Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Family Relations, Part 1c: Main words for Mother and Father

[This entry comes from the second section of chapter 7, "Words for family relations", of Part II of the book Spanish-English Cognates.]

Nursery words for mother and related words

In addition to the standard words for parents that we saw in §7.2.1, both English and Spanish have what are known as ‘nursery words’ or ‘pet words’ for the same concepts, words that children typically use and that are used in certain colloquial contexts. This is something that most other languages do as well.

Words for ‘mother’ and ‘father’ in many languages are formed out of the first sounds that a child makes in the babbling stage, or babble words, namely the syllables ma, ba, pa, da, and ta. As you can see, the vowel is always the same, though the consonant is either labial (m, b, p) or dental-apical (t, d) (cf. Part I, Chapter 7). The association of any of these consonants with a particular parent seems to be arbitrary, however. Thus, for instance, in Old Japanese, the word for ‘mother’ was papa, a word associated with ‘father’ in many European languages.

This source for pet names for parents results in a great number of coincidences among the languages of the world.[i] So, for instance, the word for ‘mother’ in Mandarin Chinese is māma and in Swahili mama, just like in many European countries. This is not due to a common source or origin, but to coincidence, due the limited number of options available. Thus, pairs of words such as Chinese māma and Swahili mama are not cognates in the sense used in this book, since they do not share a historical source, though they are cognates in the language learning sense.

The main nursery words for English mother (pronounced [ˈmʌ.ðəɹ]) are the following (some have more than one pronunciation due to the vowel being pronounced differently in different dialects): mamma [ˈmæ.mə] (more common in British English), momma [ˈmɒ.ma]/[ˈmɑ.mə], mom [ˈmɒm]/[ˈmɑm] (more common in American English), mommy [ˈmɒ.mi]/[ˈmɑ.mi], mum [ˈmʌm] and mummy [ˈmʌ.mi] (more common in British English), and ma [mɑ], which appeared in the 19th century as short for mamma.[1] Each of the variants may be more popular in a particular region or within a particular family, due to diverse origins in the old country.[2]

The main nursery words for ‘mother’ in Spanish are mama [ˈma.ma] and mamá [ma.ˈma], the two differing only on what syllable the stress falls. As in the case of the words papa vs. papá (see below), the version with penultimate stress is the original one, stemming from Lat. mamma which originally meant ‘breast, udder’ but which was used as a pet name equivalent to Eng. mom. The version with final stress, Sp. mamá, which is the most common one today, came from Modern French, a language in which all words have final stress. This Gallicism (French loanword), like many others in Spanish, dates from the 18th century.

As we just saw, Lat. mamma, besides being the pet name for ‘mother’, originally meant ‘breast, tit, boob’. That is the meaning of Mod. Sp. mama, with penultimate stress, though this is a learned loanword from Latin, not a patrimonial Spanish word, used only in technical or scientific contexts. A more common and ‘modest’ word for ‘breast’ in Spanish is pecho, a word that also means ‘chest’, its original and main meaning (from Lat. pĕctus, regular stem pĕctor‑), though in the plural, pechos typically means ‘breasts’. (Note that the English word breast also has both meanings.)[3]

From the Latin root mam‑, Spanish has a derived verb mamar ‘to breast-feed, suckle’. It comes from Lat. mammāre, derived from the root mamm‑ of mamma (mamm-ār-e). (The verb desmamar is a synonym of destetar, both meaning ‘to wean’.) A related word in Spanish is amamantar ‘to breast-feed, nurse’ (mamantar in Old Spanish). This verb would seem to be a Spanish creation, derived from the stem of the present participle of the Latin verb, mammantem (nom. mammans) ‘suckling, that suckles’.

Another word that derives from the same root is the technical word mamífero ‘mammal(ian)’, which is a 19th century New Latin creation made first in French (mammifère) and which Spanish borrowed. The word mamífero (mam-i-fer-o) has the root fer- ‘to bear’ besides de root mam‑, so it was made to mean something like ‘breast bearing’.

Also from the same Latin root mamm‑ are the English equivalents of Sp. mamífero, namely mammal [ˈmæ.məɫ] and mammalian [mə.ˈmeɪ̯.li.ən], which are also learned scientific words in English. The English noun mammal is an adaptation of the technical term Mammalia, a New Latin term created by Linnaeus (1758) to refer to a class of animals, the mammals (in English, it is pronounced [mə.ˈmeɪ̯.li.ə]). The word mammalia is taken from a Late Latin neuter plural form of mammalis ‘of the breast’, an adjective derived from the noun mamma (minus the inflectional ending ‑a) and the derivational suffix ‑āl‑: mamm‑āl‑ia. An alternative term for ‘mammal’ in English is mammalian,  which is an English creation from the same word Mammalia and the Latinate adjectival suffix ‑an.

There are some diminutives of mama/mamá, the most regular one being mamita ‘mommy’, formed with the root mam‑  and the diminutive suffix ‑it‑ (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.3). In some dialects of Spanish, the equivalent mamaíta and mamacita are also used. By adding the suffix ‑it‑ to the root mama, with or without the linking consonant ‑c‑, shows that some speakers have analyzed the original word as only having one morpheme (being monomorphemic) or, in other words, with the final ‑a not being interpreted as a feminine inflection. This may be the result of the word having become oxytonic (with final stress) mamá under the influence of the French cognate.


[1] The word, mum, which is more common in British than American English, has the same vowel as the word mother, namely [ʌ], though in mother it has the less common spelling o〉 for this sound. The sound [ʌ] is typically spelled u in English, but it is spelled o in many words, such as love and glove.

[2] Note that in all these words, the consonants m-m remain the same, whereas the vowels differ. As often is the case in language change, the consonants of a word tend to be more stable and less likely to change than the vowels.

[3] A more ‘formal’, or perhaps ‘aseptic’, Spanish word for ‘breast’ is seno, a patrimonial Latin word that used to mean just ‘cavity’, since it comes from Lat. sinus ‘curve, cavity’. The meaning ‘breast’ for this word is a Gallicism, derived from the sense ‘cleavage’ that the French cognate of this word, sein, word adopted in that language. The use of seno to mean ‘breast’ is common in some dialects of Spanish, but not in others (other than in written form). The colloquial (some would say vulgar) term for a womans breast is teta ‘tit’. This word is a cognate of Eng. tit, which is a variant of teat, a mid-13th century loanword from Old French tete ‘teat’ (Mod.Fr. tette). Eng. teat/tit and Sp. teta are thought to be of Germanic origin, not Latin, though the exact source is not clear.

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