The Great Language Muster

Welcome to The Great Language Muster!

In short, this project is designed to collect data about kinship terms from over 500 of the world's languages. Want to be a part of that? Then read on!

Sixty years ago, the American anthropologist G.P. Murdock undertook an intense study of over 500 of the world's cultural groups. His careful documentation led him to discover that 52% of sampled societies used some syllabic combination of [ma, me no, na, ne, no] to denote 'mother,' while 55% used some combination of [pa, po, ta, to] to denote 'father.' Murdock was left with the enduring question: Why?

The linguist Roman Jakobson answered that question in his 1960 paper, "Why 'Mama' and 'Papa'?". Jakobson reasoned that all an infant had to do was open his mouth and vibrate his vocal folds, and he would produce the vowel [a]. Next, smacking his lips together, the infant could easily produce the bilabial consonants [m, b, p]. Consonants involving finer manipulation of the tongue tip, like [n, d, t] would come next. From these individual sound segments, Jakobson argued, came the kinship terms 'mama' and 'papa' and their variants. 'Mama' and 'papa' weren't passed down through the ages; rather, they were reinvented by each infant, as she began to explore the phonetic abilities available to her.

Jakobson ended his paper with a list of questions that remained yet unanswered: What is the frequency of kinship terms that use nasal or oral consonants? How often do both kinship terms contain a labial or dental sound? What combinations of sounds are allowed in a kinship term pair? What kind of patterns of sounds exist for relations beyond just the mother and father? The opportunity for more research was - and is - rife and rich.

What's going on?

This project is attempting to revisit Jakobson's question of "Why 'mama' and 'papa,'" as well as attempt to answer some of his additionally posed questions. The scope of this project is huge. We want to collect data to match all 500+ of Murdock's original sample languages, but we can't do it all on our own. We need your help.

How can you help?

We're assuming that you love language and words. You might be a professional linguist, a linguistics student, or language enthusiast. In any case, you are a wealth of information for at least one language - your native language - and possibly several others. You might speak Urdu because you have family in Pakistan, or you might know Tiwi because you wrote your PhD dissertation on the aboriginal languages of Australia's Northern Territories. The point is: you know a lot of stuff that we don't.

We've created a simple survey that asks you to list your language's kinship terms. We're looking specifically for the "formal" terms for the female and male parents ('mother' and 'father' in English, for example), as well as the vocative or "nursery" terms for the parents, as well as other family members ('oma' and 'opa' in German, for example). If you don't know or are unsure of all the terms in your language, that's okay, too! Any information that you can provide is tremendously helpful.

We're also looking for more than just the terms themselves: stress and tone are important for us, too, so if your language makes use of them in its kinship terms, let us know!

Think about it: just by knowing a bit about a language and sharing it with us, you're helping to answer some big questions in the fields of linguistics and anthropology!

Sound intriguing? If you want to help, first check out the list of languages that we're looking at here. Then, scroll down to the bottom of this page for the survey. More instructions are found on the survey itself.

Who's collecting the data?

Andrew Nevins is Professor of Linguistics at University College London. His research is centred primarily on phonological and morphological theory. The analysed data collected from this project will form the basis of the lecture "Revisiting Mama and Papa," which will be delivered at UCL in June 2017. He is being assisted on this project by Evan DeFrancesco, a postgraduate student in linguistics.

How will the data be used?

All of the data collected are of course anonymous. We will analyse the data for certain phonetic and phonological patterns. As part of our commitment to open access research, we will make all of the data publicly available for open-source use once we have collated and analysed them.

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