Italian word for the week: farfalla


Farfalla (n.f)

Farfalla is a strange word because, although it does derive directly from Latin, the way that it has morphed into modern Italian is unusual. The Latin, ‘papilio’, has become ‘papillon’ in French, and the word retains its ‘p’ form in Old Florentine (the basis of modern Italian), in the Bolognese, Milanese and Piemontese dialects, and in Occitan, Provençal and Catalan. But in Italian, the ‘p’ has changed to an ‘f’. Which is odd…

This p-f shift is something we are more used to seeing in the Germanic languages: words that contain the letter ‘p’ in Latin or Greek sometimes contain the letter ‘f’ (or at least the sound ‘f’, or sometimes ‘v’) in the Germanic languages. In fact, this p-f pattern can be helpful in learning Italian words that don’t immediately seem related to their English cognates. You may have thought that ‘father’ and ‘padre’, ‘nephew’ and ‘nipote’, are completely different words; they are not. Even the words ‘feather’ and ‘piume’, ‘full’ and ‘pieno’, look related, if you go back far enough.

As for ‘butterfly’, that has nothing to do with Latin. It may have something to do with an ancient belief that witches would transform themselves into insects in order to steal your butter and cream, but don’t let’s get into that now. The point here is that you shouldn’t think of Italian and English as having no relation to each other because they belong to two different language families. They are, in fact, cousins – albeit often distant ones. And if you’re not convinced, consider this: what we call a ‘pavilion’ looks a bit like a butterfly – which is how it gets its name, though in English the second ‘p’ has changed to a ‘v’.

Useful phrase

Farfalla bruna, dolce e definitiva,
come il frumento e il sole, il papavero e l’acqua

Butterfly dark, sweet and final
Like the corn and the sun, the poppy and the water.

(Pablo Neruda)