Tag Archives: english

Why the Words for ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ Sound So Similar in So Many Languages – The Atlantic

Why the Words for ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ Sound So Similar in So Many Languages – The Atlantic

Is there anything inherently “doggy” about the word “dog”? Obviously not—to the French, a dog is a chien, to Russians a sobaka, to Mandarin Chinese-speakers a gǒu. These words have nothing in common, and none seem any more connected to the canine essence than any other. One runs up against that wall with pretty much any word.

Except some. The word for “mother” seems often either to be mama or have a nasal sound similar to m, like nana. The word for “father” seems often either to be papa or have a sound similar to p, like b, in it—such that you get something like baba. The word for “dad” may also have either d or t, which is a variation on saying d, just as p is on b. People say mama or nana, and then papa, baba, dada, or tata, worldwide.

Anyone who happens to know their way around a lot of languages can barely help noticing this eerie similarity. But when it comes to European languages closely related to English, like the Romance and Germanic ones, this isn’t so surprising. After all, these languages are children of what was once one language, which linguists call Proto-Indo-European and was likely spoken on the steppes of what is now Ukraine several millennia ago. So if French has maman andpapa, and Italian has mamma and babbo, and Norwegian has mamma and papa, then maybe that’s just a family matter.

But when we’re talking several millennia, even closely related languages have a way of morphing beyond recognition. For example, Welsh is also a child of that language from Ukraine, but neither French nor English has managed to produce words like that town name—Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—that the newscaster Liam Dutton recently became a viral sensation for pronouncing properly. For a member of the same linguistic family, Welsh has struck out pretty far on its own. Yet “mother” and “father” in Welsh are mam and tad.

Did Welsh pick this up from the English spoken amidst it in Great Britain? Perhaps—but the facts are the same with languages English is spoken much less “amidst.” In Africa, Swahili has mama and baba. In the Philippines, Tagalog hasnanay and tatay. Fijian has nana and tata. Mandarin, so intimidatingly different from English to the learner, soothes unexpectedly in offering up mama and baba. Chechen in the Caucasus? Naana and daa. Native American languages? Eskimo has anana and ataata; Koasati, spoken in Louisiana and Texas, turns out to havemamma and taata; down further in El Salvador, Pipil has naan and tatah.

It’s tempting to imagine this means that the first humans called their parentsmama and dada, and that those two warm, hearty words have survived the slings and arrows of human history to remain in use today. But the notion is too good to be true. Over time in language, sounds smush along their way to becoming new ones, and even the meanings people assign to a word drift all over the place.

Take that language in Ukraine that later became most of the languages of Europe. By comparing today’s languages and tracing backward, we can determine what a lot of the words in that Ukrainian language were, just as we can look at all of today’s mammals and the fossils of their ancestors and know that the first mammal was a rodent-like critter with hair that gave birth to live young. In Proto-Indo-European, the word mregh meant “short.” The Greeks’ version of that word came to refer to the upper arm, which is short, while in Latin it referred to a pastry that looked like crossed arms; the term then passed into French referring not to arms but shoulder straps. All of those words seeped into English later, such that what started as a word meaning “short” became “brachial” (from Greek), “pretzel” (the crossed arms, from Latin), and “bra” (“shoulder strap” became brassiere). The most direct descendant of mregh in English is “merry,” of all things. That which is short is often sweet, such that the word came to mean “short and sweet” and, eventually, just sweet—merry, that is.

Certainly, then, words like mama and dada wouldn’t necessarily stay the same, or even close to the same, in languages around the world and over tens of thousands of years. So what happened?


The answer lies with babies and how they start to talk. The pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson figured it out. If you’re a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you’ve been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals.

Babies “speaking” in this way are just playing. But adults don’t hear them that way. A baby says “mama” and it sounds as if he’s addressing someone—and the person he’s most likely addressing so early on is his mother. The mother takes “mama” as meaning her, and in speaking to her child refers to herself as “mama.” Voilà: a word mama that “means” mother. That would have happened with the first humans—but more to the point, it has happened with baby humans worldwide, whatever language they are speaking. That means that even as the first language was becoming countless others, this “mama mistake” was recreating “mama” as the word for “Mom,” whatever was going on with words like mregh.


Papa and dada happened for a similar pan-human reason. After babies begin making m with their lips, they pick up making a sound that involves a little more than just putting their lips together—namely, putting them together, holding them that way for a second, and then blowing out a puff of air. That’s p—or, depending on your mood, b. Alternatively, babies also start playing with their mouths a little further back from the lips—on that ridge behind the upper teeth that we burn inconveniently by sipping soup when it’s too hot. That’s where we make a t or a d. The order in which babies learn to make sounds explains why the next closest usual caretaker to mom is so often called papa or baba (or tata ordada).

There’s a similarly mundane explanation for another uncanny pattern among certain words. The linguist Johanna Nichols has noted that in Europe and much of northern Asia, the pronouns for “I” and “you” start with m and t—or something pronounced like t on that burnable ridge in the mouth, s—too often for it to be an accident. English-speakers are familiar with French’s moi and toi, or Spanish’s meand tu. It goes further, with Russian’s menja and tebja, Finnish’s minä and sinä, and even to Eurasian languages further east, like a language of Siberia called Yukaghir that uses met and tet.

Nichols has proposed that the reason a language like Yukaghir’s pronouns for Iand you look so much like the mama/tata alternation—as well as why French hasmoi and toi and English once had me and thou—is because even as these languages have changed over time, the sounds of the words for I and you have been influenced by the way mama and tata differ. The m sound is used for what is closest—mama for Mommy and “me” for the self. The t sound—often learned just after m—is for what’s just one step removed from the closest: Daddy hovering just over there, which we can understand would feel like “you” rather than “(Mommy and) me.”

This time, however, it isn’t the whole world—it’s just a part of Eurasia where this distinction happens to have shaped how pronouns sound. Elsewhere, words for “me” and “you” are, for example, Mandarin’s and or Indonesian’s saya andanda.


Otherwise, if we want to know why a word sounds the way it does, there are only glimmers. Indeed, in English, “glimmer” is one of many words starting with gl– that refer to light-oriented things—“glow,” “glare,” “glitter,” “gleam,” “glance,” “glower.” It’s also been shown that humans tend to associate tight sounds like eewith smallness and fleetness. The anthropologist Brent Berlin did a neat experiment in which he played 600 students two words from an obscure language of the Amazon, Huambisa, and asked which one referred to a bird (little and flittery) and which referred to a fish. The words were chunchuíkit and máuts. Almost all of the students intuited that chunchuíkit, with its tweety “chui,” was the bird.


Ultimately, language is vastly more than things like “Me glimmering, Mom!” No theory will ever account for why the words in a sentence like “He couldn’t even get halfway over that wall!” are the way they are. Language is too changeable to allow us that pleasure, standing as we are at the end of a possibly 150,000-year timeline since human speech began.




feitclub | It’s a katakana font (named “ゴウラ”) designed to…

feitclub | It’s a katakana font (named “ゴウラ”) designed to….

It’s a katakana font (named “ゴウラ”) designed to look like Olde English fancy print This must be the Japanese equivalent of that “asian” font you see on Chinese takeout boxes (via a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook. hat-tip to artofemilyo)


It’s a katakana font (named “ゴウラ”) designed to look like Olde English fancy print

This must be the Japanese equivalent of that “asian” font you see on Chinese takeout boxes

The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect | Gadget Lab | WIRED

The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect | Gadget Lab | WIRED.

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to call autocorrect the overlooked underwriter of our era of mobile prolixity. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to compose windy love letters from stadium bleachers, write novels on subway commutes, or dash off breakup texts while in line at the post office. Without it, we probably couldn’t even have phones that look anything like the ingots we tickle—the whole notion of touchscreen typing, where our podgy physical fingers are expected to land with precision on tiny virtual keys, is viable only when we have some serious software to tidy up after us. Because we know autocorrect is there as brace and cushion, we’re free to write with increased abandon, at times and in places where writing would otherwise be impossible. Thanks to autocorrect, the gap between whim and word is narrower than it’s ever been, and our world is awash in easily rendered thought.


I find him in a drably pastel conference room at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Dean Hachamovitch—inventor on the patent for autocorrect and the closest thing it has to an individual creator—reaches across the table to introduce himself.


Hachamovitch, now a vice president at Microsoft and head of data science for the entire corporation, is a likable and modest man. He freely concedes that he types teh as much as anyone. (Almost certainly he does not often type hte. As researchers have discovered, initial-letter transposition is a much rarer error.)


The notion of autocorrect was born when Hachamovitch began thinking about a functionality that already existed in Word. Thanks to Charles Simonyi, the longtime Microsoft executive widely recognized as the father of graphical word processing, Word had a “glossary” that could be used as a sort of auto-expander. You could set up a string of words—like insert logo—which, when typed and followed by a press of the F3 button, would get replaced by a JPEG of your company’s logo. Hachamovitch realized that this glossary could be used far more aggressively to correct common mistakes. He drew up a little code that would allow you to press the left arrow and F3 at any time and immediately replace teh with the. His aha moment came when he realized that, because English words are space-delimited, the space bar itself could trigger the replacement, to make correction … automatic! Hachamovitch drew up a list of common errors, and over the next years he and his team went on to solve many of the thorniest. Seperate would automatically change to separate. Accidental cap locks would adjust immediately (making dEAR grEG into Dear Greg). One Microsoft manager dubbed them the Department of Stupid PC Tricks.


One day Hachamovitch went into his boss’s machine and changed the autocorrect dictionary so that any time he typed Dean it was automatically changed to the name of his coworker Mike, and vice versa. (His boss kept both his computer and office locked after that.) Children were even quicker to grasp the comedic ramifications of the new tool. After Hachamovitch went to speak to his daughter’s third-grade class, he got emails from parents that read along the lines of “Thank you for coming to talk to my daughter’s class, but whenever I try to type her name I find it automatically transforms itself into ‘The pretty princess.’”


On idiom, some of its calls seemed fairly clear-cut: gorilla warfare became guerrilla warfare, for example, even though a wildlife biologist might find that an inconvenient assumption. But some of the calls were quite tricky, and one of the trickiest involved the issue of obscenity. On one hand, Word didn’t want to seem priggish; on the other, it couldn’t very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer. Microsoft was sensitive to these issues. The solution lay in expanding one of spell-check’s most special lists, bearing the understated title: “Words which should neither be flagged nor suggested.”


One day Vignola sent Bill Gates an email. (Thorpe couldn’t recall who Bill Vignola was or what he did.) Whenever Bill Vignola typed his own name in MS Word, the email to Gates explained, it was automatically changed to Bill Vaginal. Presumably Vignola caught this sometimes, but not always, and no doubt this serious man was sad to come across like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel. His email made it down the chain of command to Thorpe. And Bill Vaginal wasn’t the only complainant: As Thorpe recalls, Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs.

Thorpe went through the dictionary and took out all the words marked as “vulgar.” Then he threw in a few anatomical terms for good measure. The resulting list ran to hundreds of entries:

anally, asshole, battle-axe, battleaxe, bimbo, booger, boogers, butthead, Butthead …

With these sorts of master lists in place—the corrections, the exceptions, and the to-be-primly-ignored—the joists of autocorrect, then still a subdomain of spell-check, were in place for the early releases of Word. Microsoft’s dominance at the time ensured that autocorrect became globally ubiquitous, along with some of its idiosyncrasies. By the early 2000s, European bureaucrats would begin to notice what came to be called the Cupertino effect, whereby the word cooperation (bizarrely included only in hyphenated form in the standard Word dictionary) would be marked wrong, with a suggested change to Cupertino. There are thus many instances where one parliamentary back-bencher or another longs for increased Cupertino between nations. Since then, linguists have adopted the word cupertino as a term of art for such trapdoors that have been assimilated into the language.


Autocorrection is no longer an overqualified intern drawing up lists of directives; it’s now a vast statistical affair in which petabytes of public words are examined to decide when a usage is popular enough to become a probabilistically savvy replacement. The work of the autocorrect team has been made algorithmic and outsourced to the cloud.

A handful of factors are taken into account to weight the variables: keyboard proximity, phonetic similarity, linguistic context. But it’s essentially a big popularity contest. A Microsoft engineer showed me a slide where somebody was trying to search for the long-named Austrian action star who became governor of California. Schwarzenegger, he explained, “is about 10,000 times more popular in the world than its variants”—Shwaranegar or Scuzzynectar or what have you. Autocorrect has become an index of the most popular way to spell and order certain words.

When English spelling was first standardized, it was by the effective fiat of those who controlled the communicative means of production. Dictionaries and usage guides have always represented compromises between top-down prescriptivists—those who believe language ought to be used a certain way—and bottom-up descriptivists—those who believe, instead, that there’s no ought about it.

The emerging consensus on usage will be a matter of statistical arbitration, between the way “most” people spell something and the way “some” people do. If it proceeds as it has, it’s likely to be a winner-take-all affair, as alternatives drop out. (Though Apple’s recent introduction of personalized, “contextual” autocorrect—which can distinguish between the language you use with your friends and the language you use with your boss—might complicate that process of standardization and allow us the favor of our characteristic errors.)


The possibility of linguistic communication is grounded in the fact of what some philosophers of language have called the principle of charity: The first step in a successful interpretation of an utterance is the belief that it somehow accords with the universe as we understand it. This means that we have a propensity to take a sort of ownership over even our errors, hoping for the possibility of meaning in even the most perverse string of letters. We feel honored to have a companion like autocorrect who trusts that, despite surface clumsiness or nonsense, inside us always smiles an articulate truth.


Today the influence of autocorrect is everywhere: A commenter on the Language Log blog recently mentioned hearing of an entire dialect in Asia based on phone cupertinos, where teens used the first suggestion from autocomplete instead of their chosen word, thus creating a slang that others couldn’t decode. (It’s similar to the Anglophone teenagers who, in a previous texting era, claimed to have replaced the term of approval cool with that of book because of happenstance T9 input priority.) Surrealists once encouraged the practice of écriture automatique, or automatic writing, in order to reveal the peculiar longings of the unconscious. The crackpot suggestions of autocorrect have become our own form of automatic writing—but what they reveal are the peculiar statistics of a world id.

What is the ‘Oxford comma’? – Oxford Dictionaries (US)

What is the ‘Oxford comma’? – Oxford Dictionaries (US).

The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

The Oxford comma is also known as the ‘serial comma’.