Inverse Parental Naming Theory

March 17, 2010 By: erik Category: Musings, Spanish 206 views

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Nora TongueFor the longest time, my daughter could only make vowel sounds and diphthongs. Eventually, with the help of her fingers at first, she was able to control her tongue enough to make consonant sounds. Ma, pa, da, and ta were the first. It was her natural progression of learning. Her mother and I didn’t help much beyond repeating what she had already said. Soon, it seemed like she was calling us Mama and Papa.

My wife speaks three languages: English, Spanish, and Basque. The common words that children use to refer to their mother and father in those languages are:

Mother Father
English mommy daddy
Spanish mamá papá
Basque ama aita

My daughter quickly mastered the phonemes that make up all these words and often ordered them correctly. Of course we mainly noticed, and gave positive feedback, when she ordered them in a way with meaning.

Then one day my wife had an idea.

What if, rather than a child saying these words first because they refer to her parents…what if we have given those sounds the meanings we have specifically because they are the first sounds a baby makes?

Personally, I’m a sucker for paradigm-shifting outside-the-box ideas like this that flip cause and effect. I immediately fell in love with this idea.

Every family has some family member that has a nickname based on some child’s inability to pronounce the person’s real name. As a child, my wife struggled to pronounce the names of her Uncle Antonio and Aunt Manoli, and ever since they have been known, in her nuclear family, as Uncle Toto and Aunt Momi. This idea is the same sort of thing. We’ve adopted those meanings because that’s what children say.

What I don’t know is how well this theory holds up in other languages. The Romance languages use mostly ma and pa sounds, I think. What about Arabic or Chinese or Punjabi or Japanese?

 
  • http://simonlitton.wordpress.com simon

    I’d always assumed that mamma was called mamma because that’s the first sound a child makes.
    According to Google Translate, “daddy” in Japanese is “otosan”, but “father” is “chichi” and “mother” is “haha”.
    So in conclusion: hmmmm…dunno.

  • http://www.smattery.com andrea

    I agree. I’ve read in multiple places that the “ah” sound is usually the first and easiest vowel sound to make and that “ma” is usually the first and easiest consonant sound to make. There are just so many languages that have similar sounding words for mothers. It makes sense that mothers would assume their babies were talking about them.

    By that logic, though, I’d definitely be called “baba”.

  • Hilltop

    “Otosan”, “Okasan” are the outsider “Father”, “Mother” words. You talking about someone else’s parents. (I also got the impression that children would address their own parents with this were the more polite ones.)

    I think if you wanted a cutesy version of words to use with your own parents you might try something like “Tochan” or “Kachan”.

    “Chichi”, “Haha”, are the insider “Father”, “Mother” words. You talking about your parents to someone else. You wouldn’t address your own parents with this.

    There are also tremendously formal versions – Otosama and Okasama.

    What’s weird is that I’ve heard Japanese parents use the terms “papa” and “mama” – I don’t know if they are simply borrowing from English in this case or picking up on what you are proposing. Didn’t hang around many Japanese babies.

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      Yeah, Google Translate learned most of what it knew from reading United Nations documents, so if the language you’re translating to has any sort of formalities based on politeness, you will get the most respectful translation…which is rarely the one I want.

  • Anhelle

    In Mandarin they say “mama” (just like Spanish, but the accent is in the first ma, and it has the… first tone, I think). and baba (b sounds really similar to p) for father.
    In Japanese is more difficult because they use several words (I think chichi is used to refer to your own father when you speak with other people and oto-san to refer the father of other people and to call your own father) However, I’m not sure about what the children say… I only studied a bit of Japanese.

    Ah, I found out your blog some time ago, and I like it. I’m Spanish, but I study Translation at the University…. even so, I surely have a lot of mistakes, sorry ^^U

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      Muchísimas gracias, Anhelle! Your input is definitely supporting this theory.

      Your English in this comment is flawless. Don’t hesitate to leave another. If anyone is apologetic to grammatical mistakes in a foreign language, it’s me.

      Your name is not very Spanish, is it?

      • Anhelle

        Oh, thanks a lot! And not, Anhelle is a nickname, my real name is Elena…