Friday, April 18, 2008

"Mama" as an Early Expression of Need?

When we first met Kate, our adoptive Chinese daughter, at 13 months old, she was already babbling, saying "mama(-m)" and "baba(-b)". Surprisingly to me, she seemed to use them differentially -- "mamama" when she was upset or needing something, "bababa" in a playful mood. I had noticed the same thing in my son when he was about 10 months old, although for him the second sort of babbling sounded like "dadada". At the time, I figured Davy's differentiated babbling was due to our parental reinforcements and interpretations -- that when he said "mama" we were more likely to hand him to his mom, and when he said "dada" we were more liked to hand him to dad, and the like. What was striking to me was that, as an orphan, Kate had no mom or dad. (It's not even clear that she had ever seen a man before.)

Since at least the 1960s, linguists have known that a wide range (maybe even of majority) of languages of very different origins use something like the "mama" (or "nana") sound for mother and something like the papa/baba/tata/dada sounds (all related phonologically) for father. For example, in Chinese "mama" and "baba" are baby-ese for mother and father, in Hebrew it's "ima" and "abba", and of course there's Spanish, Italian, etc.

The standard first remark about this is that these words are very easy for babies to say. I wonder if in addition to this, "mamama" goes more naturally with need or distress while the other goes more naturally with fun and exploration -- for example if the "m" phoneme is easier to make with the facial expression of distress (it seems to me that m's are easier with a tight, distressed face, p's and d's easier with an open, relaxed face, but maybe that's just me). That would explain in a way other theories would not why even an orphan would show the sort of differentiation Kate does between those two sounds. Given the different roles mothers and fathers typically play, it's then easy to see why one babble would come to be associated with the mother and the other with the dad.

(Probably some linguist has suggested this before, but for obvious reasons I haven't time right now to do serious reference chasing. Even without the reference chasing, though, I feel comfortable doubting whether anyone has thought to study 12-month-old orphans specifically in this connection.)

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Put a bottle or other baby milk source between your lips and say "m". Then try "b". (You'll need a bit of vowel with the "b", since it's not a sonorant.) I think you'll see point.

No references for you, but I think that's the conventional wisdom among us linguists.

Paul

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Paul, that's an interesting point! That could explain some of the differentiation, but it seems that there's got to be more to the story than that, since it wouldn't really (as far as I can see) explain Kate's differentiation or the striking tendency (if I may boldly generalize from two!) for babies to say baba/dada and the like when exploring.

Emily said...

Hi Eric,

Just a point of clarification: In addition to using these 'words' differently with respect to what her mood is or what she seems to need, does Kate seem already to associate 'mama' with your wife and 'baba' with you? does she reach toward you or otherwise indicate when she says 'baba' and toward your wife when she says 'mama'?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm inclined to think not. My wife has noticed a couple of times when she reached for or look at her and said "mama", but it may have been coincidence. Certainly nothing consistent.

Anonymous said...

Studying linguistics as an undergraduate, the explanation given was that the m sound and the d sound are both involved in breast feeding (or bottle sucking although less so). Both placed lips (m sound) and tongue on back of teeth (d sound) both are needed for nursing. So those muscles are developed and under some kind of control.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That makes sense, but why the differentiation -- the "m" with mothers and the "d" with fathers?

Anonymous said...

I've heard from different sources that in the Georgian language these words are reversed. So mama=father and deda=mother.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hm, interesting -- thanks!

Anonymous said...

Before my oldest was talking, at about eight months old, I noticed she said "mama" only when distressed. My now three month old does the same thing. It is really fascinating. The relationship between the "sucking" position and /m/ is interesting.

Similarly, has anyone studied the universal (I think) head shake for "no"? I think it comes out of the refusal of food before the ability to speak.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I've heard that hypothesis about head shaking and food refusal before. It seems plausible but I don't know if it has been carefully studied.

Anonymous said...

just speculation but head shaking might instead be what you might call "shaking an idea out of your head" or more simply "distracting yourself" just like one distracts a baby from being upset.
It could be rather hard to distinguish these sorts of things.

GNZ

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought!