Few moments in my life can compare to the one that happened a week or so ago.
My nine-month-old son looked into my eyes, grinned his wide, dribbly grin and, for the first time, said “dadda”. It melted my heart and made my eyes well up with tears of pure love.
And the moment was only slightly cheapened by the subsequent realisation that he also calls loads of other things dadda, too.
Including – but not limited to – his mum, his bottle, the plastic dinosaur he was chewing and the filthy nappy he’d just kicked off the change table as I was wrestling a fresh one onto him.
It turns out that this isn’t that unusual a story. Not the dinosaur and nappy bit, necessarily, but the part where a child’s first word is your new name. Congratulations, person who formerly had an independent identity: from here on in, you are officially Dadda.
The reality, of course, is that most babies’ first words are either “mumma” or “dadda”. But, interestingly enough, it doesn’t appear to be because parents train them to say it. These are sounds that babies make, unprompted, no matter where they’re from.
‘Dad’ and ‘mum’ across the world
When you look at different languages from all around the planet, the words for “mum” are remarkably similar.
The terms for “mother” are even more alike. Almost every language has a strong M sound. “Mamma” is used in many European languages, but it’s also in used in Swahili and multiple Chinese languages.
In Hindi the word is “mam”, and shrinks to “ma” in Afrikaans. In French, it’s “mére”. In German, it’s “mütter”. Arabic, it’s “ahm”. The Malay word is “emak”, while the Danish say “mor” and the Urdu say “Ammee”.
The words for “dad”, meanwhile, conform to just a very small handful of variations.
The Turkish equivalent is “baba”, which is also said in Swahili. Northern Italians says “bobbo”. Germans, Chileans, Russians and southern Italians say “papa”. Czech speakers say “táta”. In Iceland, it’s “pabbi”. English-speaking countries almost universally use “dadda”.
And this, just to be clear, is all really, really strange.
No other words are so universally similar across different language groups.
Not even the words for fundamental things that babies can identify, such as “water”, “sleep” or “what you just fed me is coming back up right now”.
As best anyone can tell, there are no human cultures where children don’t have these sorts of names for their parents. Calling your mum “mum” (or the local variation thereof) seems to happen wherever there are people.
As far as the specific terms, “dad” was being used as early as the 1500s, as was “mamma”, while the contraction “mum” (or the US version, “mom”) is a little more recent, with the first recorded instances turning up in the 1800s – but all the evidence points to words for our parents having pre-dated written records.
So what’s going on?
It’s all about the boobs
The Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson had a theory, which he put down in writing in 1941’s Child Language, Aphasia and Phonological Universals, and it is this: little mouths that don’t have great control over complex muscles in things like tongues and lips tend to go for big, open vowel sounds like “ahh”. And “mmm” is an easy sound to make when suckling at mum’s breast.
Combine “ahh” and “mmm”, and “mama” becomes a good word to signify “feed me now”. Which also explains why dads are often called “mama” as well.
Baby isn’t subversively assigning alternative gender roles; it’s placing a dinner order.
Jakobson, genius as he may seem, was merely confirming a connection the ancients made millennia ago.
The Latin word “mamma” means “breast”, and from here we get “mammal”, the blanket term for creatures that suckle their young.
Then why “dad”?
It, too, comes down to baby proto-language.
When you have a young mouth that can only make soft consonants and long vowels, you’re not going to get complex sounds involving S or J or CH. You’ll get simple words with simple, repetitive sounds: mama, baba and papa.
And once bub starts realising that certain sounds get specific responses from their attentive and easily-excited parents, those terms stick.
So it’s pretty amazing that, despite all the wonderful variety in human culture and language, the terms “mum” and “dad” come the closest to representing a universal human speech.
The weirdest thing, however, is that even when you know that the term is simply one of the few arbitrary noises that tiny people can consistently make from a young age, it does absolutely nothing to diminish the shiver of pure, primal joy that floods your brain when your child calls you dad.
The plastic dinosaur probably feels the same.