Parenting Infants

Marc H. Bornstein

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

New parents around the world use similar-sounding familial kin terms, such as/ma/,/pa/, and/da/. Why? The linguistic theorist Jakobson (1971) once proposed the romantic view that parents adopt as names for themselves the sounds that infants initially produce. Jakobson (1969) claimed that, when infants first begin to speak, their articulations are limited to a set of sounds that follow a universal pattern ofdevelopment based on the anatomical structure of the oral cavity and vocal tract and on ease of motor control (Kent, 1984). In this view, certain sound combinations—consonants articulated at the lips (/m/and/p/) or teeth (/d/), and vowels articulated at the back of the oral cavity (/a/)—have primacy because their production maximizes contrasts. Thus infants' earliest sound combinations consist of front consonants with back vowels. Significantly, of four logically possible combinations, the front-consonant-back-vowel pairs (pa/, /da/, and/ma) are used as parental kin terms in nearly 60% of more than 1,000 of the world's languages, many more than would be expected by chance (Murdock, 1959). It seems that parents of infants have adopted as generic labels for themselves their infants' earliest vocal productions.

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