Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mama and papa

I don't like a kid who calls his mother Mother all the time. It's one of the few prejudices that I got. I think there's something unnatural about it. Maybe it's okay for some kid in England to keep on calling his mother Mother but I don't think it's right over here. A kid should call his mother Ma or Mom. I don't mean Mommy. But not Mother all the time. There's something sneaky about it.
Robert Campbell, The Cat's Meow

As prejudices go, this one expressed by Jimmy Flannery, Robert Campbell's narrator in The Cat's Meow, seems a bit silly, although don't most prejudices look silly when viewed from a distance? Even so, I'll bet many, perhaps most, of us, react negatively when we hear a child call his mother Mother, or an adult call his mother Mommy. The former seems, if not sneaky as Flannery suggests, at least snobbish. The latter seems childish. At some point in childhood, most of us stopped saying Mommy and Daddy and chose other words to call our parents. I chose Mom and Dad. My son called me Pa, and still does.

We have a number of options in English. For our mother, in addition in those words already mentioned, we can select from maw, mamma, mammy, mam, mater, mum, mumsy, mummy, mummy and even motherkins. Other choices for fathers include papa, pater, pappy and pop. For grandparents the options seem to be endless. Often it comes down to however a child first pronounces grandpa or grandma.

And that brings me to Vivian Cook's discussion in It's All in a Word. Cook wonders why in most of the world's languages, the words for father begin with a p or a t and the words for mother start with an m. He suggests three possibilities. One is that when you are a baby looking at your parents' faces, the "only sounds you can 'see' them make are with the lips and the tongue near the front of the mouth."  That means words beginning with p, t or m.

Another theory is that "the easiest way for babies to make a consonant is to open and close the lips, getting a 'p' or 'b' sound, or keep the lips closed and divert the air to the nose to get an 'm.'"

Yet another possibility is that the similar words came simply from babies' babbling. Babies, he says, have been heard to say mama as early as two weeks after birth. As far as their mothers are concerned, their little darlings have said their first word.

I find it fascinating that the dearest words in the English language, or any language, may have come literally from the mouths of babes.

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