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.