I’m Molly. That’s “Mama.”: of first words and breasts

Simon’s second word, after “ball,” was “mama.”* This is interesting, because Eric and I go by our first names with our children. In other words, no one has ever said “mama” to Simon, not once in his entire life, except for all of us mimicking the various babbling sounds he’s made as he’s tried to wrap his mouth and brain around this language thing the larger people seem to do. So what’s with “mama”?

He means breastmilk. As in, I am so hungry! Why are you not feeding me? We all call nursing “milkies,” and “mamamama!” seems to be about as close as his little mouth can get right now. I’m not Mama, but what he wants from me is.

Have you seen this piece on why words very close to mama appear in so many languages around the world? It’s drawing on linguist Roman Jakobson’s 1962 essay “Why Mama and Papa?,” which the author calls “the definitive study on ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ as universal terms.” (I don’t know the literature, but I’m guessing this is actually a theory and that it’s far from definitive! Like everything in every scholarly field. But whatever.) The newer piece nutshells:

Babies can make vowel sounds (cries) from day one. And they do. Constantly. As they begin to experiment with making other noises, babies will test some of the easier consonant sounds. Usually they start with the sounds made with closed lips, or “labial sounds” such as /m/ /p/ /b/. Babies summon their energy to push out that new consonant sound “MMMM” and then relax into an open mouth vowel, usually “ah” — which is the easiest. When you combine that with a baby’s natural repetition in speech, or “babbling,” you get ” ma-ma”, “ba-ba” “pa-pa,” and so on.

So why do babies gravitate to the “m” sound instead of “p” or “b”? Because of breasts, of course! The “m” sound is the easiest for a baby mouth to make when wrapped around a warm delicious breast. Even as adults, we still associate “mmm” with something being yummy and good. So does your baby.

Jakobson’s work suggest that your baby has no idea your name is Mama, (or Dada for that matter). [...] It means “food.”

At least for Simon, that appears to hold quite true.

Oh, how I oversimplify. Here’s the more complex truth: Simon has pretty clearly been saying “ball” for a while now—though more like “ba!”—definitely for balls and maybe for toys more generally. (He used to just call everything ba, but no longer.) And “mamama,” “mama,” or just “ma!” for breastmilk, aka milkies. And we think “da” for dog, too, but he also seems to say something very similar for “that” (pointing at various things of interest). He probably started saying words around the beginning of May, and his first word was probably ball. It’s funny: this time, I’m baffled as to how people identity a “first word” on a particular date, even though I think we did that for Noah without lots of confusion and uncertainty (though, granted, we now know we were wrong about it: video footage suggests Noah was speaking quite a bit before Eric and I admitted it).

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One Comment

  1. Posted 23 May 2013 at 7:17 PM | Permalink

    I find that piece so fascinating, and its premise so…so obvious now that I think about it. (And so obvious now that I’m not placing my narcissistic desire to have my baby give ME a name at the center of my interpretation of his words. Ha.)

    That’s so wonderful that you have video footage where you can notice this about Noah’s first adventures in language. I’m not sure that we have anything like that for the boys, at least none that I currently recognize or remember.

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