I'm prompted to ask this question in response to the very first comment on this post:
The comment supplies a link to this YouTube video, in which russianracehorse tells "The Butterfly Joke". A Frenchman, an Italian, a Spaniard, and a German each pronounce the word for "butterfly" in their own language. The words for "butterfly" in the first three languages all sound soft, delicate, and mellifluous. Finally the German chimes in and shouts vehemently, "Und vat's wrong with [the joke teller could have said 'mit'] Schmetterling?"
The angry enunciation of the German word for "butterfly" has kept me wondering for the last two days, "Why this prejudice against 'Schmetterling'?" Does "Schmetterling" innately sound horrible, awful, forbidding?
Here's a video of the comedian Tim Allen making fun of the word "Schmetterling" and the audience roaring with laughter.
But it's not just "Schmetterling". In this Live Leak video, "German Pronunciation Of Words Compared To Other Languages", it seems as though all German words (e.g., those for airplane, surprise, butterfly, pen, daisy, ambulance, and science) sound positively awful in comparison with their equivalents in French, English, Italian, and Spanish (but note that, in each case, the German word is shouted loudly and angrily, whereas the words in the other languages are pronounced daintily and demurely.)
Let us try to take a more innocent, guileless approach to "Schmetterling".
Here's what the word sounds like, when spoken without animus.
There's also a recording available in this Wiktionary entry, which in addition relates a quaint, and widely believed, etymology for the word:
From Schmetten (“cream”) due to an old belief that witches transformed themselves into butterflies to steal cream and other milk products.
Steve White, in "Stories about German Words", describes "Schmetterling" thus:
…a funny, cute-sounding word for butterfly, but what is the sense of it? A pocket dictionary definition of schmettern gives only “make a loud noise” or “strike”.
But the Schmetter here is from an older usage, having to do with milk products.
The Duden Deutsches Universal-wörterbuch, has (in my free and broken translation), under Schmetterling:
“…from the High Saxon to ‘Schmetten’, following the old folk belief that witches fly about in the form of butterflies, in order to steal milk and cream”
And under Schmetten, it says this was an Eastern German and Austrian word for cream, deriving from the Czech “smetana”.
I also like to think, the English (and Germans) very much like their butter. Butterfiles are also nice, and often the color of butter (and sometimes cream).
This benign approach to "Schmetterling" is so vastly different from the evil cast put upon it in the sources quoted above.
The distinctiveness of "Schmetterling" leads to our next question, namely, "Why do languages not share a root for 'butterfly'?", concerning which we find a nice discussion on StackExchange, Linguistics beta. It is a point worth pondering, since such is not true of most words. There's something about a butterfly that inspires speakers of different languages to come up with their own words for this elusive, ephemeral, exquisite creature.
Here we encounter an interesting article by William O. Beeman, "The Elusive Butterfly. Iconicity in Language" (2001), which examines the role of sound symbolism and phonesthesia in words for butterfly in many different languages.
There have been innumerable poems written about butterflies in German, where this diaphonous delight is depicted as soft, tender, adorable, and beautiful. Schmetterling is also used as a surname (I don't think anyone would be happy to have a name whose pronunciation made them sound eternally furious).
Marko Pajević has a thoughtful essay on "German Language and National Socialism Today: Still a German 'Sonderweg'?" in Edinburgh German Yearbook, Vol. 8 (2014). Under the heading "Stereotypes of the German Language", Pajević (pp. 10-11) observes:
Everything depends on the meaning we give to it. We can continue to stress the putatively anal character of the Germans and of German language by pointing at the Germans' focus on scatology in cursing, but we can also interpret this fact as a reluctance to use sexual metaphors in a negative way. In English, something unpleasant provokes the swear-word "fuck," yet nobody accuses all English-speakers of being sexually perverted. And does it not seem rather healthy to connect the unpleasant to shit rather than to sex? As so many thinkers — such as Humboldt and, following him, Wittgenstein and Jaspers — have pointed out, it is not language but its use that is decisive. Our conception of a language is determined by the historical context.
The problem of ignoring this becomes obvious in the sketch of the comedian Tim Allen, who mocks German by first sarcastically calling it a beautiful poetic language, and then offering unflattering comparisons: he gently pronounces "butterfly," "papillon," and "mariposa," then suddenly delivers an aggressively screamed "Schmetterling." He comments that in German, even butterflies are afraid of their name. People find that funny; it serves all the clichés. Germans are an easy target for such jokes. But obviously, when the German word "Schmetterling" is perceived as aggressive as opposed to the gentle "butterfly" or "papillon" or "mariposa," that is not for inherent, objective linguistic or acoustic reasons, but the result of the audience's conditioning. It is in the perception, not in the language, and is related to associations and representation. Of course, in the imagined mouth of the inhumane SS-officer, "Schmetterling" becomes a threatening sound, but it does not in the mouth of a joyful German child. Of course, the world does not hear many joyful German children speak German, but they do hear the SS-officers, or the standardized representation of them, in films. The English word "butterfly" would be just as frightful in the mouth of the cliché-Nazi. The character of a language is not in the language but in the person who speaks that language.
In the final analysis, "Schmetterling" can be said as sweetly, softly, and sensuously as any of the other words for "butterfly" in the diverse languages of the world. Simultaneously paraphrasing Marko Pajević and proverbial wisdom, "beauty is in the mouth of the speaker and in the ear of the hearer".
Now listen to a Turkish designer pronounce the English word "butterfly" and describe the majestic dress she created for Intel with her sister (second video embedded in this article). Her sui generis pronunciation is every bit as charming as the different pronunciations of "Schmetterling" in these four recordings.
As rufenstein says on reddit:
Schmetterling to me sounds way cuter than butterfly, but that might have to do with the fact that I don't imagine every German word to be shouted by a Nazi soldier.
To each their own.
[Thanks to Joseph R. Mair, the Wandering Vanman]