Mums and Dads

Language is a weapon. It is as deadly a weapon in the game of survival as a spear or an arrow. Language helps preserve knowledge and helps communicate. It turns relatively squishy apes (compared to say… a Bear or a Mammoth) into a team. It’s one of the most important parts of human development.

And language develops in humans in an interesting way. Have you ever seen a baby from a different language group to yours “gurgle”? You see babies imitate their parents. They make noises similar to the accents of their parents. A Tamil Baby Sounds different to a Scottish Baby because they are exposed to the intonation of different languages. A scottish baby sounds “tiny, nonsensical and scottish”. This nonsense has a “role” in development. So much so that if you are looking at the health of a baby you actually inquire as to whether the child has been babbling and gurgling.

You see the child is imitating mum and dad to learn the language. It’s why your first language is so intuitive. It’s also why you have perceptions of other languages. The child is less interested in the meaning of language and more interested in the noise structure. You could be singing KRS 1’s Sound of Da Police and the child would be more interested in the noise rather than the oppression of minority races by the boots of the establishment.

One of the major evidences for it is how we interpret baby gurgling.

What were your first words?

Mama/Dada/Papa/Baba or some variant of it would be my guess. And for nearly the entire world I would be right (Mano Singham for example would have probably gone for Thatha since in Sri Lanka Thatha is the word for father while in Tamil it’s the word for Grandfather.)

Nearly every language on the planet bases the first words a child ever speaks on “baby talk”. These words are easy to babble (try saying it) and we ascribe meaning to the nonsense and create the child’s first words. The child then builds from this initial step which is reinforced by the parents getting really happy over these words. You play with your kid a bit more and this builds a positive reinforcement which entrenches your first words.

Now weirdly? Majority of the languages use Papa and Mama (or words that sound like them) for father and mother respectively. Georgian doesn’t and the words are reversed there. Mother is Papa and father is Mama. Tamil uses Apa and Ama but goes a step further in using Mamam to denote “food” and Papa to denote “baby”). So in Tamil? Many children’s first word is food (usually breast milk since breast feeding’s pretty big here! You still have nurse maids in many villages for mothers who cannot breastfeed) rather than mum or dad! Even in traditional Tamil (think Latin vs. Italian) the emphasis is on the burble Thai and Thanthai.

So Intonation + Burble = First words. Which is how I was able to guess why the majority of kids recognise mum and dad verbally so easily.

Now what’s weird is that parents also use a specific kind of speech that attracts the baby’s attention. It’s believed that this speech is “interesting” to babies because it’s so widely pronounced. That their usage of similar burbles makes children imitate them.

Current research indicates that babies are subjected to speech while inside the womb so come out knowing the sounds of language and that the influence MAY start at a much earlier part of development than previously believed.

It’s also why it’s important to spend time with your baby. It’s why I think that we should give new parents times to go spend with their baby. It’s good for the child’s development.

And this kind of development doesn’t stop until the 3rd or 4th year. So speak to your kids. Don’t relegate them to the TV (it can teach language but not visual cues) as a babysitter. Try to spend time with them when possible. This is why I think we need Creches where parents who have to work can leave their children. I do think that state subsidies for these (or sliding credit scales to parents who need them the most) will help because kids can learn the language from interaction with other kids too.

Also because I played a lot of Alpha Centauri…

Proper care and education for our children remains a cornerstone of our entire colonization effort. Children not only shape our future; they determine in many ways our present. Men and women work harder knowing their children are safe and close at hand, and never forget that, with children present, parents will defend their home to the death!

Col. Corazon Santiago, “Planet: A Survivalist’s Guide”


  1. mobius says

    Several years ago I visited my brother who had moved to Sweden. My nephew was born there and was about 9 or 10 months old when I was there. He had just begun to really vocalize…nonsense but very vocal. He was saying “dada” a lot. “Da”, “dada”, “dadadada”.

    However, the Swedish use “papa” for “father”.

    It made me wonder if all those instances of American babies saying “dada” as their first word were in fact just just a child exercising his vocalization rather than an attempt to say “father”.

  2. left0ver1under says

    It’s unsurprising that a lot of (most?) languages have words with M for mother and either P or B for father. The easiest sound for inexperienced lips to make is a closed mouth hum, and the second easiest is a plosive or aspirated sound with closed lips. The mother is usually the parent the child interacts with most, probably why M is associated with the mother. If men were usually the main child care providers, the initial sound of words for mother and father would likely be reversed.

    When you said “thatha” is common in south of the Indian subcontinent, how is it pronounced? I’d wager it’s not the “th” or “dh” (Ð, ð) found in English or Scandinavian, but more like a very soft D or T with a tongue, like the th in “Thai”.

  3. says

    As mentioned, lots of babies make first sounds with M, B, P, and D because they’re easy sounds. Generally, one of these reduplicated “mama/papa”-type words or a variant is a word for mother or father in almost every language. You also see variants within languages, though, like “dad” and “papa” for “father” in English or “bāp”/”bābā” in Hindi. “Father” itself comes from a “pa” root, related to Latin “pāter.” So clearly derivations of these early babblings have become agreed upon as basic vocabulary.

    Stephen Pinker suggests there’s a human instinct specifically for the development of language, and while I’m not sure I buy that entirely, the strong instinct of children to imitate the people around them (which in infancy usually means their parents) surely plays a role in not just the acquisition of any particular language, but the development of language at all.

  4. shash says

    This reminded me of a Thirukkural:

    No. 66:
    ‘The pipe is sweet,’ ‘the lute is sweet,’ by them’t will be averred,
    Who music of their infants’ lisping lips have never heard.

  5. says

    ba-da-ma are simply the first sounds a baby makes. No meaning attached.
    How do we know? Because even deaf children make them. Then they stop making them because they don’t get a feedback.
    And we assign them meaning (which might well explain the “food” in Tamil).
    You can also see that they don’t use the words specific.
    My younger daughter (and indeed many children) didn’t use “Papa” to exclusively mean her daddy. First “Papa” was everybody. Papa meant person. Then it became “male person” (in retrospect it’s amazing how early that binary kicked in). It was fun to see men blush and their female partners look shocked when she would point at a random dude and say “Papa!” Then it became “male person I know” like her dad, her grandfathers and her uncle. And then it became exclusively her dad.

  6. ismenia says

    My first word was Dad, apparently I first said it age 5 months. Apparently I suddenly started saying it repeatedly as my Mum took me around Sainsburys. My Dad was not present.

    Most children seem to say Dad first. I’ve often heard mothers observe that they give birth to the babies and care for them but their first word is Dad.

    My nephew’s first full sentence was, “Fetch the comfy chair.” Or at least it was what he tried to say, he struggled with comfy. I have a Monty Python Spanish Inquisitor plushy that my nephew used to love to cuddle (very wrong I know). It had sampled speech but mostly I would just do the voice myself. He didn’t have a clue what it all meant but used to giggle non-stop through the “chief weapons” speech. Hence his attempt to copy the phrase “fetch the comfy chair”.

    Years later it was an interesting conversation when I had to explain what the Spanish Inquisition actually was.

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