[Lingtyp] Colexification between 'mother', 'breast', and 'eat/drink'

Daniel Ross djross3 at gmail.com
Tue Oct 26 07:59:45 UTC 2021

Dear Ian,

The typical cross-linguistic association is with the form "mama" for
mother, based on the phonetic articulation closest to nursing, which
appears in too many languages to be coincidental or due to contact.
(Variants of this follow, such as baba/papa for 'father' and some other
CV-doublets. There's a whole series of them in Swahili, for instance: mama
mother, baba father, dada sister, kaka brother, nyanya grandmother, and
some others that aren't exact copies like babu father or mtoto child.)

My guess would be that this association with "mother" could block other
lexical developments for the word. This might be encouraged by mothers who
want their child's first word to be referring to them, or at least that's
the impression I have from American culture.

On the other hand, there may be further uses or derivations of this form in
some languages, such as Latin *mamma* 'breast' and other derivations like
*mammalia* (class of animals producing milk, i.e. with breasts).

A related proposal of an ancient cognate in the (now disputed) Amerind
family is maliq'a ('swallow, throat'), from Greenberg and Ruhlen's 1992
paper "Linguistic Origins of Native Americans":
https://www.jstor.org/stable/24939295 and Ruhlen then expanded this to
claim a possible Proto-World etymology in his 1994 book *On the Origin of
Languages*. While many of us would be hesitant to accept such an extreme
reconstruction, the data provided there from various languages and families
is directly relevant to your question, and in fact could be a better
explanation for recurrent similar etymologies, rather than ancient
relationship or coincidence, as appears to be the case with *mama*. (These
etymologies seem tied together, with the Indo-European variants of maliq'a
meaning "milk", for example.)

Daniel Ross
ALT Webmaster
Lecturer, UC Riverside

On Tue, Oct 26, 2021 at 12:35 AM JOO, Ian [Student] <
ian.joo at connect.polyu.hk> wrote:

> Dear typologists,
> Are you aware of any language that colexifies (uses the same lexeme for)
> the following four concepts: 'mother', 'breast', and 'eat/drink'?
> The logic is that, the mother's breast is usually the first thing that a
> newborn baby "eats", so it would be natural if a language colexified these
> concepts, especially in baby-talk vocabulary.
> I would much appreciate your help.
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