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.
Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Foster, expanded from a short story published in the New Yorker in 2010, has an idiom I remember hearing in childhood and only seldom since. The book’s narrator is a young girl in an unfamiliar place, accompanied here by a woman, Mrs Kinsella, with whom she is staying temporarily:
Out in the street, the sun feels strong again, blinding. Some part of me wishes it would go away, that it would cloud over so I could see properly. We meet people the woman knows. Some of these people stare at me and ask who I am. One of them has a new baby in a pushchair. Mrs Kinsella bends down and coos and he slobbers a little and starts to cry.
‘He’s making strange,’ the mother says. ‘Pay no heed.’
The verb phrase make strange means to act up or be nervous or shy, etc., when encountering a stranger or strange situation. It’s normally said of babies or small children, but not always.
Mary Morrissy’s story ‘Two China Dogs’, from her collection A Lazy Eye, uses the expression a couple of times:
A sullen nature might have compensated, but I was a sullen child. I would sit in the playpen, the toys ranged carefully outside, staring solemnly through the bars. I remember the strange distortions of my caged world. Huge legs and feet, my mother’s mottled calves, the glint of her copper hair as she bent to pick me up, her eyes the startled green of an angry cat’s bearing down on me. She complained that I made strange with people. But it was they who made strange with me. Neighbours would not bend over cooing into this pram, or if they did, they would suddenly withdraw, uncertain and embarrassed.
Like many expressions characteristic of Hiberno-English it seems to have been loaned from Irish, where coimhthíos a dhéanamh le duine literally means ‘to make strangeness with someone’, or to be shy or aloof in their presence; coimhthíos means strangeness, shyness, aloofness or alienation.
Another phrase, bheith deoranta le duine, means essentially the same thing with a different verb (be rather than make) and, said of adults, can also mean to be distant with someone.
John Banville, in The Untouchable, points to a sinister origin in folklore:
The Chicago Tribune had a brief article in January on baby naming trends, specifically the practice of naming children after places. It mentions the importance of timing:
“Fashionable names risk a kairos problem,” says speech consultant Jay Heinrichs . . . . “Kairos is the rhetorical art of timing. The Romans called it Occasio and made it a god with a beautiful youthful body who was bald on the back of his head,” Heinrichs says. “The occasion, such as a moment of fashion, ages quickly – hence the wonderful expression, ‘Fortune is bald behind.'”
That’s twice lately I’ve seen the same striking phrase. For a fuller exposition of its meaning I defer to Dr Stephen Maturin, in colourful conversation with Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s historical novel The Mauritius Command:
‘Far be it from me to decry patient laborious staff-work,’ said the Governor. ‘We have seen its gratifying results on this island: but, gentlemen, time and tide wait for no man; and I must remind you that Fortune is bald behind.’
Walking away from the Residence through streets placarded with the Governor’s proclamation, Jack said to Stephen, ‘What is this that Farquhar tells us about Fortune? Is she supposed to have the mange?’
‘I conceive he was referring to the old tag – his meaning was, that she must be seized by the forelock, since once she is passed there is no clapping on to her hair, at all. In the figure she ships none abaft the ears, if you follow me.’
‘Oh, I see. Rather well put: though I doubt those heavy-sided lobsters will smoke the simile.’ He paused, considering, and said, ‘It doesn’t sound very eligible, bald behind; but, however, it is all figurative, all figurative . . .’
Does Jack say it “doesn’t sound very eligible” because bald behind could be interpreted as a reference to a bottom instead of the back of a head? Or is it on account of its obscurity?
In any case, it’s a memorable expression, and a search online shows a popular variation: “Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.”
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:
Rare or complex constructions
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:
Some of you will have seen these videos already: Sam and Ren, fraternal twins, engaged in a conversation of very animated babbling. Regardless of your tolerance for cute-baby videos, the chat is great fun and quite fascinating to watch – especially the second video, which has been watched many millions of times in just a few weeks:
The boys’ mother is a twin herself, and she shares her family’s adventures here. (After the footage went viral, it wasn’t long before parodies popped up, but I’ve yet to see one worth linking to.) Some of the mediacoverage suggests the possibility that the twins have a “secret language”, but this is improbable. As Mark Liberman writes in a comment at Language Log,
It seems unlikely that material as phonetically unmodulated as this recording actually contains any communicated lexical material (as opposed to acting out conversational interaction without any propositional content). The “private languages” of siblings are not like this, for an obvious reason: it’s hard to develop an effective human spoken language with only one syllable. . . . It’s possible that variations in timing and pitch are carrying some quasi-lexical information here . . . but I rather doubt it.
Sam and Ren’s discussion might be minimal in its selection of syllables, but the twins show great range of tone, timing, and gesture. They deploy all sorts of conversational skills, and the fact that they are twins means each has a peer at a similar level of development with whom he can practise.
Many of their vocalisations take the form of reduplicated or reduplicative babbling (e.g., da-da-da), but there’s far more communication taking place than just repetition of simple utterances. Hope Dickinson, of the Speech-Language Pathology Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, says the twins are
demonstrating great mimicking of multiple aspects of conversation. . . . One thing they are using wonderfully is turn taking, as in first one “talks” and then pauses and the other responds. . . . There is fantastic rise and fall to their pitch and tones. Sentences or exclamations end loudly and emphatically, and there is also some questioning (rising) intonation. They are using gestures to supplement their talking, much like adults do. Their body distance is even very appropriate for most Americans; not too close, but not too far either.
Already, these twins have a greater command of turn-taking than some adults I’ve encountered, to say nothing of their infectious enthusiasm for, and delight in, simple conversation. Or not so simple. As the great computer intelligence Golem remarked, in Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, “Babble can be highly complex!”
We can’t say if the twins at that stage of development really can understand that the behavior they are practicing is language which communicates a very specific meaning. It may very well be that they are simply mimicking the entire behavior – intonation pattern, gestures, and turn-taking – and gaining an understanding that these actions and sounds produce certain results or behaviors when these large, lumbering adult creatures in the house perform them, and maybe they should learn to do the same.