They’re two of the first words we learn, and two that we use most often in our early years of life. Loaded with meaning at once unique to each person, yet universal to everyone, variations of the words mom and dad can be found in numerous languages, going back centuries, if not millennia. But exactly how old are those specific words? And just why do we call our parents by them, anyway?
According to Carrie Gillon, co-founder of Quick Brown Fox Consulting, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and co-hosts linguistics podcast The Vocal Fries, the exact word of “mom” is actually fairly recent, in the grand scheme of things. The first documented use of it dates back to just 1867. Before that, we’d say “mommy” (dating back to 1844), or, if you go even further back, “mamma” (which was first used in the 1570s).
“But ‘mama’ or its equivalent goes back a very long time (4500 B.C.E.), and it’s uncertain how far back ‘dad’ goes (at the very least 1500 B.C.E.),” she says.
Gillon explains that “mamma” is what linguists call a “reduplication” (or a doubling) from Indo-European, a predecessor, or root, language for English, Greek, Sanskrit, and more. (It was common tongue from about 4500 B.C.E. to about 2500 B.C.E.) That’s why the common origins of “Mom” can be found in languages, both ancient and modern, throughout Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. For example, the Greek word for mother is “mamme,” while it’s “mamma” in Latin. Persian, Russian, Lithuanian and French all say “mama” while the Welsh use the word “mam.”
That said, many non-Indo-European languages have words that resemble these “ma-“ words, from the Hindu “māṁ” to the Korean “mo,” “So perhaps it goes back further than that,” Gillon suggests. “But not all languages use this form, so it’s not universal. Very, very common—maybe even nearly universal—but not universal.”
While the first known use of “dad” is about 1500 B.C.E., Gillon says it, like “mom,” is likely much older. Again, there are forms in lots of Indo-European languages, such as the Greek (“tata”), Sanskrit (“tatah”), Irish (“daid”), and Welsh (“tad”). “There may be other words for ‘dad’ that I don’t know in these languages,” Gillon emphasizes. “And it’s really unclear how universal dad is, or how far back it goes.”
These words are thought to grow out of the fact that regardless of where they are in the world, babies tend to make similar babbling sounds as they begin to speak—usually using softer consonants produced by the lips, such as B, P and M, making words like “baba,” “papa” and “mama” typical early “protowords.”
Linguist Roman Jakobson has stated that babies make the sounds for “mama” as a “slight nasal murmur” while breastfeeding, which might explain why there is such similarity even between countries and cultures with little else in common.
“This is plausible, if a little bit funny,” says Gillon. “Since it’s one of the first sounds we learn, and we make the sound while breastfeeding, perhaps it’s the first word-like thing we say and parents across the world and time turn that into one of the words for mother. Speculative, but possible.”
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