Dual Language Schools: Biliteracy Word of the WeekPapa, Can You Hear Me?

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A month ago, the Biliteracy Word of the Week presented the word mother. This week, in honor of Father’s Day, we will explore the word father. Have you ever wondered why babies, when they start to form their words, say mamma first, and then papa second? Because babies need to create more force to create a /p/ sound. It is later in their speech development that they are able to say dada, because their tongues are strong enough to raise them toward the alveolar ridge to produce a /d/ or /t/ sound. These sounds are universal when it comes to say father in many languages.

Let us begin with /p/. Father, and all its Germanic equivalents, ultimately come from the Proto-Germanic *fader, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European *phtḗr with the meaning of ‘shepherd’ or ‘protector’. The same Proto-Indo-European word has given Spanish padre, from the Latin pater. It is common in both English and Spanish to say papa, pop(s) and papá, papi respectively. In English, though, dad and daddy has replaced papa and pop(s) recently. In Albanian, an Indo-European isolate language spoken in Albania and Kosovo, father is baba, which is a borrowing from Turkish, which in turn is a borrowing from the Arabic word for dad or daddy (بابا), but it is also the word for pope, from which it borrowed from the Greek πάπας (papas), a title used for the fatherly priests. However, Maltese, a Semitic language that developed from Arabic spoken in Malta, has had many influences from Sicilian; which is why father is called missier, a borrowing from Old Sicilian similar to the French monsieur, literally ‘my sir’. In Cantonese, father is 父親 (fucan), but it is common for children to call their father 爸爸 (baba).

Now, for the /t/ sound. There are many ways of saying father in Japanese, depending on context. お父さん (otōsan) can be translated as “honorable father”. When talking about one’s father, one would say 父 (chichi), but a more generic, impersonal way would be 父親 (chichioya). In Azeri, a Turkic language spoken in Azerbaijan and Iran, the word for father is ata. In Chechen, a Caucasian language spoken in Chechnya, Russia, father is да (da). In Nahautl, father is tahtli, but is common for children to call their father tata.

Since the dawn of history, the males of our species have had different roles in regard to their offspring, all depending on the circumstances of the times. Depending on the society, men could, or would, be part of a family where he was the caretaker and provider for his children; or be the uninterested party in the rearing, taking care of, and providing for his children. Little has changed today; however, circumstances are different. What used to be cultural practice, now, it seems, it is economic and societal factors. Regardless, experts on family dynamics agree that a father figure, biological or otherwise, is essential to the overall well-being of a child.

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McLanahan, Sara; Tach, Laura; Schneider, Daniel (2013), "The Causal Effects of Father Absence", Annual Review of Sociology, 39: 399–427