Where “mama” means dad!

For most of us, the words mum and dad, or perhaps mama and papa, hold a very special meaning. But, have you ever thought about how widespread those words might be? Or why?

The word mama has the same meaning in a huge range of languages; it’s almost the same from Chinese to Arabic to Swahili to (old) English. And for dads, it’s almost as widespread, if not quite so uniform – with some variation of papa, baba or tata around the globe. You can find some examples from around the world here.

Why is this so?

There’ve been various suggestions and pieces of research that look at whether this is the result of some shared, ancient ancestry or, perhaps, more recent sharing – or whether it’s arisen independently, yet very widely, simply as a result of how human babies start to talk. It can be difficult to know which is the best explanation. But, one of the best ways to test these various ideas is to look at some very different languages. The more different, the better.

Enter Pitjantjatjara! One of hundreds of Aboriginal Australian languages that diverged from all others tens of thousands of years ago, its last, ancestral connection with other world languages may have been 50,000 years ago.

Of course, it’s had some modern influences – but they’re quite obvious acquisitions: aiti (eight) or mutuka (motor car), for instance. But any other similarities – like tjitji for children, which sounds indistinguishable from dzieci for children in Polish – must surely be coincidences, with no common ancestry.

So, drum roll, how do Pitjantjatjara speakers (Anangu) say mama and papa, or mum/mom and dad?

Well, mama is the word for dad – and papa is the word for … a dog !

This supports the idea that some of the simplest words are used for some of the first, or most significant, things babies see (Aboriginal Australians have had a close connection with dogs, or dingos, for thousands of years). But, it doesn’t support some theories about how the word mama is linked to mums; clearly, mums are not always the ‘m’ word! (They’re ngunytu, in case you happen to wonder. It seems a bit of a mouthful for most Europeans, but apparently not so for the youngest Anangu!) As it happens, mama means dad in Georgian too – while, in that particular language, deda means mum. And, a number of English-speaking families report that they had a child who, when young, referred to their dad as mama or mum!

If you’re interested in more fun facts about families on this site – just a bit of a change of pace, perhaps – do let us know. But, for now it’s papa (which is bye-bye in Polish) or tata (in English) from all of us at Two Wishes.