Refining early Basque criteria

Patrick C. Ryan proto-language at
Sun Dec 12 08:05:51 UTC 1999

Dear Larry and IEists:

 ----- Original Message -----
From: "Larry Trask" <larryt at>
Sent: Tuesday, November 09, 1999 10:46 AM

> Pat Ryan writes:

> [on Basque <ama> 'mother']

>> I continue to believe that some terms which might be classified as
>> Kinderlallsprache such as <ama> are a powerful indication of common
>> linguistic descent; and should not be excluded from consideration of
>> inclusion in Pre-Basque.

>> It may be that this category of terms has preserved an older or non-typical
>> phonological form than other words of the vocabulary but they should be
>> seriously considered because of their ubiquity.

[LT responded]

> No.  Their ubiquity is *precisely* the reason why they should be excluded.
> After all, in most of the languages on the planet, the word for a cat-noise
> is something like <miau>, but this ubiquity is not an argument for pushing
> the word back to Pre-Proto-Everything.  Rather, it is a compelling argument
> for disregarding the word altogether, on grounds of *motivated* independent
> creation.


I feel that you may be mixing apples with oranges here.

I would, myself, be quite sceptical of any claim that an imitative word like
<miau> indicated anything more than an attempt to capture the quintessential
acoustic impression of a cat-call.

But, 1) there is nothing "imitative" about <ama> for 'mother'; 2) more
importantly, <ama> does not have the form we would expect from childish
babbling, which, I hope you would agree, would be along the lines of

I gladly concede that <mama>, <d/tad/ta>, <kaka>, etc. are childish attempts
to render other words, e.g. <*?ama> and <*?atV>, etc. but there is nothing
that I know which *necessitates* or universally *inclines* children all over
the world to connect /m/ with 'motherhood' or /d/ or /t/ with
'paternity' --- short of some universalistic sound-symbolism argument, which
I provisionally do not accept.

I would suggest rather that these very ancient words have been retained in a
substantially unchanged form because of the strong emotional significance
they have in most human societies.

Let us assume that, for reasons I cannot fathom, children all over the world
are *independently motivated* (by what, pray tell ???) to employ <mama> for
'mother'. What could the cause be for reducing <mama> to <(?)ama> (why not
<*ema>, <*uma>, <*ima>, etc.?)? Why not just retain <mama> exclusively?


PATRICK C. RYAN | PROTO-LANGUAGE at (501) 227-9947 * 9115 W. 34th
St. Little Rock, AR 72204-4441 USA WEBPAGES: PROTO-LANGUAGE: and PROTO-RELIGION: "Veit ek,
at ek hekk, vindga meipi, nftr allar nmu, geiri undapr . . . a ~eim meipi er
mangi veit hvers hann af rstum renn." (Havamal 138)

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