Kinship terms around the world

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

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.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

The website introduces and explains the project and then provides a short survey, which you are invited to complete in as much detail as possible. The results of the crowd-sourced study will be available to the public for open-source use and will be of considerable linguistic, anthropological, and general interest. From the site:

We’ve created a simple survey that asks you to list your language’s kinship terms. We’re looking specifically for the “formal” terms for the female and male parents (‘mother’ and ‘father’ in English, for example), as well as the vocative or “nursery” terms for the parents, as well as other family members (‘oma’ and ‘opa’ in German, for example). If you don’t know or are unsure of all the terms in your language, that’s okay, too! Any information that you can provide is tremendously helpful.

We’re also looking for more than just the terms themselves: stress and tone are important for us, too, so if your language makes use of them in its kinship terms, let us know!

You can do so here.


13 Responses to Kinship terms around the world

  1. stuartnz says:

    I like that “deedee” is ‘younger brother’ in Mandarin and ‘older sister’ in Hindi-Urdu. So when I meet my Dad’s firstborn I can say “my deedee’s catching up with her deedee”

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s good! When I first heard ‘Mom’ and ‘Mommy’ in Ireland I thought it was through the influence of US English, because ‘Mam(my)’ is what I grew up using and hearing from others. But later I figured the vowel sound may simply be borrowed from Irish Mamaí, which is closer to ‘Mommy’. American TV may still play a part, of course.

      • speedwell says:

        Not according to my Irish mother-in-law. I’m the American who married her son. Once I playfully called her “mommy” because she was giving me advice like I was a little girl, and she retorted playfully, “I’m not your Mamaí, you Yankee”. The niece from Australia realised we’d used two different words.

        • Stan Carey says:

          I don’t think the possible connection between ‘Mommy’ and Mamaí even occurs to Irish people a lot of the time. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me, and I’ve seen it surprise others when pointed out to them.

  2. Roger Hill says:

    It seems to me that “great language muster” as a phrase prompts the reader toward monogenesis, which I would call a fixation —
    – and away from the more interesting /multiple origins/ view of language. Monogenesis is easier to market than multiple origins , and a phrase such as “great language muster” surely appeals to the mono- view. I say drop mono- and go poly-. If you can locate what David Crystal once said about the mono- vs poly- views of language origins, please cite. I came across it in one of his books long ago but unable since. I say multiple origins as a theory is more interesting partly because it is more difficult to describe. Crystal describes it very well. But the poly- view works also as a corrective to the oversimplification that monogenesis would deliver. And it helps discredit clay-footed idols like “nostratic” and “edenic”. And, psst: poly- doesn’t want a cracker. I agree, I need to read the post in full, but that’s how it is with prompts, real or perceived.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The phrase Great Language Muster didn’t suggest monogenesis to me at all, for what it’s worth. Here’s David Crystal on that subject, from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language:

  3. dw says:

    Is “mang” a very awkward attempt to render a nasalized /mɑ̃ː/?

  4. Hi there! Thanks, Stan, for sharing the project! I just want to emphasise to anyone who might be interested that the survey shouldn’t take more than 3-5 minutes to complete, and that the results will be made freely available at the end of data collection for use and view by everyone!

  5. adamf2011 says:

    To my surprise, I found out that in Mon (a southeast Asian language), “mama” means older sister.

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