadism, sent me a link to this NY Times piece (by Eric Hynes) about Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi, a Film Society of Lincoln Center series starting tomorrow. When I lived in NYC I was a member of the society when I could afford it, and if I were there now I would be attending all of these movies, and I would go twice to Kin-dza-dza!, the only one they appear to be showing twice. As it is, I can only urge those of you in striking distance of the city to take advantage of this rare opportunity; it sounds like some of the films are pretty silly, but I’ll bet they’re all fun to watch, and Kin-dza-dza!, which I have only seen on my computer screen, must be a blast in a theater. To prove its linguistic interest (and thus provide the hook for this post), I will copy the relevant section from its Wikipedia article:

Plukanian language

Koo — All words, with the following exceptions:
Kyu (pronounced kyew) — any profanity
Ketseh (pronounced “keh-tseh”, emphasis on the second syllable) — matches (or, rather, the chemicals ordinarily used on Earth for match heads)
Chatl — a currency unit
Tsak — a small bell worn on the nose to indicate the low social status of the wearer
Tentura and Antitentura — two opposite parts of the Universe. Some planets and galaxies exist in Tentura and some (including Earth) in Antitentura
Pepelats — an interplanetary spacecraft (from the Georgian word “pepela” for butterfly)
Tsapa — a component for different machines. A big tsapa is a very important component for the pepelats. A small tsapa is a component for the gravitsapa; without the small tsapa, a gravitsapa will not work. Tsapa is similar to a very rusty screwnut
Gravitsapa — a component for the pepelats which allows intergalactic travel (from ‘gravity’ + ‘tsapa’)
Tranklucator — a weapon
Visator — compact device, detects difference between Patsaks and Chatlanians
Kappa — a button or lever
Luts — the fuel used by the pepelats, it is made of water
Ecilop — a policeman (“police” spoken backwards)
Etsikh — a box for prisoners; also the imprisonment in such box (as a penalty); also the Ecikh is a jail with many such boxes (“Ecikh” is from the Georgian word “tsikhe” for prison, castle). Ecikh with nails is extremely hard punishment.

At least one of these words, pepelats, is widely used in Russian, and would be in all languages of Earth if this were a better world. Anyway, I have given timely notice. Don’t miss it if you can, like the man said.


  1. Jeffry House says

    Georgian “pepela” sounds like it might be related to “papillon”.

  2. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    Also, “when the society has no color differentiation of the pants, the society has no goal, and a society without a goal – is a society without a future”.

  3. marie-lucie says

    JH: Georgian “pepela” sounds like it might be related to “papillon”.

    If you believe in a superduper family such as Nostratic or an even larger group lie Borean, you might consider the idea. If your classifying urge does not extend that far, you may think that the resemblance is due either to coincidence, to borrowing at a deep level (such as between PIE and Proto-Caucasian – or some such), or to an obscure psychological feature of the human brain. Many linguists have noticed that in a variety of languages the words for ‘butterfly’ often have a p and an l (and Germanic words like English fly derive from a PIE root starting with *pl-).

  4. “Many linguists have noticed that in a variety of languages the words for ‘butterfly’ often have a p and an l ”

    And not necessarily in that order. Chuvash, for example, shows lĕpĕš for ‘butterfly’.

    A reduplicated labial is another thing that would be interesting to search for cross-linguistically. Besides French papillon and Italian farfalla, one also finds Russian babočka.

  5. French ‘papillon’ presumably comes straight from Latin ‘papilio’ (pl. ‘papiliones’, hence the final N in French). Georgia was on the very edge of the Greek half of the Roman Empire – not the likeliest place for a direct borrowing of the Latin word.

  6. …and kindza means “cilantro….”

    Which I like.

  7. marie-lucie says

    MH, French ‘papillon’ presumably comes straight from Latin ‘papilio’

    Actually, the word which comes straight from Latin ‘papilio’ is pavillon, which has several meanings, the most relevant ones being “flag” (used in a naval context) and “outer part of the ear” – the common meaning being something like “flaring” (another word in fl-). Papillon is not attested in writing before the 17th century, and may have been used first in a scientific context, but there was an older form paveillon as well as a (probably obsolete) dialect form papeillon.

    There must have been other, unrelated words used in various dialects – it is unthinkable that French speakers could not have talked about butterflies before the 17th century!

  8. Klimov’s etymological dictionary of Kartvelian derives ṗeṗela from reduplicated *ṗer-ṗer- (Proto-Kartvelian *ṗer- ‘fly’ (via dissimilation in *ṗerṗel-). In some branches of Indo-European (Germanic, Balto-Slavic, and Latin) we have words that seem to reflect a similarly distorted reduplication *pV(l)-pVl-. I think some kind of phonaestetic convergence is likely in ‘butterfly’ words, given that e.g. Classical Nahuatl has pāpalōtl (hence Mesoamerican Spanish papalote, papelote ‘kite’).

  9. The Hebrew revivalists must have been thinking of one or another of these reduplicated words when they exapted the name of a Biblical river, Parpar, to serve as the modern word for “butterfly”. I wonder which one it was.

  10. TR, it was apparently Ben Yehuda.

  11. One of my friends actually uses ecilop for police (especially when they are driving with lights on).

  12. Kin-dza-dza! is still available on Youtube, with English subtitles, for those who can’t make it to New York. But I agree with LH, it would great to actually see a decent print on a big screen.

  13. The Hebrew revivalists must have been thinking of one or another of these reduplicated words…

    So was Tolkien when he invented the Elvish words for ‘butterfly’, cf. Quenya wilwarin (stem wilwarind-), cognate to Noldorin gwilwileth.

  14. Koo — All words, with the following exceptions:

    Reminds me slightly of the Marklar in “South Park”, an humanoid alien marklar who speak a marklar identical to English, but in which all marklars have been replaced with the marklar “marklar”.

  15. There appear to be several versions on Amazon (US): in Russian, a variety of languages and the animation.

  16. Years ago my Italian instructor in college demonstrated the aural difference between Italian and German by giving us the word for “butterfly” in both.

  17. I wonder which one it was.

    TR, it was apparently Ben Yehuda.

    Perils of anaphora… I meant, I wonder which specific European butterfly word was their model, if any.

  18. Given his tendency to draw on other Semitic languages to fill gaps, one of the words Ben Yehuda had in mind was probably Arabic farāshah.

  19. D’oh!

    Zuckermann’s Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew catalogs these sound-alike innovations (and many spurious ones). Maybe it has something to say about parpar.

    Arabic farāshah, now, where does that come from?

  20. I checked Andras Rajki’s Etymological Dictionary of Arabic (in the sidebar), but alas he only says “[?].”

  21. See this old post for discussion of other languages with extremely restricted vocabularies.

  22. … other languages with extremely restricted vocabularies.
    You might enjoy “Учим слесарный язык” – then. 🙂

  23. David Marjanović says

    If you believe in a superduper family such as Nostratic […], you might consider the idea.

    I don’t know if any Nostraticists have weighed in on that word, but the Moscow School Nostraticists say that the Kartvelian ejective /pʼ/ (პ, transcribed by Caucasianists) corresponds regulary to PIE *p, so the **ṗVl- root might be cognate in principle, if indeed the word is derived from reduplication of a meaningful root.

    And not necessarily in that order. Chuvash, for example, shows lĕpĕš for ‘butterfly’.

    Immediately reminds me of leptir. That can’t be cognate, though, unless some rather complex borrowing is involved.

  24. Давай-давай! Пошла-пошла!

  25. Er, that was in response to uwe. Who knew the thread was so fast-moving? Kyu!

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Japanese 蝶々chōchō (and Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San), written tefu-tefu in the old kana spelling, is from Middle Chinese *dep-dep (in William Baxter’s transliteration), from an older form *lep-lep

  27. Good lord, that’s fascinating!

  28. I had forgotten the name “Cio-Cio-San”, so I googled it. The first hit is Wikipedia s.v. Madam Butterfly, the second is to a song called “El Scorcho”, which contains the line “Listening to Cio-Cio-San”. Quoth WP, excitingly: “The singer who played Cio-Cio San at the opera’s premiere in 1904 was named Rosina Storchio” — but it continues, deflatingly, “though the alternate spelling indicates that this is likely an unintentional reference.” Me, I’m not so sure; anyway, what is not a source or an influence may well be an analogy.

  29. Considering Storchio is pronounced /storkyo/, I think such influence is exceedingly unlikely.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Good lord, that’s fascinating!

    *flap* *flap*

  31. marie-lucie says

    El Storcho / Rosina Storchio

    I think it is unlikely that the resemblance is a coincidence. I have no idea what the song itself is, but it seems to be a parody of some kind, or at least to incorporate parodic elements by playing on actual linguistic coincidences.

    The song mentions Cio-Cio (pronounced “Cho Cho”), the heroine of the well-known opera, while the name of the diva could have been taken from the program or from a contemporary review of a performance. The diva had an Italian name, and an anglophone ignorant of Italian might not be quite sure how to pronounce her name, while the chio at the end of it is somewhat reminiscent of the name of her role. The song title, El Storcho looks like a garbled version of the diva’s name, with the i removed to make it more obvious for anglophones to say the name aloud, thus also making the name itself look more Spanish. Famous Italian people are often referred to by the definite article before their name, as in Il Dante. Using this custom in referring to the actual diva would yield La Storchio which does not sound right to a person only slightly acquainted with the language since the name sounds masculine while the article is feminine, so the final title of the song seems to refer to a male “divo” by using the masculine article El apparently agreeing in gender with the Spanish-masculine-looking name Storcho.

  32. Oh, all right — you make it sound so sensible!

  33. marie-lucie says

    Oops, I used Storcho instead of Scorcho. Adding to what I wrote above, I think that Storcho was deliberately changed into Scorcho by resemblance with English “to scorch”, implying a scorching or particularly brilliant performance by the hypothetical Spanish singer.

  34. marie-lucie says

    LH, sensible is not the word – I think the songwriter had a lot of fun going through those various changes before settling on El Scorcho. So did I.

  35. There is also the fact that “el scorcho” was an existing slang term of extreme heat (as in, “Wow, it’s really el scorcho out there today”). I don’t know how common the term was, or where it was used. My father was a frequent user of the phrase, but I have heard it from other people as well.

  36. marie-lucie says

    Very interesting, Brett! if so, then the hypothetical sequence of word manipulations which I imagined may have gone the other way round – from El Scorcho to discovering La Storchio as Cio Cio.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Just happened (as one does) to come across the Mparntwe [Alice Springs] Arrernte word for “butterfly”: intelyape-lyape.

    (Incidentally, I relocated this thread by googling “Language Hat Kin-Dza-Dza”; that is one *memorable* film …)

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    …and as I’ve just discovered by chance, in Lavukaleve, spoken in the Solomon Islands and unrelated to anything as far as anyone knows, “butterfly” is “felfel.”

    Obviously butterflies are like mummies and daddies (and poo) in just being the sort of thing that human beings naturally and spontaneously make up similar names for. I must say that if I’d been asked to suggest a list of such things, “butterfly” would not have occurred to me. I’m obviously just plain deracinated.

  39. David Marjanović says

    “butterfly” would not have occurred to me.

    Butterflies… and manta rays. They’re already in the Urban Dictionary, along with a metaphorical meaning that was new to me.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah yes. The Giant Sea Butterfly in all its glory.

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