Mama and papa
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In linguistics, mama and papa are considered a special case of false cognates. In many languages of the world, sequences of sounds similar to /mama/ and /papa/ mean "mother" and "father", usually but not always in that order. This is thought to be a coincidence resulting from the process of early language acquisition.
These terms use speech sounds that are among the easiest to produce: bilabials like /m/, /p/, and /b/, and the open vowel /a/. They are, therefore, often among the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies (babble words), and parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with themselves and to employ them subsequently as part of their baby-talk lexicon. Thus, there is no need to ascribe to common ancestry the similarities of !Kung ba, Aramaic abba, Mandarin Chinese bàba, and Persian baba (all "father"); or Navajo amá, Mandarin Chinese māma, Swahili mama, Quechua mama, and Polish mama (all "mother"). For the same reason, some scientists believe that 'mama' and 'papa' were among the first words that humans spoke. However, there is nothing of motherhood or fatherhood inherent in the sounds.
The linguist Roman Jakobson hypothesized that the nasal sound in "mama" comes from the nasal murmur that babies produce when breastfeeding:
Often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full. Later, this phonatory reaction to nursing is reproduced as an anticipatory signal at the mere sight of food and finally as a manifestation of a desire to eat, or more generally, as an expression of discontent and impatient longing for missing food or absent nurser, and any ungranted wish. When the mouth is free from nutrition, the nasal murmur may be supplied with an oral, particularly labial release; it may also obtain an optional vocalic support.— Roman Jakobson, Why 'Mama' and 'Papa'?
Variants using other sounds do occur: for example, in Fijian, the word for "mother" is nana, the Turkish word is ana, and in Old Japanese, the word for "mother" was papa. The modern Japanese word for "father", chichi, is from older titi. Very few languages lack labial consonants (this mostly being attested on a family basis, in the Iroquoian and some of the Athabaskan languages), and only Arapaho is known to lack an open vowel /a/. The Tagalog -na- / -ta- ("mom" / "dad" words) parallel the more common ma / pa in nasality / orality of the consonants and identity of place of articulation.
- Jakobson, R. (1962) "Why 'mama' and 'papa'?" In Jakobson, R. Selected Writings, Vol. I: Phonological Studies, pp. 538–545. The Hague: Mouton.
- Nichols, J. (1999) "Why 'me' and 'thee'?" Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected Papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Vancouver, 9–13 August 1999, ed. Laurel J. Brinton, John Benjamins Publishing, 2001, pages 253-276.
- Bancel, P.J. and A.M. de l'Etang. (2008) "The Age of Mama and Papa" Bengtson J. D. In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the four fields of anthropology. (John Benjamins Publishing, Dec 3, 2008), pages 417-438.
- Bancel, P.J. and A.M. de l'Etang. (2013) "Brave new words" In New Perspectives on the Origins of Language, ed. C. Lefebvre, B. Comrie, H. Cohen (John Benjamins Publishing, Nov 15, 2013), pages 333-377.
- Gosline, Anna (26 July 2004). "Family words came first for early humans". NEW SCIENTIST.