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 has nanay 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 have mamma 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 parents mama 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?