Have you ever come up with a theory that you later learned was hailed as a novel discovery by someone else? Well, I just had this kind of déjà-knew experience reading this article in the Atlantic, “Why ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ Sound So Similar in So Many Languages.” Long article short, “ma” is the first sound babies make, and “ba” or “pa” is the second sound babies make. So, naturally, the primary caretaker (mother) hears “Ma! Ma!” and assumes the baby is referring to her, as the baby needs her all the time. She becomes Mama. The secondary caretaker gets the next syllable: Papa.
Ask my husband if you don’t believe me, but I theorized all of this years ago when my oldest son, now 4, was a baby. (I’m sure lots of other people have, too! It just makes sense!) And I also theorized the second discovery in the article — that the words “me” and “you” are related to “Mama” and “Papa”. Of course — the baby doesn’t realize he’s separate from the mother for an amazingly (and sweetly) long time, while the father is the first “other.” We used to joke that our son knew I was Mama or “the milky one,” and that my husband was just “the hairy one.”
And this brings me to another theory of mine that the article doesn’t mention — the origins of the word “milk.” So I hereby present this new, novel theory to the word. Yeah, that’s right — I’m a pioneering linguist! Add it to my the list of titles. (Also, I swear that all the milk-related posting is not purposeful on my part. It’s natural synchronicity from my life at the moment, which literally revolves around feeding my baby. I’m milking it for all it’s worth!)
By the way, I haven’t dug around the internet to see if anyone shares my theory, yet — because I don’t want to encounter any outside influences before presenting my idea!
So I present to you, world:
“Why “Milk” Sounds So Similar in So Many Languages by Patricia Shepard, PL (Pioneering Linguist)
To a young baby, “Mama” and “milk” are inseparable concepts. The first thing a baby does when it enters the world is make its way to the breast, which will be its primary source of comfort, safety, and sustenance for the first six months of its life. The crawl to the breast is actually an instinctive behavior. No wonder — it is a matter of survival. (You can learn more about this here.) Newborns have tiny stomachs that run through highly-digestible breast milk quickly, so they have to nurse almost around the clock, as any new mom will tell you. So when a young baby starts to vocalize to get its mother’s attention (“Ma! Ma!”) it is almost always crying for milk.
But this happens before the child is consciously forming syllables. It is even more primitive than that — it is in a baby’s newborn cries. I’ve heard other moms say they can understand what their babies need by the sounds of their cries, but I had never experienced it until my second son was born a few months ago. (Interestingly, my breastfeeding relationship with my first ended after less than two weeks due to latch problems, and I had to pump exclusively — coincidence?) With my second baby, I actually heard the “hungry” cry distinctly as “La! La! La!” I theorized that this was because he was forming the tongue position needed to latch on and express milk — mouth open, tongue extended. (It is actually the curling motion of tongue under the nipple that stimulates the milk flow. This is why a tongue tie can cause so many problems with breastfeeding — it shortens the tongue and thus impedes this motion.)
As a French and Spanish speaker (and lover of etymology), I immediately thought of the words for “milk” in those languages — lait and leche (from the Latin lac). “La!” So, I submit that the connection between those cries and milk is the origin of the many “La” sounding words for milk in various languages. Here are a few, which I found here on indifferentlanguages.com:
Greek: (Symbols won’t come out right. But sounds like “ya-la,” very similar to a newborn cry.)
Haitian Creole: lèt
Tamil: (Sounds like “al” with a very soft “p” in front.)
Arabic: (Sounds like “halib” with very pronounced reverse “la” sound.)
Hebrew: (Sounds like “khah-LAV” similar to Arabic.)
Since the words “milk” and “Mama” are so closely intertwined to baby, it makes sense that in many other languages including English, the word for milk stems from “Ma” or “Meh” usually combined with that newborn “La!” sound (examples below from same page as before):
Belarusian: (Symbols won’t show here!)
Bulgarian: (Same problem.)
Macedonian: (Symbols won’t show.)
Russian: (Just trust me on these ones.)
And here’s a screenshot from the (very cool) Online Etymology Dictionary — check out all those cognates!
So that’s my theory. What do you think? Am I onto something, or is this already a thing? Do I get a prize???
Let me know what you think in the comments.