Babbling is a key stage in language acquisition. We can see where it fits into the overall progression in the following “very rough” table taken from Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics:
|Language stage||Beginning age|
|Intonation patterns||8 months|
|1-word utterances||1 year|
|2-word utterances||18 months|
|Word inflections||2 years|
|Questions, negatives||2¼ years|
|Rare or complex constructions||5 years|
|Mature speech||10 years|
After the cooing or gurgling phase from which it develops, babbling has a distinctly speech-like quality because it features “sounds that are chopped up rhythmically by oral articulations into syllable-like sequences”, as Mark Liberman describes it.
The sounds most associated with babbling are mama, papa, dada, nana and slight variations thereon — as for example in the well-known video of twin babies repeating dada (and dadadadada, etc.) to each other.
This is true of a great many languages from different language families and parts of the world. The remarkable correspondence can be seen in a list included in Larry Trask’s “Where do mama/papa words come from?”, about which more below:
Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first — as experiments in vocalization — and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.
If you open your mouth and make a sound, it will probably be an open vowel like /a/ unless you move your tongue or lips. The easiest consonants are perhaps the bilabials /m/, /p/, and /b/, requiring no movement of the tongue, followed by consonants made by raising the front of the tongue: /d/, /t/, and /n/. Add a dash of reduplication, and you get mama, papa, baba, dada, tata, nana.
That such words refer to people (typically parents or other guardians) is something we have imposed on the sounds and incorporated into our languages and cultures; the meanings don’t inhere in the sounds as uttered by babies, which are more likely calls for food or attention. The Articulate Mammal includes an observation by Charles Darwin, that his son
made the great step forward of inventing a word for food, namely, mum but what led him to it I did not discover.
So mama/papa words are a matter not of precocious word-learning but of the convenience of certain phonetic articulations. That, at any rate, is the idea generally accepted by linguists.
At the cooing stage, the child is producing no recognizable speech sounds, and so the parents do not suppose that the child is trying to speak. However, once the child moves on to the babbling stage, the eager parents suddenly start hearing familiar speech sounds and recognizable syllables — and so they at once conclude, delightedly, that little Jennifer is trying to speak.
Now, this conclusion is an error. . . . Babbling appears to be no more than a way of experimenting with the vocal tract, and babbled sounds like mama and dada are not intended as meaningful utterances.
An ancestral world language, dubbed “Proto-World”, is sometimes proposed as an explanation for what gave rise to the mamas and the papas. Trask demolishes this suggestion, showing decisively why it’s not only wrong but daft and impossible. His persuasive essay (PDF) is also a very interesting study in etymology and language change.
Both Trask and Aitchison refer to “Why ‘mama’ and ‘papa’?” (1959), a paper written by Roman Jakobson in response to anthropologist George Murdock’s request for an explanation of data Murdock had compiled of “nursery forms” in various countries. According to Jakobson, mama/papa words gave rise to our adult parental words mother and father:
in Indo-European, the intellectualized parental designations mātēr and pətēr were built from the nursery forms with the help of the suffix -ter used for various kin terms.
These nursery forms, Jakobson wrote, “are based on the polarity between the optimal consonant and the optimal vowel”. In that pleasing phrase you can hear the swish of Occam’s razor.
From the mouths of babbling babes, then, mama and papa are not yet the terms of endearment we might wish them to be. But by being recreated generation after generation, these simple baby sounds have had a profound influence on our most basic family words in languages around the world.
A note from Arnold Zwicky’s paper ‘Mistakes’ (1980) (PDF):
William Labov (‘Denotation Structure’ in Papers from the Parasession on the Lexicon, Chicago Linguistic Society, 1978) has described in some detail the meanings associated with his daughter Jessie’s first words. Mama was used at first to refer to Jessie’s mother, father, any one of her three (teenaged) sisters, and her (teenaged) brother, but not to herself or to anyone outside her immediate family. A few months later, Jessie began to use dada. By then, mama was used only for her mother, but dada was at first used for both her father and brother. A month later, mama and dada were each being used to refer to a single person.