Monday, April 10, 2017

Revisiting Why "Mama" and "Papa" by Evan Defrancesco

Have you ever wondered why all languages seemingly have more or less the same terms for ‘mother’ and ‘father’?  In 1959, American anthropologist G.P. Murdock looked at the language data from his study of over 500 world cultures and wondered the same question.  Since he didn't have much training in linguistics, he opened the question up to the wider community.

The linguist Roman Jakobson took up the question and published his answer in the groundbreaking paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”.’ Kinship terms like ‘mama’ and ‘papa’, Jakobson argued, weren’t passed down through the ages from some proto-human language; rather, they were reinvented by each child, as they began to explore their phonetic capabilities.

Nearly 60 years later, is Jakobson’s conclusion still as robust as it once was? Andrew Nevins, a professor of linguistics at University College London, is attempting to answer that question and more in ‘Revisiting Mama and Papa.’  Are there patterns that Jakobson missed? What kinds of combinations of sounds are allowed in a kinship term? What patterns of sounds exist for relations beyond just the mother and father?

For this project to work, though, we need your help! We’re trying to collect data to match Murdock’s original samples from over 500 languages, and we can’t do it all on our own.  We need native speakers and language enthusiasts to help us find out what the kinship terms in all these languages are.  We’ve created a survey – The Great Language Muster – to help collect the data, and we’re hoping that you’ll contribute to it! Your participation is vital, and we intend to acknowledge that by making all the data open source at the end of the collection period.  Good science happens when good data are shared!  

The scope of this project is huge, and it has the potential to begin to answer some exciting questions in linguistics, linguistic anthropology and cognitive science.  We hope you’ll choose to be a part of it!


Evan DeFrancesco is a postgraduate student in linguistics at University College London, serving as Andrew Nevin’s research assistant.  He’s never met a word that he didn’t like, but he couldn’t care less about the Oxfotrd comma. When not thinking about syllable structure, Evan enjoys whitewater kayaking and writing about himself in the third-person.  He tweets about linguistics and trivialities: