Basque butterflies

Larry Trask larryt at
Mon Dec 13 15:46:21 UTC 1999

[ moderator re-formatted ]

A while ago, Lloyd Anderson suggested, in connection with his comments on the
IE list about my criteria for identifying native, ancient and monomorphemic
Basque words, that it might be useful to look at the Basque words for
'butterfly'.  I am now able to oblige.

But first a few comments.  First, there is no word for 'butterfly' found
throughout the country, or close to it: each of the numerous words is narrowly
circumscribed in distribution.  Second, the attested words sometimes exist in
the form of numerous local variants, showing the kind of unsystematic variation
typical of expressive formations but not of ordinary lexical items.  Third, for
the better-described dialects we often have numerous words and variants, while
for the other dialects we typically have few or no words reported.  For
example, I can find no words reported at all for the three Pyrenean dialects,
but I don't suppose that no such words exist: it is merely that these dialects
are less well described than the others.  Fourth, I do not suppose for a moment
that the items listed below exhaust the recorded forms: they merely represent
all the forms I can extract from the materials in my office and in our library.

Where the information is available, I have listed the dialects for which a
given form is recorded and its date of first attestation, but this information
is often not available.  The dialects cited, roughly from west to east, are as

	B: Bizkaian
	Sout: Southern (extinct; recorded in 16th-century Alava)
	G: Gipuzkoan
	HN: High Navarrese
	L: Lapurdian
	LN: Low Navarrese
	Z: Zuberoan

I have grouped the forms into nine classes, of which the first is subdivided.

Group 1a.

bitxilote (B)				
pitxilote (B)
pitxoleta (B)
pitxeleta (B)
pitxilota (B)

These appear to be based on <bitxi>, western variant <pitxi>, 'pretty little
thing', 'ornament', 'jewel', an item well attested everywhere as an independent
word (though in varying senses), and also very frequent as a first element in
expressive and nursery formations.  The final element is entirely obscure, and
very likely a meaningless expressive element.

(See also Alavese Spanish <bichilota>.  Alava was Basque-speaking until
recently, and the local Spanish has, or until recently had, a number of loans
from Basque.)

Group 1b.

mitxeleta (B, G) (1745)		
mitxilote (B)
mitxelot (B)

(and many more variants)

These variants show an unexpected initial /m/.  This might result either from a
perception that they are expressive formations (/m/ is much favored in
expressive formations in Basque), or from contamination by <Mitxel> 'Mike', the
regular diminutive of <Mikel> 'Michael'.  (Personal names are frequent as first
elements in expressive names for small creatures: note, for example,
<matxinsalto> 'grasshopper', literally 'Marty-jump'.)

Group 1c.

tximeleta (B, G) (1912)
txipeleta (G)

(and others)

Agud and Tovar see the last-cited variant as involving "clear nursery

These appear to represent metathesized forms of the preceding.  Curiously,
these western forms are entirely absent from Azkue's 1905 dictionary, even
though Azkue was a native speaker of the western dialect Bizkaian, for which he
provided exceptionally detailed coverage in his dictionary.  Today, the form
<tximileta>, not recorded before 1912, is nearly universal in the western
dialects, and has been accepted as the standard Basque word for 'butterfly'.

Group 2.

txitxidola (LN)
txitxipapa (HN)
txitxitera (Z)

These eastern forms exhibit the reduplicated sequence <txitxi>, very common in
nursery formations, with what appear to be arbitrary final elements: these
final elements have no other existence.

Group 3.

pinpirin (L) (17th c)
pinpirina (L) (17th c)
pinpirineta (Z)
pinpilinpauxa (L) (1905)		

The Lapurdian dialect is exceptionally fond of expressive formations in initial
<pin-> and <pan->, a pattern sparsely attested in other dialects; see Lhande's
dictionary of French Basque for more examples.  The last and longest form
appears to contain a palatalized form of eastern <pausa> (n.) 'pause, stop,
hesitation, rest, repose' or its verbal derivative <pausatu> 'pause, stop';
these derive from Latin.  Compare standard Castilian <mariposa> 'butterfly',
literally 'Mary-perch', from <posar> 'perch, alight', itself descended from the
Latin <pausare>.

Group 4.

inguma (G) (1745) 		

This curious word does not look like an expressive formation.  But the same
word is recorded from 1664 as 'incubus, succubus'.  We may therefore surmise a
possibly unattested late Latin *<incuba> 'female incubus, succubus', which, if
borrowed into Basque, would regularly yield the attested <inguma>.  The
motivation is not obvious, but I have seen pictures of the night-demons
portraying them as perched on top of the bodies of their sleeping victims, so
maybe the butterfly's habit of perching is the motivation.

Group 5.

altxa-lili (LN)				
altxabili (HN)				

The first two are transparently compounded from the Romance loan <altxatu>
'raise', stem <altxa->, plus another Romance loan, <lili> 'lily, flower'.  Or
so it would seem, even though the semantic motivation eludes me.  But the third
variant rather muddies the waters.  It may be a somewhat unusual dissimilation
of the preceding.  But Agud and Tovar suggest a different formation whose
second element is the common verb <ibili> 'be in motion'.  Maybe, but V-V --> N
is a decidedly unusual type of word-formation in Basque.

Group 6.

zintzitoil (L)
xintxitoila (L)
xintxitoil (L)
xintxitola (L)

The first variant is unpalatalized, while the others show the palatalization
typical of expressive formations.  We cannot tell if the first form is
conservative or merely a back-formation.  In all its variants, this form is
utterly opaque in formation.  The form strongly suggests an expressive
formation particularly typical of the eastern varieties.  See Lhande's
dictionary of French Basque for dozens of examples of this type.

Group 7.				


This shows another pattern typical of expressive names for small creatures: the
use of <Mari> 'Mary' as a first element.  The rest is opaque.  Corominas
suggests a link with Latin <papilio> 'butterfly', but I doubt it.  While I have
no regional provenance for this form, I suspect that it is eastern, and eastern
dialects, especially Lapurdian, just love expressive formations in <pin-> and
<pan->, recall.

Group 8.

atxitamatxi (Sout)

This unique item, recorded only in the 16th century in the long-extinct
Southern dialect (as <achitamachia>, with Romance spelling and the final
article <-a>), is totally opaque.  It looks like a straight-out expressive

Group 9.

jainkoaren oilo (LN)			

The first is literally 'God's hen', the second 'God-hen'.  I don't understand
the motivation, but both hens and butterflies perch, so maybe that's it.

That's it.  So: what have we got?

Well, the 'God's hen' and 'incubus' words appear to represent metaphorical
senses of ordinary lexical items.  But all the others show unmistakable
evidence of expressive origins: length (four or more syllables); opaque
elements; frequent presence of the segments <tx> and <m> (typical of expressive
formations); frequent presence of the syllable <txi> and its reduplicated form
<txitxi> (typical of nursery formations); presence of clusters absent from
ordinary lexical items (notably <np>); very considerable and highly irregular
variation in form; severe localization of each word; general lack of early

It is especially striking that a form which apparently didn't even exist in
1905 is now the most widespread word in the language.

Now: does anybody want to make a case that *any* of these words is a good
candidate for native, ancient and monomorphemic status in Basque?  Lloyd, over
to you. ;-)

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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