Language, Feelings, and the Construal of Insects: Differences between French and English

Papillon

Image via Wikipedia

Since childhood I have thought that butterflies were good insects and that moths were bad insects.  After all, popular thought is that moths are creatures of destruction (hence the need for mothballs), even though this is not exactly the case.  Nevertheless, the frame for conceptualizing moths is a negative frame in English.

Contrast the English perspective with the French construal: butterfly is papillon, moth is papillon de nuit, or, night’s butterfly.  The negative construal is minimized by the fact that they are construed as being of a similar type.  In French, moth can be seen as a lexical subcategory of butterfly.

This is interesting because it shows how a folk-classification system affects the construal; from a cladistic standpoint Lepidoptera cannot be broken into a subgroup that distinguishes between moth and butterfly because moths and butterflies belong to the same monophyletic group with butterflies belonging to moths, and not the other way around as English speakers might hope.  By using a similar form for both creatures French is closer to the phylogenetic reality in its classification schema, but it would be closer if moth was papillon and butterfly were papillon de jour since the basic level papillon would then reflect the moth as the basic level creature.

The way we talk about something governs how we think about it.  French children probably have less disgust for moths than I did, simply because poetically a moth is a butterfly of the night, and not a creature of destruction.

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One thought on “Language, Feelings, and the Construal of Insects: Differences between French and English

  1. Chris West says:

    Can we check with some French children…? I will ask a French grown up and report back.
    I wonder what happens in biliingual people? Probabl subtle changes in regard depending on language being used?
    Chris

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