For 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:
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?