Mama+Dada: A brief lingual history


Brain things / Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

In the many smatterings of languages I have heard, I have noticed that the word for Mom/ Mama/ Mother/ Mommy nearly always contains the m/ sound, while the word for Dad/ Papa/ Father has many variations.

I decided to research and see if I was right, or out in left field, and what I saw confirmed my hunch. While it’s definitely not universal, it is pretty typical.

(Here are some comparison lists: mommy, daddy. One hundred or more languages each.)

/M/ tends to be present in some form in the mama word, perhaps as Umma or Ahm. For the daddy word, the consonants are widely varied: d, t, p, f, v, b, and so on.

Now what do you think that means?


Personally, I think it means that dads have spent their whole lifecycle since antiquity trying to be the one to catch that first infant consonant and earn bragging rights. “LOOK! HE SAID DADDY! IT’S HIS FIRST WORD!

“Wait, d didn’t work? Is it too hard for him? It’s too hard for him.

“Okay, let’s try again. How about padre?

baba?

vatter?”


Besides which, I think it means that the Moms Corporation Timeless and United has smiled knowingly and said, “We already have it taken, dude. Easiest letter in the alphabet. Statistically most likely to be spoken first, even by accident.”


After all of which, I think it means that those little baby scoundrels look up in our faces, and blow their charming bubbles, and say, clearly,

“DADA.”

10 Replies to “Mama+Dada: A brief lingual history”

  1. That’s great! I also noticed on the “Mother” list that n’s and a’s were very common as well. I couldn’t find any names (except in Hindi, which doesn’t use any of the same letters we do) that didn’t contain m, n, or a.

  2. And I always noticed that the ‘m’ sound always sounded a bit sorrowful while the ‘da’ was more of a happy sound. I came to the conclusion that when babies were tired, pants needed changing, or they were hungry, they called their sad sound ‘m’. When they were ready to play or have conversation in a happy way, the sound that came out was ‘da’ often followed by a second ‘da’. Try it yourself and see what you think. Mama of six!!

  3. My babies often ask for food using some variation of the ‘m’ sound.

    Inevitably, their first jabbering noises are “da-da-da-da”

  4. My sources tell me that in many households, babies actually say “mama” first, as planned. Although this may prove me wrong in this particular post, it only confirms my underlying hunch: that my children entered the world with more than the usual share of mischief.

  5. In linguistics the usual answer is that ‘m’ is the only consonant we can make with our lips pressed together while we’re eating or drinking, just like we say ‘mmm’ when we eat good food instead of ‘sssssss’ or something 🙂 Also the vowels in ‘ma’ and ‘mum’ are easier to say and so babies usually say those sooner than ‘meem’ or ‘moom’. When you say ‘meem’ you have to tense your mouth and raise your tongue, and when you say ‘moom’ you have to purse your lips, whereas for ‘ma’ and ‘mum’ you just open and close your mouth naturally!

  6. When looking at the list I noticed that the German words are not quite correct. “Mutter” is the official word and corresponds to “mother”, but children call their moms “Mama” “Mami” or “Mutti”. And regarding the father: “Banketi” is definitly no German word. It would be “Papa”, “Papi” or “Vati”.
    It is interesting that babys start with the same words all over the world. My (German) babies started with “baba”, “mama”, “dada”. My first baby said “papa” for “Mama” and “Papa”.
    And when we look at the first picture books we ask “Where is the dog?” and our baby answers “da”, which means “there”.

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