Q: I can see how “mother” gave birth to “mom,” “mommy,” and so on, but how did we get “dad,” “daddy,” “pop,” etc., from “father”?
A: The various “mom,” “pop,” and “dad” words are all probably derived from the “ma,” “pa,” and “da” sounds that babbling infants utter and that parents mistakenly think are references to mother and father. The parents then respond with baby talk that gives reduplicative, or doubled, sounds like “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” a maternal or paternal sense.
The linguist Roman Jakobson has suggested that this process begins while babies are nursing: “Often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full.”
After nursing, he says, “the nasal murmur may be supplied with an oral, particularly labial release; it may also obtain an optional vocalic support.” (The “nasal murmur” is an m-m-m sound; the “labial release” and “vocalic support” produce an a-a-h sound.)
Jakobson’s comments are from “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa,’ ” a paper presented on May 26, 1959, at a linguistics seminar at Stanford University, and published in Perspectives in Psychological Theory (1960), edited by Bernard Kaplan and Seymour Wapner.
Since the mother is the source of a baby’s nourishment, Jakobson writes, “most of the infant’s longings are addressed to her, and children, being prompted and instigated by the extant nursery words, gradually turn the nursery interjection [“mama”] into a parental term, and adapt its expressive make-up to their regular phonemic patter.” In other words, “mama” comes to mean “mother” to the child.
Jakobson’s baby-talk approach, which is generally accepted by linguists, focuses on the physiological ability of infants to make various vowel and consonant sounds:
“Nursery coinages are accepted for a wider circulation in the child-adult verbal intercourse only if they meet the infant’s linguistic requirements” and “reflect the salient features and tendencies of children’s speech development.”
As it turns out, “a” is the easiest vowel for a babbling baby to produce. All you have to do is open your mouth and make a noise. Two of the easiest consonant sounds are “m” and “p.” All you have to do is put your lips together—no tongue or teeth required. That’s why they’re called labials.
The letter “d” is a bit harder since you have to put the tip of your tongue against the upper gum or upper teeth (the upper teeth don’t arrive until around 8 to 10 months of age).
The “f” and “th” sounds in “father” and “mother” are much harder to make, and even a toddler may have trouble with them. (In Old English, the “th” of “father” and “mother” was a “d,” which may have made things a little easier for Anglo-Saxon children.)
Of the various parental nursery terms in English, babbling infants generally say “mama” first, followed by “papa,” and then “dada,” according to linguists. The duplicatives “baba,” “nana,” and “tata” (plus “mama” and “papa”) and their variants are infantile parental terms in other languages.
English-speaking parents, as we’ve said, hear familiar speech sounds and assume that “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” are attempts to say “mother” and “father.” By repetition, pointing, smiling, head-shaking, and so on, the parents instill that belief in their babies and it becomes mutually reinforced.
In addition to Jakobson’s paper, we’ve relied on related comments by the linguists Larry Trask, John McWhorter, William Poser, Nancy J. Frishberg, and Robert A. Papen.
The Oxford English Dictionary says “mom” is a shortening of “momma,” a variant of “mama,” which is “probably ultimately [from] a (reduplicated) syllable /ma/ which is characteristic of early infantile vocalization and regarded by some as a development of the sound sometimes made by a baby when breastfeeding.”
Similarly, the OED says “dad” is probably derived from “an imitative or expressive formation” made up of the reduplicated syllable “da” and “characteristic of early infantile vocalization.”
And “papa” is also probably derived from a reduplicated syllable characteristic of early infantile vocalization. Oxford notes that πάππας (“pappas”) was the way a young child in ancient Greece pronounced πατήρ (“patir” or father).
Here, according to Oxford citations, are the dates when various parental terms were first recorded in English writing: “mama” (1555), “momma” (1803), “mom” (1846), and “mommy” (1846); “papa” (1681), “pa” (1773), “pop” (1840); “daddy” (1523), “dad” (1533), “dada” (1672), and “da” (1851). Linguists note that similar nursery words in other languages aren’t etymologically related, but the result of early infant-adult communication.
Of course, unrecorded examples of “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” undoubtedly occurred long before those dates. In fact, one scholar has suggested that a version of “mama” may have been one of the first words uttered by humans or their hominin ancestors:
“It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the equivalent of the English word ‘Mama’ may well have been one of the first conventional words developed by early hominins.” From a 2004 article by Dean Falk, a neuroanthropologist who specializes in the evolution of the brain and cognition in higher primates. (“Prelinguistic Evolution in Early Hominins: Whence Motherese?” in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.)