Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Which Wins: Mama? Dada? Papa?

Virginia Becar responded to our recent treatment of mother in which we claimed that ma was one of the first sounds made by a baby with this comment:

“My linguistics professor (from Harvard, no less) taught us that the first intelligable talk from babies is “da” not because they love daddy more, but because the tongue naturally goes to the top of the mouth in infants where they munch their food (the ripples are for pre-teeth stage of eating). The “ma” is a much harder sound to make since it involves nasal sound and comes later for that reason.”

Virginia’s professor was probably right, though the first sound a baby makes varies from baby to baby. Making an M sound is not that difficult for a child who hasn’t learned to control his or her velum (soft palate), which directs the flow of air through the pharynx to the nose. Making a nasal sound is a matter of simply leaving the pharynx open while closing the air passage through the mouth. One could just as well argue that da is more difficult because the baby has to close the opening to the pharynx in order to make the D sound.

Although I don’t recall any studies on the subject, my impression is that some babies do da-da-da, others ta-ta-ta, still others, ma-ma-ma first. I am sure that among the first sounds babies make is the ma-ma that gives us ma and that went into the making of mother.

By the way, if a baby just closes its lips and doesn’t open its pharynx or vibrate its vocal cords, the result is pa. This sound underlies the word for “father” in most Indo-European languages. It was pa-ter in Latin with the same kinship -ter that we find in mother, brother, and sister. In the Germanic languages, however, Proto-Indo-European P > F and T > TH regularly, which gave us father in English, exactly as expected.

4 Responses to “Which Wins: Mama? Dada? Papa?”

  1. language of babies Says:

    language of babies…

  2. Randy Says:

    The Chinese words for mother and father are ‘mama’ and ‘baba’ (plus tones). In a culture very different from my western roots, in a language that is, to the best of my knowledge, completely unrelated, I am surprised that these words are so similar to English words meaning the same. Devoice the b’s from the second and you get ‘papa’. It’s not something I ever called my father (he was always daddy or dad), but it’s very common.

  3. David King Says:

    I am just wondering about the roots of basic sounds in language and I thought of “ba” and “pa” as beng related when the lips stick together and air coming out just naturally generates that sound (from what I see). I am wondering if the “ma” sound is primarily the result of the baby trying to vocalize while nursing. If you suck your own thumb and just vocalise it seems the “ma” sound is the most likely sound. It seems that making sharp consonants isn’t likely when nursing so perhaps the “ma” sound is the most expected sound a baby could make while nursing. If this is true, it seems natural for this sound to be applied in the developement of human languages to the mother (just guessing here).

    In words relating to mother and female and as the basis for the word mammal (named because they generally nurse young), this “ma” sound is found.

    It would be interesting to see how many different lanugaes had a “ma” sound as reference to mother or female

  4. rbeard Says:

    I give a few more examples here, all from Indo-European languages:

    However, P, B, and M are all “labial” sounds, i.e. sounds made by simply closing the lips except B is accompanied by a vibration of the vocal cords and M is accompanied by that and also rerouting the air from the lungs through the nose (a vocalic nasal bilabial). So, it isn’t surprising that we find “baba” among the “mama” “papa” mix, either referring to the parents or grandparents (e.g. Yiddish bubby for “grandmother.

    Smacking the lips is associated with hunger so, most probably, we misperceive our babies calling for their parents when they really only mean, “Feed me.”

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