On a recent Sunday, Holly Tooker stood by the transparent wall inside the Butterfly Conservatory, at the American Museum of Natural History. It was, as always, 81 degrees with 78 percent humidity, and it had been a busy morning. Nearby, a giant Danainae butterfly perched on a flowering Ixora plant; its black-veined transparent wings suggested a piece of Victorian jewelry. Ms. Tooker wore her auburn hair in an asymmetric pixie cut, and a button on the lanyard of her museum ID tag read: “ICH SPRECHE DEUTSCH.”
She took a long drink from a water bottle and, in the voice of an especially confident substitute teacher, sang out: “I can say ‘butterfly’ in 139 languages! Anyone want to challenge me or teach me a new one?”
Standing nearby, a man in a straw fedora and a periwinkle T-shirt wondered if she knew the word in Basque.
Ms. Tooker asked him if he wanted it in “Euskara Batua,” standardized Basque, or in a regional dialect, spoken by about 710,000 people near the coast of the Bay of Biscay.
“Batua,” the man, Maurice Algarra, said.
“Tximeleta,” Ms. Tooker replied.
“That’s right!” said Mr. Algarra, 50, whose grandparents illegally spoke Basque to him when he was growing up in Franco’s Spain.
Ms. Tooker is 67, a former ad copywriter, a “Jeopardy” finalist and, for the last 13 seasons, a conservatory guide. Almost immediately after setting foot in the 1,200-square-foot vivarium in 2002 she sought to become a volunteer guide, and soon after made another discovery.
“I realized we get visitors from around the world,” Ms. Tooker said. “I speak German. Pretty badly. I speak Spanish. Wretchedly. But I love languages anyway and I began to ask foreign visitors their words for ‘butterfly.’ ” She wrote each down, memorized it and drilled its pronunciation using language tapes and YouTube clips. Each morning before her shift, Ms. Tooker reviews a master list that will soon hit 150 words, perhaps before the exhibit closes for the season on Monday.
Of the world’s 7,000 languages, 13 will let you converse with half the world’s population. An additional 70 are spoken natively by at least 10 million people, after which the number of speakers for any one language swiftly declines. But in all of them, the word “butterfly” is a rare species.
“Butterfly” has stymied language experts for decades. It is the one common word that does not have cognates — words that are similar in sound, spelling and meaning — in related languages, even closely related ones. “Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French — each one has a different word for ‘butterfly,’ ” said William Beeman, chairman of the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department who has written on the anomaly. “This flies in the face of what we know about how languages work. And when someone hears you say ‘butterfly’ in their language, they know you’re speaking their language.”
At the conservatory, Ms. Tooker wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of a paper kite butterfly and, on the back, letters that read: “Ask me to say ‘butterfly’ in your language,” a dare she credits with the number of requests she has received for Klingon.
Jonas Laeben came over carrying his 2-year-old daughter. He quietly urged her to ask: “Hur sager man det pa svenska?”
“Fjaril,” Ms. Tooker replied, in Swedish.
Mr. Laeben nodded and smiled. “So which one is the hardest to say?” he asked.
“Well, Chinese was really hard,” Ms. Tooker said. “It took me a long time to master — HOOT-yee-EH.” The utterance drew a few surprised looks. “Mandarin,” she said.
An American woman introduced her husband who, she said, could speak five languages: “English, French, German, Dutch, Italian.” Ms. Tooker volleyed back, but in reverse order: “Farfalle, vlinder, schmetterling, papillon, butterfly.”
A lean, stern-looking man in gold-rimmed glasses leaned in: “How about Finnish?”
“Perhonen,” Ms. Tooker answered.
“That’s right!” said the man, a former language teacher.
A recent visitor asked Ms. Tooker to hear the word in Marshallese, spoken by about 44,000 residents of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia. The word soon became one of Ms. Tooker’s favorites and when a male visitor came by weeks later with the same request, Ms. Tooker recalled, “I said: ‘O.M.G.! Yes! Babbub! A woman taught me two weeks ago!’ ” The young man said that woman was his mother who sent him by to make sure she remembered.
Many of Ms. Tooker’s “butterflies” come from the linguistic hot zone of India. She said she knows it in 18 Indian languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Konkani. Atessh Singh, 44, who was at the museum with his family, was particularly impressed when she obliged his request to hear it in Konkani, “pees-oh-lay.”
“I would never have thought anybody could speak Konkani; it’s only spoken in Goa,” he said. “I mean, we were just walking by here and we thought, ‘This looks like a great place,’ and we come in, and the temperature, and also the humidity — it’s like monsoon period in New Delhi! So I already felt at home. Then we heard you.”
A bit later, a slim Indian couple came by and put Ms. Tooker to the test. “We speak a few of the languages in India,” said the mustachioed Hardik Dasadia, 25. “One is Hindi?”
“Tee-da-LEE,” Ms. Tooker said.
Mr. Dasadia laughed.
“And then one is Marathi?”
“There you go!” said Mr. Dasadia’s girlfriend, Shweta Loharkar, 26, who spontaneously reached out to shake
Ms. Tooker’s hand.
“Is there a word for it in Madrahi?” Mr. Dasadia asked.
“Yes,” Ms. Tooker said. “Patang-EE-yoo.”
He repeated the word like an incantation: “Patang-EE-yoo.” Mr. Dasadia smiled. “You see,” he said, “I’m a Madrahi and I didn’t know that. But I knew it.”
“I very vividly remember running around chasing butterflies in a small mulberry shrub in front of my grandma’s house,” Mr. Dasadia said to his girlfriend, “and that’s how my grandma used to say it: patang-EE-yoo. I just remembered the whole thing, just now. I mean, it’s awesome to hear it now. But the kid inside me wants to jump!”