Originally published in Babel – The Language Magazine
Shortly after our first daughter was born in 2005, I wrote in my diary:
Everything feels like it has changed. I am a mother now. In less than a year there will be a little voice calling me mummy. Actually already it has started: one of the nurses came over this morning and cheerfully asked: ‘Mummy will you feed her now?’ I did not realise she was addressing me at first.
This piece is not about the identity changes that come with being a new parent – authors like Rachel Cusk have written eloquently on that topic. Here, I reflect on what language and culture have to do with those changes, and in particular why we use terms like ‘Mummy’, ‘Daddy’ and other similar words to refer to parents even when it is us – another adult – addressing them. Why do most children use these same names for their parents? Why is there such a need to emphasise that our parents are our parents, or indeed that we ourselves are parents? What is the function of parents and kin?
I am a speech and language therapist and my research focuses on young children’s language acquisition. I am interested in how infants acquire their first words, using early vocalisations to make social connections and putting labels to objects and concepts based on their experiences. As a clinician working with children who have communication difficulties, I was used to asking parents about that supposedly momentous milestone. However, I later realised that the notion of first words is hazy, and not a clearly delineated moment. Skipping forward in my diary to shortly after our daughter’s first birthday, I see that her vocabulary included words like ‘Mama’, ‘Dada’, ‘Norna’ (Norman, the family schnauzer), ‘hiya’, ‘go’ and ‘wawa’ (water). How much of my own interpretation, or that of my culture, do these word-meaning associations represent?
First words can be more innocuous than momentous: the line between early vocalisations or babbling and a ‘proper’ first word is usually unclear. It can be challenging to identify what constitutes a ‘word’ and its supposed meaning. The author Michael Erard notes that “The messy wordishness of early language makes it less of a definitive milestone than some of kids’ other developmental moments, like first steps or sexual maturity.” Few cultures have ceremonies to mark a child’s production of first words. But despite the ‘messy wordishness’ and the challenges of identifying first words, what they are and what they might mean, ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ were at the top of our daughter’s list of first words.
Based on my clinical experience and an enormous body of research into early language acquisition, that’s no surprise. In many languages around the world, there are first words referring to ‘mother’ and ‘father’; even across languages that are not related, they often resemble each other, something ‘mama’-like for the mother and ‘dada’-like for the father. The shape of the words, short and often with repeated syllables, seems designed to be easy for young children to produce. Much has been written about the phonology of these early words, but it is their semantic aspects that are the focus here, in particular the apparently early appearance of words for mother and father. Can these words – or at least our interpretation or ‘sense-making’ of them – provide clues about the nature of human societies?
Humans are social beings and language is heavily influenced by our social environment. Babies arrive hardwired to be part of the social world. Their very cute ‘babyness’ ensures we have (mostly) endless patience with them. As carers, we are quick to interpret their sounds – vocalisations, burps or giggles – as turns that contribute meaningfully to the ebb and flow of conversation. When a baby plays with his/her lips and airstream to produce something that sounds like ‘mmmm’ or ‘baba’, they are likely to attract the caregiver’s attention. Carers will respond to this vocalisation with delighted enthusiasm as if the word ‘mama’ has been spoken, although it may be that the baby was simply playing around with his/her mouth and trying to grab the carer’s attention.
The purpose of first words seems more likely to be primarily social, a kind of ‘reaching out’, rather than an abstract labeling or referencing function. When our second daughter, Tabitha (aged 15 months), said ‘yaya’ while looking at her four-year old sibling, Dominique, we were quick to conclude that she was referring to her sister. Although there are few phonological similarities between ‘yaya’ and ‘Dominique’, we interpreted Tabitha’s vocalisation as a new ‘naming’ of her sister. ‘Yaya’ should probably have been considered a general attempt to reach out, but that vocalisation and its irresistable subsequent interpretation created powerful sibling bonds, drawing our family closer as a unit. For many years we called Dominique ‘Yaya’, especially when talking to – or about – her in the presence of her younger sibling, and she too sometimes referred to herself in the third person as ‘Yaya’ when interacting with her sister.
Michael Erard describes his son’s first word as “Something that sounded like eh, accompanied by a beckoning gesture […] I would paraphrase its meaning as ‘Hey you, over there; I am over here looking at you’”. Perhaps the meaning of young Erard’s ‘eh’ was similar to what Tabitha really intended by ‘Yaya.’ Of course, she grew out of ‘Yaya’ and learnt to say her sister’s name. But once children have developed sufficiently to produce all the sounds of their language, why don’t they move on and call their parents by name too, casting aside those early, easy-to-master forms? Conversely, why don’t we just call our parents and siblings by words such as ‘Yaya’ or ‘eh’? Why do many 40-year-old adults (myself included) still call their parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’?
Part of the answer may be simple habit: these terms become firmly embedded over time. But there may be more to it than that. Consider the discomfort – which may range from an ever-so-slight odd feeling to excruciating – for many people (child or adult) when asked to speak to or about their parents using their first names. Although not universal, such discomfort is common. Jose Maanmieli, a theorist and researcher who studies the relationship between morality and language (and another adult who calls his elderly parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’), considers that to do otherwise could be perceived as disrespectful, almost like treating them as children. He notes that “When peers call parents by their personal names, these are ‘brothers and sisters’, so that’s fine. But when children refer to their parents by given names it may seem like they are trying to swap roles.”
Parent labels can be used in two ways: to refer to someone in the third person, as in ‘Mom went to the shops’ or to address someone by name, e.g. ‘Mom, when are you coming back?’ Here, ‘mom’ could be used interchangeably with the mother’s name, e.g. ‘Jane went to the shops’, ‘Jane, when are you coming back?’ The terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ behave exactly like proper names, although of course they are not, as illustrated by the fact that many moms’ heads will turn at the sound of a distressed child.
The use of first names as alternatives is of interest in its own right. There are few unique first names and many carry implications of normativity. One of the grandparents in our family, feeling too young to be called ‘Granny’ or ‘Grandmother’, asked that we encourage our daughters to call her by her first name. Although we did this, our daughters still defaulted to calling her ‘Granny’ or ‘Nana’ when talking to her, seemingly unable to break the taboo and call her by her given name. Interestingly, when referring to their grandmother in the third person they did (and do) use her first name as requested.
Maanmieli describes ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ as “sort of proper-common nouns for an individual one talks to-about”. This fits with the formal analysis of linguists such as Haviland and Clarke, who described children’s progression from using kinship terms as proper nouns towards a more complex relational understanding, and also with Silverstein’s observation that kin terms as lexical items stand between more indexical forms (e.g. pronouns and proper nouns) and less deictic forms (e.g. common nouns).
Maanmieli further contends that ‘mom’/‘dad’ kin terms (and associated terms that centre around them) are powerful and deeply entrenched for biological reasons. For example, family pets are often named, usually because we love and value them – they are special examples of their kind. We would not consider calling the family dog by the generic term ‘dog’ when his name is Norman. But the mother of the family, despite being loved and valued (hopefully in equal or greater measure) is more likely to be called by the generic ‘mom’/‘mother’ than her specific given name. Why do we do this? And why is there so little metalinguistic awareness about doing this?
Maanmieli suggests the answer is a long-standing conflation of the natural (being a biological parent) and social (being the ‘boss’ of the child). Families, societies and countries are built around implicit and explicit rules. In the workplace, being a line manager means a set of explicitly-documented responsibilities. Being a parent or caregiver also involves responsibilities, but ‘biology’ makes these implicit and absolute. Within the home, families have acceptable ways of behaving, such as where family members sleep and eat, and how they greet each other. The use of the ‘parent labels’ serves to reinforce and entrench the structure of the family, transmitting the importance of a kinship/family structure along the phylogenetic tree.
The way in which ‘mother’ combines address and reference (to ‘the mother’) reflects the cognitive conflation. By contrast, saying ‘Jane’ does not refer to a natural type of individual, ‘a jane’. The cognitive conflation creates a private, intersubjective ‘reality’ of natural relations. Imagine each time someone called you by your name this meant that you are ‘a michelle’ or ‘a jimi’ or ‘a lebo’, and that these labels meant more than a role or an invention: a claim to objective reality conflating natural (description) and social (prescription) laws. Such considerations contrast with a linguistic or philosophical view of sense and reference.
Someone called ‘mother’ or ‘father’ becomes that thing and must follow natural laws in that role. Thus writing in my diary “I am a mother now” signalled, perhaps, both the obvious objective biological description and – more subtly – an awareness of prescription, a subjective sense of responsibility.
In a sense, these parent labels have a moralistic purpose; they ignore our full complexity and humanity, and tell us what we should be doing. Child-directed speech – the specific way in which adults modify their speech when talking to babies and young children – may feed into these purposes. Long considered a way for carers to promote and support young children’s communication, child-directed speech is characterised by the use of simple vocabulary that often focuses on the here-and-now, the exaggerated use of prosodic cues such as intonation, and short simple sentences. But the function of child-directed speech may be more about socialisation, establishing a framework for the child to understand the rules of their family and society, than a means to help children learn to speak or relate to others.
Analysis of child-directed speech suggests that although personal pronouns (‘you’, ‘me’) are used, parents often refer to themselves and the other main carer using labels such as ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ in very explicit ways, e.g. ‘Time for a little sleep. Let mommy change your nappy first, then daddy will take you for a little walk’. As in many children’s stories, our use of child-directed speech may serve to emphasise these two key roles for the child, underlining the parents’ unique and powerful position in the social hierarchy.
Others, even beyond the family, may support this way of speaking and presenting the world. For example, Maanmieli describes an adult friend saying: “Poor daddy! He would rather have a free day but mummy needs some time off”, when talking to the child and her father – similar to my opening example when the nurse referred to me as ‘mummy’. My ‘yaya’ example also shows the way in which all family members – parents and a 4-year-old sibling (admittedly, the latter probably taking her lead from the parents) – tried to view the world from the perspective of the new baby: ‘She’s verbalising so let’s attach that to something. It might help her with language learning, and it might help sibling relationships.’ Social norms can thus be mistaken for knowledge, and society confused with nature.
Maanmieli considers that in some ways philosophy itself might be seen as ‘an advanced form of baby talk’ that sets up social rules of hierarchy and conflates a particular (arbitrary, human) society with nature in the manner of myth and storytelling. Young children are socialised to see only their family with the parents at the helm; similarly, social norms may lead us to believe that there is only one sort of society with one government or god to follow. These views may be presented as the truth, but might be contrasted with the objective reality of many different sorts of families, many different ‘moms’ and ‘dads’, and many societies and religions.
My own practice in clinical settings with children who have delayed language acquisition is premised on the fact that, in order to acquire language, children with language delays may need more intensive language input than typically developing children. Speech and language therapists work to facilitate explicit connections to help the child develop their vocabulary. Using nouns to label important people in the environment, including oneself, is a useful strategy to help the child understand who is who. Pronouns and the use of deictic terms such as ‘me’ and ‘you’ (used interchangeably for different referents depending on perspective) are often acquired relatively late by children with language difficulties, and there is plenty of literature on how children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder struggle to see the world from the perspective of others. Even for typically-developing children, kinship terms can be challenging, given the social importance, wide range of terms, and complexity of family relationships. The dual roles that we all carry (e.g. being simultaneously a mother and a daughter) and the way in which different cultures use these terms add to the complexity. Interestingly, although there are several speech-language therapy programmes that include kinship terms as part of the intervention to help children with language difficulties, there is limited research that specifically considers children with speech and language disorders and their acquisition of these terms.
Working in culturally-diverse Southern Africa offers some further perspectives on the cultural aspects of kinship issues. Many African cultures do not distinguish between the nuclear and extended family – there is only one large family – and even the notion of ‘strangers’ defies translation in some languages. Kinship terms are used in different and specific ways to denote respect and underline relationships in the social structure. In isiXhosa, an acceptable informal greeting when meeting a female of a similar age would be Molo sisi wam (‘Hello, my sister’), even if that person is not a blood relative, and Molo mama for an older woman or mother and child. The ‘ubuntu’ philosophy – we are all interlinked – means that we are all part of a shared humanity, one large family. This is reflected in the way in which kinship terms are used and social aspects related to acceptable greetings. In strict amaXhosa culture, married women are forbidden to speak their husband’s name – to do so would be a sign of disrespect, and even similar-sounding words or phrases are avoided. The women must find substitute terms for the taboo words: synonyms, circumlocutions, loan-words, or phonological substitutions.
Again, language reflects the structure and rules of society, a stronger form of the taboo – or at least discomfort – some adults feel calling their parents by their first names. To understand language acquisition, the nature and purpose of child-directed speech and how we use kinship terms, we need to consider different languages and cultures. Although many studies focus on these areas, there are languages and cultures where these phenomena have yet to be investigated. Child-directed speech may take very different forms in majority world countries, although of course its ultimate purpose may turn out to be exactly as Maanmieli suggests: imposing a strong social framework.
The case of ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ provides a fascinating focal point for discussions of language, cognition and society, which may help advance our understanding of current social issues such as blended families and non-binary gender identities. The kinship systems that these terms outline are indeed an intrinsic part of human culture. Yet children only join these systems through their exposure to a language or languages. So, do words like ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ – or at least our interpretation of these words – provide clues about human nature and our different, often inconsistent moral values? It seems clear that our interpretation of these terms offers insights into where we have come from and the way we live, and child language acquisition lies at the heart of this insight.
At the same time, I feel that we should hold onto these terms. It is fourteen years since our first child was born and I am now very used to being called ‘Mummy’. These days I note with mixed emotions how my daughters sometimes call me ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’, but also use other names when talking to and about me – not my first name exactly, but a hybrid nickname that is a mixture of my own name and ‘Mommy’. In many ways it feels like a privilege to be a mother and be called ‘mother’. I hope that the crazy, playful nicknames my daughters favour signal an appreciation of me as a person and a friend, my full complexity and humanity.
Language can fulfill societal functions of maintaining structure in a given time and over time, but it is also endlessly playful, a creative conduit to express and celebrate who we are and the links between us.
Rachel Cusk’s (2002) A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (Fourth Estate) is a beautiful, thought-provoking book about motherhood.
Marilyn May Vihman (2014) Phonological Development: The First Two Years (Wiley Blackwell) is a must-read for anyone interested in early speech-sound acquisition.
Michael Erard’s (2019) Atlantic article ‘The mystery of babies’ first words’ is an accessible overview of early lexical acquisition, available at http://theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/04/babies-first-words-babbling-or-actual-language/588289.
John McWhorter’s (2015) Atlantic article ‘Why “mom” and “dad” sound so similar in so many languages’ is a fun and engaging look at a strange linguistic coincidence, available at http://theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/words-momdad-similar-languages/409810/.
Jose Maanmieli’s (2019) article ‘The nature of kinship: From dad and mum to god and society’ (Alethes, 1) provides original perspectives on the nature of kinship, available at https://alethes.net/journals/the-nature-of-kinship-terms-from-dad-and-mum-to-god-and-society/