Basque butterflies

Eduard Selleslagh edsel at
Sun Dec 19 10:58:01 UTC 1999

[ moderator re-formatted ]

-----Original Message-----
From: Larry Trask <larryt at>
Date: Sunday, December 19, 1999 12:11 AM

>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.

[Ed Selleslagh]

First a general comment: the word for 'butterfly' is one of the most
unpredictable and capricious ones in all languages I know of. I really wonder
about its relevance for linguistics in general. Example: Western Germanic:

Dutch: vlinder, German: Schmetterling, English: butterfly, and those are
languages that share an impressive part of their vocabulary!

>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.


I would rather guess that it's derived from 'bizi', and refers to the
'liveliness' of a butterfly, one of its most notable characteristics.

The final element is clearly a diminitutivizing, 'endearing', suffix, very
probably of Romance origin. In Mexico for instance, the suffix -Vlote is quite
common in names for small animals or insects (In some cases, however, the
origin might be Nahuatl).

>(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'.)


It looks more plausible that it is simply a case of b > m as so often happened
in Basque, even in Roman times: bacillum > makila. So, 1a and 1b are basically
the same.

>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'.


I rather agree with your idea of a metathesis.

So, 1a, 1b and 1c may be considered to be one and the same: 'little lively

>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.


The first part looks like a direct (nursery style) derivation of Group 1. -dola
has a diminutive meaning, -papa may be related to 'papillon', while -tera is a
common derivative suffix.

So, 2 is actually a descendant of 1.

>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>.


I completely agree.

>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.


I completely agree.

>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.


I guess this is right.

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.


The first part seems to go back to some onomatopeia 'zintz-', probably
referring to the noise of a flying insect.

The -tola part is, again, diminutivizing.

>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.


Instead of the Latin original 'papilio', I would suggest French 'papillon' or a
southern 'French' variant of it. When words pass from one language into
another, especially if it is an unrelated one, the weirdest things can happen:
e.g. Greek to Turkish: Konstantinopolis > Istanbul (epenthetic i-), Sagalassos
> Aglasun. Greek to Germanic and Romance: episkopos (=supervisor) > bisschop,
Bischof, bishop, évêque, obispo, vescovo; presbyteros (=elder) >
priester, Priester, priest, prêtre, prete.

>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


I think we can safely analyze this as atxi-(e)ta-matxi, the last part being an
expressive reduplication of the first.

'atxi' (a palatalized diminutive) may be related to the concept of 'tail'. So,
it would mean something like 'little thing that moves its tail'.

>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.


Probably some superstition, comparable to the one surrounding the ladybird (a
Marian name).

>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 >attestations.


Expressive, yes, but all built around basic Basque (or Romance) words, except
in the case of 'God's hen' (popular belief) or 'pinpirin' (purely expressive,
no meaning as such).

BTW, I doubt whether you can speak of a cluster 'np', since there is a syllable
separation right in the middle: pin-pirin.

>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


This shows that in Basque too, the word for 'butterfly' is highly unpredictable
and capricious, as I mentioned for other languages.

As to your second conclusion, I think it should not be that straightforward: on
the one hand, it has become clear that most names of the butterfly go back to
the basic vocabulary ('bizi'), so they have their place in the inventory. On
the other hand, their formation/creation is highly unstable over time and thus
difficult to handle since only some analysis, not just linguistic, yields
useful data.

Ed Selleslagh

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