The Word Nerd: Why are Mama and Papa on so many tongues?

Around the globe, May and June represents the most common months that honour mothers and fathers respectively. Surprisingly, the near universality of recognition for parents is almost matched by the similarity many languages have for these two words.

In the 1950s, the American anthropologist George Murdoch studied the words for mother and father on 470 languages scattered throughout the planet. His analysis showed that the word for mother contained a syllable similar to ma in 52% of cases whereas the word for father contained this syllable in only 15% of his languages.
Conversely, the word for father has a syllable akin to pa or ta in 55% of his language sample, while these syllables occurred in the word for mother in only 7% of cases.

What accounts for these staggering proclivities?

One theory proposed is called the “Proto-World Hypothesis” which posits that the similarity of words in various languages for mother and father can be explained by these words being present in the ancestral language of humankind and that these words have simply survived on hundreds of languages in a similar form and with the exact same meaning.

But before we examine the veracity of this theory, let’s look at some of parental words in various languages. Since Mother’s Day celebrations usually precede ones for Father’s Day and we have the entrenched expression “ladies first,” we will start with mother words. Most languages seem to have a word for mother that is either “mama” or has a nasal sound similar to mama, such as “nana.” Observe, Arabic ahm, Basque ama, Dutch, moeder, Greek, mana and Welsh, mam.

On the paternal side of the equation we have Albanian, Mandarin & Turkish baba, Greek babbas, Hindi & Russian, papa, Italian, padre, Welsh, tad and Xhosa tata.

Although what I previously referred to as the Proto-World Hypothesis sounds logical, it is wrong and doesn’t accord with scientific evidence which was first elucidated by pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson in 1959 in his article Why “mama” and papa”? Jakobson explained that babies everywhere acquire language in a very orderly fashion. At first the vocalizations of a baby are done by crying or shrieking. After this, the infant moves to a cooing stage characterized by those distinct baby noises. In this period the young child is not making any recognizable speech sounds and is still in the pre-speak period. But it is the next phase – the babbling stage that something significant occurs. Here we begin to hear recognizable speech sounds in the form of vowels and consonants. The easiest vowel sound for babies to utter is ah because it can be made without doing anything or with the tongue lips. And when the baby closes her lips the ah sounds become mahs.

Very often these speech sounds are repeated and the mah sound turns into mahmah. Of course the baby isn’t really speaking, it is babbling, but it sounds like speaking to adults and as if the baby is addressing someone who most likely is the mother. Naturally, mom takes mama as meaning her, and when speaking to her baby refers to herself as mama.

As anyone learning English as a second language knows, certain consonants are very difficult to learn such as the th sound in the beginning of words and at the end of words like south. Even a three- year old child whose first language is English might have a problem with this sound and their think might emerge as fink. On the other hand, some consonants are quite easy to produce. These are the sounds that are made entirely with the lips such as m, p, or b. These are easier because they require no tongue work. All that is required for their production is placing the two lips together to release them. The m sound is the easiest and this explains why mama invariably precedes papa.

Papa is virtually ubiquitous for a similar reason. After a baby begins making the m sound with her lips, she is likely to make a sound that involves slightly more than just the putting of her lips together, which involves not only the putting the lips together, holding them in that position for a second or two and then blowing out a puff of air. This invariably produces a p or a b sound. Another possibility involves the a slightly more complicated procedure in which the baby plays  with their mouth a little further back from the lips and this elicits a t or d sound. The order in which babies acquire these sounds explains why the second- in-command caretaker to mama is usually
called papa, baba, tata, or dada.

Happy Mother’s day and Father’s day to all — even if your first language features words for parental figures that diverge from this pattern.

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