Out of the mouths of babes

When they are around six to eight months old, babies begin to babble, experimenting with consonant-vowel combinations like 'da da,' 'bi bi,' or 'koy koy.' This babbling has produced the only two words found in a majority of the world’s languages: mama and papa

Workers travel on a speed boat past an inflatable Rubber Duck installation by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, on a lake at a botanic garden in Changsha, Hunan province, China on Sept. 21, 2015.

My daughter’s first word was “duh,” which my husband and I interpreted as “duck” because she loved her little yellow rubber duckie. (My son’s first word was “underdog,” which is a different story). “Duh” is typical of the early sounds babies make all over the world. When they are around six to eight months old, babies begin to babble, experimenting with consonant-vowel combinations like “da da,” “bi bi,” or “koy koy.” This babbling has produced the only two words found in a majority of the world’s languages: mama and papa

It is not surprising that mama is an intimate word for mother in both German and Urdu, since these are distantly related Indo-European languages. But variations of mama are found across the globe in completely unrelated languages, from Mandarin (mama) in China to Igbo (mama) in Nigeria to Tamil (amma) in India. Papa varies a bit more: It’s tatay in Tagalog, baba in Persian, and daa in Chechen, for example. Linguist Roman Jakobson hypothesized that ma, closely followed by pa/da/ta/ba, are the easiest sounds for new human tongues to produce. Over and over, excited parents heard this “talking” and hopefully assumed that these sounds referred to them. Eventually the babbling was codified into words, and so wherever there are parents, there are children who refer to them with some form of mama and papa

Another of these baby sounds has been surprisingly productive of English words: “ba ba.” This combination gives us babble itself, the name for babies’ early linguistic experiments as well as for any foolish, incoherent, or especially voluble speech. Babble is thus an example of onomatopoeia, since its “sound suggests its sense,” as Merriam-Webster’s dictionary puts it. Baby too comes from the “ba ba” of infant vocalization. 

Baby babbling has also given rise to two quite negative words. The ancient Greeks famously considered anyone who did not speak Greek to be “uncivilized.” They mocked these people as barbaroi because they were thought to make incomprehensible noises – “ba ba” or “bar bar” – like babies rather than speaking a “real” language. 

In English, barbarian now means more or less the same thing, referring to a savage, uncultured person. In the 13th century, the “ba ba” sound also produced the French word babewene, a foolish or stupid person. This became the English baboon, the common term for ground-dwelling monkeys with large canine teeth, of the genus Papio.

One word that seems as if it must have a similar origin is babel, but this word for “a confusing hubbub or din” doesn’t actually derive from baby noises. Babel and its tower, though, is our topic for next week.

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