The mamas & the papas in babies’ babbling

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
 Crying  Birth
 Cooing  6 weeks
 Babbling  6 months
 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.

An excellent essay by Larry Trask, “Where do mama/papa words come from?” (PDF), attributes to wishful thinking the inference that babies babble mama to mean mother:

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.

Tom Chivers has brief coverage of this at the Telegraph.

Otto Jespersen’s book Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin has several pages on this topic. Here’s how the section begins:

In the nurseries of all countries a little comedy has in all ages been played – the baby lies and babbles his ‘mamama’ or ‘amama’ or ‘papapa’ or ‘apapa’ or ‘bababa’ or ‘ababab’ without associating the slightest meaning with his mouth-games, and his grown-up friends, in their joy over the precocious child, assign to these syllables a rational sense, accustomed as they are themselves to the fact of an uttered sound having a content, a thought, an idea, corresponding to it. So we get a whole class of words, distinguished by a simplicity of sound-formation – never two consonants together, generally the same consonant repeated with an a between, frequently also with an a at the end – words
found in many languages, often in different forms, but with essentially the same meaning.

First we have words for ‘mother.’ It is very natural that the mother who is greeted by her happy child with the sound ‘mama’ should take it as though the child were calling her ‘mama,’ and since she frequently comes to the cradle when she hears the sound, the child himself does learn to use these syllables when he wants to call her. In this way they become a recognized word for the idea ‘mother’ – now with the stress on the first syllable, now on the second.

28 Responses to The mamas & the papas in babies’ babbling

  1. John Cowan says:

    It drove my wife and my daughter crazy when my daughter and grandson, respectively, were saying papa but not yet mama.

  2. dw says:

    The Urdu/Hindi don’t rhyme with “bang”, as one might guess given the transliteration. They’re actually just nasalized: [mɑ̃]

  3. well said. I have said before (though never written up so well) that the commonalities between “mama”-class words are no sign of UG or of proto-world, but of the desire (and practical likelihood) of mom & dad to be the first referent in baby’s language.

    The commonalities cross-lingually for baby words for parents indicate very little about the baby’s ability to form the mental denotation of [ma:ma:] as “that adult who feeds me”.

    The mechanics of a babbling juvenile oropharynx determine the universality of [ma:ma:] far more specifically than any cultural (or ‘language module’) explanations (again with Ockham’s blade!). Assigning these similarities to a PW or UG explanation is as absurd as assuming that my teakettle calls me with its own special word ([i:::::]) that denotes “that man who comes to turn the heat down and empty me”.

  4. Stan says:

    John: Did you tell them those “words” were not what they might seem?

    dw: Thank you for clarifying. So mang is an oversimplification.

    Jeremy: Very well put, and your teakettle example gave me the giggles! I also like how you put it on Google+: “a cultural universal is biologically determined.” Jakobson’s explanation seems obvious when you think about it, but it’s also very easy to see how the fantasy would be created (and recreated perpetually) thanks to parents’ emotional and cultural expectations.

    I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while — ever since reading Aitchison’s book, which is full of fascinating references and studies. My niece is a little over six months old now; spending time with her over Christmas is probably what finally triggered the post.

  5. languagehat says:

    Fun fact: In Georgian, mama is ‘father’ (and ‘mother’ is deda).

  6. I never thought of it like this but such a perfectly simple explanation. On the other hand some parents do believe that floccipaucinhilipilification is the first utterance of their child… until the realise that the nappy is full!.

    Here’s wishing you a very happy New Year!

  7. John Cowan says:

    Sure, but reason does not trump pique.

  8. Charles Sullivan says:

    “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.”

    But in Arabic there really is no ‘P’ sound. ‘B’ is usually substituted when Arab speakers encounter the ‘P’-sound in other languages.

    Clearly the phonemes children hear will have a strong influence, unless Arab children at a young age originally pronounce the ‘P’ sound but then lose it later (possible, but unlikely).

    My point is that I’m not convinced the ‘P’ sound is one of the “easiest word-like sounds for babies to make.” ‘M’, yes; ‘B’, yes: even ‘N’, but ‘P’ not so much.

  9. Stan says:

    Hat: That is a fun fact. Mama also means “father” in the Australian language of Pitjantjatjara, according to Trask’s article.

    Jams: That was pretty much my reaction when I first read about it. Many happy returns!

    John: That’s true.

    Charles: By “mama/papa words” I mean nursery forms: “mama, papa, dada, nana and slight variations thereon”, as I wrote in my post. You may well be right that /p/ is not as easy as /m/ or /b/.

  10. And of course, we mustn’t forget the third member of the trilogy, just as important as ma and pa in this constant reinvention, the bebè/beba/beibi/bébé/bayi/bebek/babi …

  11. eimear says:

    My eldest niece, at about one, used the “same” word with varying tone and emphasis to indicate different demands. So “mah-mee” might be used to her mother, but “mah-MEE!” addressed imperiously to any relevant adult meant, “You there, pick me up IMMEDIATELY”.

  12. Yvonne says:

    One of my earliest memories is of lying in a pram and how the adult speech around me sounded like the video twins’ babbling. Based on that and on the experience of listening to my own children’s early vocalisations I have always assumed that babies perceive reality quite acutely before they acquire the words to express their reaction to it. While I agree that mama/dada/baba are practice sounds with little meaning in themselves when these sounds are accompanied by facial expressions, chuckles or crying, a baby is managing to communicate at quite a sophisticated level.Thus, I think baby humans are cleverer than one might suppose.

  13. There’s a bit more going on than parents ‘mistakenly’ responding to babbling that resembles words: by responding positively, they reward the child for making sounds which are found in the language and reinforce them as desirable, significant sounds. This doesn’t contradict the mama/papa/dada principle, there is simply more than one process at work.

  14. Solsti says:

    In our large family in Ireland we used to use what now seem to be the most simple of all possible variants of these “primitive” word designations (until our neighbours and friends started to make fun of us which urged us to change to the more culturally acceptable [in our region] “Mam” and “Dad”).
    Our parents for these first years were “Mamma” (Ma-ma) and “Dadda” (Da-da), and all new siblings known as “Babba” (Ba-ba), all of these using two identical flat A vowels, like the A in “cat”.

    On top of this my maternal grandparents were “Nanna” (Na-na) and “Ganga” (all the same identical A vowel again) which I believe extends upon the earlier-mentioned “trilogy” series, using as they do the next easiest consonant groups (“Ganga” probably arising from “Ga-ga” or “Nga-nga” sounds).

    I’ve never met or read of any other family’s system having such a pure and primitive example of the phenomenon (but neither have I asked or searched very far), so maybe somebody here can concur or extend with theirs..?

    Best wishes,

  15. Stan says:

    Martyn: Indeed we mustn’t. There is a real-life example in Solsti’s comment, above.

    Eimear: Thanks for sharing that; it just goes to show the importance of tone.

    Yvonne: That’s a remarkable memory, and an important point. It’s too easy, and unfair, to assess children’s intelligence in proportion to their command of language at the expense of other, less obvious, abilities.

    Cheryl: That’s true, and it’s addressed in the links I’ve provided. That language acquisition occurs in a total environment of linguistic, gestural and emotional feedback, etc., is a given. I wasn’t trying to tell the whole story but I did simplify matters in my description of the process, so I’m glad you brought it up.

    Solsti: Thank you for the very interesting account. I don’t think your system is at all rare (or primitive, for that matter), but I haven’t looked into it or seen any studies of family naming practices (no doubt there have been some). In my family we addressed our parents as Mam and Dad, our grandmothers as Nan(ny) and Granny. We didn’t have a recurring word for newcomers. We gradually switched to more “grown-up” words, at least when referring to them as opposed to addressing them — but not always: it changed, and still changes, to suit the context.

  16. Sarah Ditum says:

    Excellent post – Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has a similar reverse engineered theory of language which might be relevant (and which you might already have come across elsewhere). Because all evolutionary developments have to be useful at every stage of development to be sustained, she argues that babbling isn’t just the process of learning language: it’s a useful-in-itself adaptation allowing human infants to stay in contact with their main carer when separated and forge links with extra-familial care givers. In this model, language developed out of babbling – rather as you describe parents inventing language out of the sounds their children make. A beautiful example of language as a collaboration between users, anyway.

  17. Stan says:

    Thanks, Sarah. Those are interesting ideas. I’m not familiar with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work, and it sounds as though that’s something I should remedy. Thank you for the lead. Language as a “collaboration between users” is a very apt description that extends beyond babbling to just about any linguistic exchange.

  18. johnwcowan says:

    Charles Sullivan: In fact, close attention by linguists shows in that early stages of babbling, babies use a much wider range of sounds than their native languages actually contain. Babbling is not imitation but play with the oral tract, as shown by the fact that even profoundly deaf babies do it. Later on, the range of sounds is restricted to native-language sounds only (in the case of deaf babies, silence). So yes, Arab babies probably do acquire [p] and then lose it.

  19. I thought of commenting when you wrote this, but wasn’t sure I had anything worth saying (just another data point). But now that my Christmas break is over, I have reconsidered.

    In my family, my parents are Mum and Dad, my grandparents on Dad’s side were Grandma and Grandpa, and my grandparents on Mum’s side were Grandnan and Papa.

    Papa came about by precisely the process you talk about. I was his first-born grandchild, and when I said “Papa” he decided that he would henceforth be known as such. Grandnan came about because her real name was Nancy.

    So far as I know, the only time I’ve ever used Mama was in a song I wrote about not wanting to be tickled by my sister. (“Don’t tickle me, I’m sick of the torture, don’t poke or kick or do what mama taught ya.) I am content if this song is mentioned here and nowhere else. Ever.

  20. Stan says:

    Thanks for the data point, Adrian, and for the song lyric! Your song sounds funny, and I bet it was pretty catchy. When I recall my nonsense verse about octopuses, I tend to hear it in the melody you put it to. But I’ll never mention your tickle-torture song anywhere but here.

  21. I recall asking how to spell “torture” when I wrote it, which gives you some indication of the age I was at the time. I can’t remember the rest of the lyrics precisely and have the impression they are not worth remembering. :-)

  22. […] difference between terminology and jargon, while Stan Carey got into inkhorn terms, and on his own blog engaged in some baby talk. […]

  23. In Armenian..:

    Mairik = Mother
    Hairik = Father

  24. […] I read a piece this week by the science writer Stan Carey, which explains that at about eight months, babies start making recognisable sounds. The first vowel is “aah”, because it requires […]

  25. […] guardians’ language as part of a natural process of learning our unique version of it, going from babbling to building novel sentences in a remarkably short period of time. (Birds, bats and dolphins are also said to go through a […]

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