Film legend has it that the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father has always been hidden in the eye – well, at least by a subtle naming. “Darth Vader” has a clear fatherly sound linguistically. Indeed, if the big revelation was “I am your fader”, it would have made a beautiful play on the heavy – breathing villain’s name with a nod to an old Dutch term for “father”.
The true origin story of Father’s nickname is not as cool as the myth. But as someone who studies the origin of words, I see that the story provides an example of something that is real: the universality of the names used for fathers across all languages.
Considering that fathers played a key role in the population from the beginning of civilization, it is perhaps not so surprising that a label for the guy we call “father” emerged early in the development of languages. would not come. But, whether it’s “dad”, “dada” or “father”, what is striking is the cross-cultural prejudice in the words used to describe him – and how the same names have stuck over millennia.
Why ‘pater’ is known
By following the linguistic evolution of modern “father”, we find it as far back as written English goes – with references to “feadur” or “fadur” or “fædor” in Old English texts from the seventh to 11th centuries. In Old Dutch there was “father”; in Old Iceland we find “father”; in Old High German, a forerunner of modern German, it was “father” – now “father”; and, finally, in Old Danish, “father.”
This uniformity strongly suggests that this word was found in the languages’ early Germanic parent – that is, the source language from which all these Germanic languages are derived.
But the similarity in terms used for “father” does not stop with this Germanic ancestor. Related words are found all over the Indo-European language tree – a large group of related languages that span most of Europe and a good bit of Asia. We find, for example, terms that correspond in Latin to “pater”, Sanskrit’s “pitar” and in Greek to “patér” – all older languages that developed separately from the Germanic line.
This means that the word “father” probably came from a long-dead source language, which is estimated to date back about 6,000 years. This single parent language – known as Proto Indo-European – produced all these later languages and their shared word for fathers.
But how did the “p” change into “pater” to the “f” found in all the Germanic “father” words?
Historical linguists have reconstructed the most probable sounds used in this supposed mother tongue. Since Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit all had “p”, “t”, and “k” sounds, their Indo-European source probably had these, or closely related, sounds as well.
But as Germanic languages formed their own branch of the family tree, this “p” changed to an “f”. This explains why there is a “p” in Latin-based words such as “Pisces,” “podiatry,” and “patriarchy,” but “f” in Germanic descendants is equivalent to “fish,” “foot,” and father. “This sound change was not accidental, but followed what is called Grimm’s law, named after the same brother Grimm who brought us “Hansie and Grietjie”.
Grimm noticed a pattern of audio correspondences about Indo-European languages that suggests that a series of frequent changes must have taken place as Indo-Europeans were divided into daughter languages. These changes probably began as dialect variants that became clearer as groups of speakers separated and developed new languages - with the shifting sounds.
The ‘babies’ and the ‘dads’
One might expect closely related languages to share words for fathers, but even about languages in which there is no known evidence of a common ancestry, the words for “father” sound strikingly familiar.
Languages as distinct as Sino-Tibetan Chinese and Native American Washo use “baby.” In Nilo-Sahara Maasai, spoken in Kenya and Tanzania, it is “papa,” and, in the Semitic language Hebrew, “abba.
A similar inflection is found in English, where children use the more intimate “dad”, “dad” or sometimes “dad” as an alternative to the more formal “dad”, especially when they are in trouble or out of jail sponsored.
‘Dad’ and ‘Dad’ have become popular in recent decades:
This tendency towards similar vocabulary words suggests that something fairly universal should drive it. And even though “d” and “p” and “b” may not sound so similar at first, they are all part of a class of what in linguistics are called “stop consonants”. Stop consonants are sounds made with a short but complete obstruction of airflow through the mouth during their articulation.
Why does it matter to pops everywhere? Because stop sounds, along with vowels, are the earliest and most common sounds that babies tend to chatter – meaning “dad”, “ta”, “ba” and “da” are all early baby vocalizations.
Also, repetition is a feature of both baby chatter and what parents chatter back. Consequently, this particular babble inflection “dadas”, “babies” and “papas” – along with “apas” and “abas” – make very popular things for little Carlos or Keisha to say while strolling in the manger.
So, when Dad comes by and hears what he interprets as his call sign, a festive first word commemoration begins, regardless of whether Junior actually meant it that way or not.
A universal dad
And it goes back to the original story for the word “father.”
Linguists theorize that, at an early stage in the development of the Indo-European language, the sound sequence “pa” – which is babbled in early speech and wished to be interpreted as referring to good old pa – was combined with a suffix such as ” ter, ”possibly indicating a kinship.
If we look at the evolution of language more generally, linguists cannot say with certainty whether modern languages inherited the word from an undiscovered original early human language – probably Africa – or that this process occurred several times in the course of language history. not.
But what it does suggest is that fathers were clearly important enough throughout the history of mankind to deserve special designation. And, unlike so many other words that have been shifted and reformed or replaced over time by inherent language pressure and language contact, the predilection for “dadas”, “dads”, “fathers” and “dads” seems to be extremely resistant to change. .
So, whether you call him your dad, your baby or your abba, make sure you call him and let him know how well he, and his title, have stood the test of time.