Why do we call our parents Mum, Dad and other similar words? Researchers tend to say that those words come from the sounds babies make, but this isn’t a very satisfactory answer. Probably all societies call parents by names and nicknames that mean they are parents. This is very strange when you think about it. Whenever someone is special we give them a proper name. Parents are very special but we give them common names.
This practice does not seem to change with adulthood or cultural progress. In modern society, a father will typically get upset if you, as his child, called him by his personal name. On the other hand, you will get upset if he did not call your dog Charlie but any other word indicating a dog. ‘I am your father’, he will argue, and draw on his biological knowledge. Whereas you will give a number of cultural reasons why your dog is special.
Traditionally, the relationship between language and reality is viewed from two fundamental perspectives.[i] One sees the mind as a sort of computer that would allow the child to identify her real parents. The other perspective sees it as a sociocultural entity, so that such a reality could not be something the child logically discovers, but something that is created in interaction with others.
This theoretical dichotomy is probably as unhelpful as arguing with your parents over who is special and why. It means that science does not understand words that are central to our sense of reality. Indeed, it is true that parenthood has a biological basis, but it is also true that parenting is a markedly cultural activity. Should we not elucidate this question before attempting to solve any other big mysteries? This has been in my mind ever since I became a parent myself.
A question of meanings
We know that all languages have words and their respective meanings. Yet there are clearly two types of meanings: natural and social. All societies must have words for the earth, the sky and the rain because all human beings encounter and name these things. These are what I call natural meanings. On the other hand, there are words that depend on each cultural context, that is, words that refer to things only certain people do. For example, a shaman uses a dhami/jhankri altar only in Nepal, whereas in England they have doctors who work in hospitals. These are social meanings. Essentially, we arrive at natural meanings when we describe reality, whereas we create social meanings in order to prescribe behaviour.
Now, what is interesting about Mum, Dad or any other kinship term is that these words combine a natural and a social meaning. This is because, of course, all human beings naturally encounter parents and kin, while at the same time being a parent or kin involves doing different things in different societies. In many societies, mothers are not supposed to encourage their daughters to have sex before marriage, but in some societies they are. Often a child is supposed to marry their cousin, or believed to have several mothers and fathers.[ii] These different roles are all mediated by language.
We humans can use language to prescribe all sorts of roles and group membership, so that addressing someone as Father in Nepal has something in common with addressing someone as Doctor in an English hospital. We do this to invoke a social behaviour and context—being a father in Nepal or a doctor in a hospital—that we do not naturally expect. One might argue that chimpanzee calls are also meant to produce such a change of behaviour in others. However, chimps do not tend to give each other roles.
Imagine a speaking chimp calling his mother Mum. This makes little sense, because a female chimp will behave as a mother regardless of what she is being called; and no matter which group of chimps a female belongs to, this biological function remains the same. Language can also transmit these natural meanings—what may be called knowledge—in the same way as we describe the earth, the sky and the rain. Thus, in a society, the word mother reflects the universal knowledge that a child has come from a certain woman who has a caring instinct, but it also reflects a certain way of taking care of children. This makes the word very confusing, as it effectively indicates what is ‘naturally’ expected of mothers in different societies.
What is going on here? There is another important feature of language that conflates natural and social meanings. It is myth. Consider the Greek goddess Gaia, ‘Mother Earth’, who gave birth to all life and the gods by having sex with her son Uranus, ‘Father Sky’.[iii] Those gods engaged in all manner of personal drama but also caused thunder and the seasons. The Christian God, too, created the world with his word, yet this was a kind of test to see if we would engage in moral relationships. Societies have always tried to explain the world not so much for the sake of knowledge, but to persuade their future generations to obey their norms as if they were immutable, natural laws. This is an unconscious process, in which we deceive ourselves that the myth is real while we know at some level that we are wearing masks.
Small children cannot understand what we mean by Mother Earth, the Nation or God the Father, but they can understand the parental language that forms the basis of those myths. They grow up hearing stories about anthropomorphic animals who have kinship roles, such as Mama Bear or the Big Bad Wolf. These narratives have an important cognitive and emotional function. However, eventually we learn that the behaviour of spouses, parents and children is part of the workings of the universe and should be seriously expected, as one expects rain. Our lives then necessitate ‘meaning’ in an absolute, prescriptive sense that disguises as a description of reality: ‘What is the meaning of life?’
It is my impression that we receive most of our earliest and most lasting instructions in the form of attributions. One is, say, told one is a good or a bad boy or girl, not only instructed to be a good or bad boy or girl.’
—R. D. Laing (1971, p. 78)
We call parents—and ourselves as parents—‘parents’ because we are telling them what they ‘are’. That is, we are telling these people what they must do, echoing how their own parents spoke to them when they were small. This is how our species maintains the moral essence of myth, unconsciously. (It is useful to distinguish morality, as a linguistic device, from ethics or ethical emotions.) Myth is the linguistic way in which our competing tribes have been organised since time immemorial, and though we have progressed in letting go of it, we are still under its cognitive grip.[iv] Our knowledge of biological relatedness supports the system of kinship that defines each society, but parenthood is mainly a declaration. A parent is anyone who is considered responsible for our sexual relations, whom we will marry and how we will conduct moral aspects of our life.
None of this controlling activity is exactly natural—if we understand nature as opposed to culture—but it can lead to a strong predisposition. The father who feels offended because you have used his personal name reacts as though you had broken a law of nature. You ought to call him a father because of the way things are in reality, such as that he conceived you and loves you. Ironically, where your father is valued for being a father, your dog is devalued for being a dog. He ought to call your dog Charlie because your relationship with this animal is also a loving reality, as valid as the ‘biological’ reality your father invokes. However, both arguments are just a cultural game that has little to do with the science of biology.
This kind of ambivalent, pseudo-natural attachment is the foundation of every society. It is probably why we have such long childhoods compared to other animals, and certainly why our bond with parents and grandparents lasts for a lifetime—a feature we only share with a handful of other species, and even then only in the case of grandmas.[v] What is more, these bonds can transcend a lifetime, as they are bonds between characters more than between persons. In a way, we are eternal children who are being watched by parents and gods of all kinds, and who are also watchers insofar as children too have an interest in these idealistic relationships.
The psychology of myth can be reduced to the way we were spoken to when we were small. Developmental linguists call this peculiarity child-directed speech or baby talk. Consider a nanny who says to the child, ‘Mummy has to go to work’, as the mother leaves and they wave goodbye. In her speech, the nanny does not specify whose mother she means(that is, she’s not saying your mummy has to go to work), but through this ambiguity she makes an abstract idea feel paradoxically close. Similarly, when we say, ‘Dad left you out of the will’ or ‘God, why have you forsaken me!’, it is as if we inhabited a common mind that makes these characters always present.
This effect was illustrated by a children’s mental health specialist, who was contacted as part of Live Science’s enquiry into this ordinary mystery.[vi] The specialist said that the pronouns I and you are too abstract, and that the point of baby talk is to ‘indicate the relationship, “mommy and me”’. Yet it is the other way around. The pronouns I and you primarily indicate a physical distinction between two different minds; whereas mommy indicates someone who could possibly be your nanny’s mother, someone you don’t even know. The mommy will use the third person to refer to herself also in a situated context, ‘Mommy has to go to work’, which makes this form of speech rather abstract and self-deceptive.
This specialist’s answer is common and surely related to the conflicting emotions that underlie such an aspect of language. It illustrates that even those who study the mind can prefer traditional answers to scientific ones.[vii] The advancement of science, however, has always consisted in overcoming these kinds of taboos and existential assumptions. This brings us closer to psychoanalysts and their more personal research of children and families. The ’60s philosopher and ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R.D. Laing, in particular, paid more attention to the way language shaped these most important relationships. His was a time when psychiatrists considered homosexuality a mental illness, just as calling someone a homosexual was considered an insult, someone could not be a respectful spouse and parent.
Today homosexuality is no longer a diagnosable ‘disorder’, though it could be argued that psychiatry and its ‘biomedical’ model still consists in the unconscious elaboration of a moralising language. The number of mental diagnoses has gone from 106 in 1952 to the current 297. The same is the case with the multiple ways in which people experience gender or sexual orientation these days, or the number of social and individual identities that have populated the internet. Society resembles an ever-complex myth, whose characters spiral around the ‘biology’ or the ‘reality’ of calling someone a parent or a child.
The challenge for science
Today many people continue to suffer, essentially, because of words that have to do directly or indirectly with reproduction. I have never heard of anyone who dislikes being called a parent, though the new generations don’t seem to have such a good relationship with parenting as a whole.[viii] I personally am Jose for my own children, even though I have trouble calling my parents anything but Mum and Dad. I seek a more realistic view of these moral issues and how they relate to our existential troubles.[ix] This seems to require a good understanding of language.
We have a good understanding of life because we have looked at living things and found common characteristics, such as reproduction. Any pattern that repeats tends to arouse our curiosity. Why do babies cry? Why does water fall from the sky? There has clearly been an exception, though, in the case of language. We haven’t noticed this rather strange, universal moral of calling our parents ‘parents’. As I mentioned at the beginning, there is an old debate in linguistics that pits those who believe that language is a kind of mental computation against those who believe it is a cultural tool.[x] They cannot agree on whether the grammars of our different languages are very much alike or are instead very different—and they take it personally. Why have biologists been relatively able to agree on a definition of life, yet linguists have not agreed on a definition of language?
As I have explained, the problem is not with grammar but with meaning.[xi] The first kind of linguist believes in natural meanings only, whereas the second believes in social meanings only. Biologists don’t have this problem insofar as they seek knowledge about non-human beings and the morality of language—how we are supposed to conceptualise people—does not interfere in their thinking. Chemists, physicists and engineers are also, of course, unaffected. However, in the study of human behaviour, there are plenty of social meanings that we mistake for natural meanings in the way I have illustrated. Take for example, money, a symbol of tyranny and patriarchy for many. What is money? Is it whatever people believe is money, or is there an objective definition of it?[xii] Likewise, what is society? What is God? Why do we use these words as though there were no other moneys, societies or gods, just as we use the words Mother and Father?
When faced with the question of why we use words in this way, scientists perhaps feel uncomfortable. It seems easier to favour each view of human behaviour, social or ‘natural’, in competition, much in the way the left and the right do in a context of politics. However, as living organisms, we must have an insight into our own nature. All science depends on language, language depends on kinship, and kinship is built on our first and most important relationships. I believe we can overcome the challenges we now face by becoming more curious about our daily lives.
Allen, N. J., Callan, H., Dunbar, R., & James, W. (2011). Early human kinship: From sex to social reproduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Barnard, A. (2008). The co-evolution of language and kinship. In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar & W. James (Eds.) Early human kinship: from sex to social reproduction (pp. 232-243). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Barnard, A. (2010). Mythology and the Evolution of Language. In A. D. Smith, M. Schouwstra, B. de Boer & K. Smith (Eds.) The Evolution Of Language (pp. 11-18). London: World Scientific Publishing.
Barnard, A. (2013). Cognitive and social aspects of language origins. In C. Lefebvre, B. Comrie & H. Cohen (Eds.) New Perspectives on the Origins of Language (pp. 53-71). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Laing, R. D. (1971). The Politics of the Family, and Other Essays. London: Psychology Press
Lidz, J., Snyder, W., & Pater, J. (Eds.). (2016). The Oxford handbook of developmental linguistics. Oxford University Press.
Maanmieli, J. (2018). A descriptive explanation of morality (v1.0). Alethes.net, 1(1) Retrieved from http://alethes.net/journal/
Maanmieli, J. (2019). The nature of kinship terms: From dad and mum to god and society (v1.0). Alethes.net, 1(1) Retrieved from http://alethes.net/journal
Saxton, M. (2017). Child language:
Acquisition and development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
[i] These perspectives go back to the way Aristotle disagreed with Plato on the problem of universals or the properties of things. The first believed these were always instantiated in the material world, whereas the second thought they existed separately as ideal forms. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that philosophers realised this metaphysical disagreement was all about language, with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein taking the respective positions of seeing ‘meanings’ as some kind of atoms versus seeing them as the result of human activity. However, as I have explained, this problem can be reduced to the very ‘unphilosophical’ question of whether the nouns Mummy and Daddy are common or proper, because being a parent is a primary property for any human mind or society.
[ii] The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea are a famous example of a matriarchal society that discourages virginity. The same is true of American Indian tribes. Having several mothers and/or fathers is a feature of many societies that is relevant to the study of kinship terminology. In the case of several fathers, there can also be partible paternity. We should remind ourselves that these are not mere labels, but words that register the same kind of beliefs and emotions we hold about our parents in Western societies.
[iv] Language and kinship are two inventions that probably co-evolved (Barnard, 2008; Allen, Callan, Dunbar, & James, 2011). Eventually, language (and kinship) reached a complexity that cannot be explained if we think of it as a mere means of communication. It is its function as a vehicle for narratives and myths that explains how some of the oldest known populations of hunter-gatherers, such as the Naro, can have 26 words for ‘talking’ and spend their days telling intricate stories filled with rhetoric, deceit, and of course relatives (Barnard, 2010; 2013).
[vii] Developmental linguists themselves still put Mummy and Daddy in the same category of study as Alice and Bill or the names of objects or food (see e.g., Lidz, Snyder, & Pater, 2016; Saxton, 2017).
[xi] See especially ‘The nature of kinship terms: From mum and dad to god and society’.