Monday, August 13, 2018

Family Relations, Part 1a: 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: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

The main words for ‘mother’ and ‘father’

The Spanish words for ‘mother’ and ‘father’, namely madre and padre, come from Latin māter and pāter or, actually, from the accusative wordforms of these words, mātrem and pātrem. Sp. madre and padre are patrimonial words, that is, they have been transmitted uninterruptedly from their Latin sourcewords and were not borrowed from Latin later on, as many Latinate Spanish words were. The Spanish words madre-padre evolved out of the accusative case of the Latin parent words, as patrimonial Spanish words typically do, with two minor changes: the loss of the final m of the accusative inflection, a loss that was already present in late spoken Latin, and the voicing of the medial ‑t‑ between sonorant sounds to ‑d‑ (cf. Part I, Chapter 10, §
Father with his children
These Spanish words are cognates of (have the same source as) the equivalent English words, mother and father, which are also patrimonial in English (not loans). In other words, the pairs of words madre-mother and padre-father descend from common ancestors in the Proto-Indo-European language spoken 5,500 years ago and are not cognates due to borrowing in either of the languages like so many other cognates are (cf. Part I, Chapter 3). In the Modern English words there are also changes from what they were in Old English, the most noticeable being the change from d [d] to th [ð] (spelled ð⟩ in English until the 15th century).[1]


Old English

nom. māter
acc. mātre(m)


nom. pāter
acc. pātre(m)



In Old English, the word for father was fæder, pronounced [ˈfæ.der], from Proto-Germanic *fadēr, which was a cognate of Latin pater. We know that the initial p in the Latin word is the original sound for this word in Proto-Indo-European and that this p changed (‘mutated’) to f in Germanic languages (see Part I, §3.8.5). The medial t in both original Proto-Indo-European words changed to d ([d]) in Germanic and then to th ([ð]) in English. Note that the Latin t changed to d in Spanish, whenever it was between vowels or a vowel and a liquid consonant r (cf. Part I, Chapter 10). Vowel sound, on the other hand, are much less stable and much more likely to change through time.[2]

Thus, the words in each of these pairs are (historical) cognates in the sense used in this book, because they have the same source. Because they are not loanwords, we also say that they are (patrimonial) cognates in the sense of the word used in historical linguistics. Because the words in each of the pairs are also similar, they probably qualify as cognates in language study as well. Thus, each of these pairs of words are cognates in all three senses of the word (cf. Part I, Chapter 1).


[1] The reconstructed source words in Proto-Indo-European are *méh₂tēr and *ph₂tḗr (earlier reconstructions are *mātēr and pətḗr), cf. Old Greek μήτηρ (mḗtēr) and πατήρ (patḗr), and Proto-Germanic Germanic *mōdḗr and *fadēr.

[2] The original PIE words for ‘mother’ and ‘father’ look like derived words containing the suffix agent suffix *‑tḗr, a suffix also found in the words for ‘brother’ and ‘daughter’. As for the first part of these compounds, it has been suggested that the word for ‘father’ had the morpheme *peh₂‑ ‘to protect, shepherd’. As for the word for ‘mother’, originally it was thought that the first part contained the nursery word *ma for ‘mother’, but that reconstruction is in doubt now.

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