(This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Lexpert)
Why mama and papa?
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 that many languages have for the two words.
In the 1950s, the American anthropologist George Murdoch studied the words for mother and father in 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 the 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 for mother and father in various languages can be explained by the words being present in the ancestral language of mankind and that these words have simply survived in 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 the 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, Bosnian majha, Chechen nana, Dutch moeder, Greek mana, Quechua and Romanian mama, Tagalog nanay, Urdu ammee and Welsh mam to name but a few.
On the paternal side of the equation we have Albanian, Mandarin and Turkish
baba, Greek babbas, Hindi and Russian, papa, Italian padre, Latvian tevs, Welsh
tad, and Xhosa tata.
Although what I previously referred to as the Proto-World Hypothesis sounds logical, it doen’t hold up to a close scrutiny or accord with scientific evidence which was extrapolated by pioneering Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson. In Jakobson’s 1959 article Why “mama” and papa”? he 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 during 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 with the tongue or lips. Thus the “ah” sounds in “mahs” and “pahs.
Very often these speech sound s are repeated and the “mah” sound turns into
“mahmah.” Of course the baby isn’t really speaking, it’s 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 pronounce such as the th sound in the beginning of words such as
“the” 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 rendition of
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 and releasing them. The m sound is
easiest of all and this explains why mama invariably precedes papa.
Papa is virtually ubiquitous for a similar reason. After babies begin making the m
sound with their lips, they’re likely to make a sound that involves slightly more
than just the putting of their lips together. This new sound involves not only the
putting of the lips together, but 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 slightly more complicated procedure in which the
baby plays with its 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.
A happy Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – even to those whose mother tongues
represent the rare languages whose words for parental figures diverge from this
Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in 2016