Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

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.

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The Wug-Plant

September 16, 2016

‘Precious Artifact’ is a short story by Philip K. Dick that I read recently in the collection The Golden Man (Methuen, 1981). I won’t get into the story here, or the book, except to lend context to a phrase he coined for it. But if you’re averse to mild spoilers, skip ahead a little.

The phrase is introduced when the protagonist, based on Mars, is preparing to return to Earth, or Terra as it’s called in the story:

philip-k-dick-golden-man-methuen-book-coverMilt Biskle said, “I want you to do something for me. I feel too tired, too—” He gestured. “Or depressed, maybe. Anyhow I’d like you to make arrangements for my gear, including my wug-plant, to be put aboard a transport returning to Terra.”

Milt’s singling out the wug-plant is significant both narratively (for reasons I’ll ignore) and emotionally: he’s attached to it to the point of calling it a pet. Later, on ‘Terra’, he finds it has not prospered in the new climate (‘my wug-plant isn’t thriving’), and soon afterwards ‘he found his Martian wug-plant dead’.

But wug-plant is most significant linguistically. Those of you with a background or interest in linguistics will know why, but for the benefit of other readers I’ll explain briefly.

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Language acquisition and the ‘wild child’ Genie

August 23, 2016

An area of language acquisition that has attracted considerable scholarly (and lay) interest is the so-called critical period hypothesis. This proposes a critical period in childhood during which people need to acquire a language in order to become fully proficient in it.

Abby Kaplan’s new book Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained has a helpful chapter on this, investigating whether the ability to acquire a language falls sharply or gradually after a certain age, whether the progressive difficulty in acquiring a second language is universal or admits exceptions, and so on.

In examining whether early childhood exposure to language is vital for its acquisition, Kaplan writes that one source of evidence is ‘the very sad cases of people who weren’t exposed to a language as children, usually due to extreme abuse or neglect’.

A famous example is Genie, who was found in 1970 aged 13 having spent most of her life until then in isolation.

Genie - Secret of the Wild Child documentary PBS Nova

Image of Genie from the Nova documentary ‘Secret of the Wild Child’

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What will the future of ‘like’ bilaik?

December 18, 2015

The rise of quotative like (I was like, What?) has been swift and striking since it emerged a few decades ago. No word stays exactly the same, but the changes and extensions to like have been more noticeable than most on account of its versatility, popularity, and prominence.

So what will happen to like in the future? More change, if these tweets are anything to go by:

If you click on Sarah’s first tweet (or its date, in some browsers) you can read more follow-up discussion.

I would have been confused by what the child meant, and I’d probably have exhausted her patience long before figuring it out. The fact that Sarah Shulist is a linguistic anthropologist and Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist (who has done research on like) may have helped them infer the child’s intent more quickly in each case.

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Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

August 13, 2012

I’ve been enjoying Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999). More technical and focused than his popular bestseller The Language Instinct, it is effectively a monograph on linguistic irregularity, examining in particular how we inflect verbs for past tense and plurality, and what the exceptions can tell us about the structure of language and our minds.

In chapter 7, ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’, Pinker points out that children sometimes know that the mistakes they make are mistakes. He cites Dan Slobin and Tom Bever, psycholinguists who inserted their children’s speech errors into their own speech and recorded the results:

TOM: Where’s Mommy?
CHILD: Mommy goed to the store.
TOM: Mommy goed to the store?
CHILD: NO! (annoyed) Daddy, I say it that way, not you.

CHILD: You readed some of it too . . . she readed all the rest.
DAN: She read the whole thing to you, huh?
CHILD: Nu-uh, you read some.
DAN: Oh, that’s right, yeah, I readed the beginning of it.
CHILD: Readed? (annoyed surprise) Read! (pronounced rĕd)
DAN: Oh yeah, read.
CHILD: Will you stop that, Papa?

Pinker infers from this, and from the evidence of more controlled studies, that children know irregular forms better than we might suppose; as they progressively master these forms, their errors are ‘slip-ups in which they cannot slot an irregular form into a sentence in real time’. Adults make similar slips, though nowhere near as often.

The main points of Words and Rules are set out in a short lecture (PDF) of the same name, while the London Review of Books has a critical review by Charles Yang.


The mamas & the papas in babies’ babbling

January 2, 2012

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:

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