Mum and Me: A Comparative Phonological Study of Material Nursery Terms and First Person Object Designators

Ridley, Christopher David (2018) Mum and Me: A Comparative Phonological Study of Material Nursery Terms and First Person Object Designators. Masters thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

[thumbnail of Thesis document]
PDF (Thesis document) - Submitted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike.



It has been observed that there is a prevalence of nasal sounds for the maternal kin term across many languages. This was evidenced by Murdock (1959). There have been some speculative attempts to explain this phenomenon. These range from speculation that nasal sounds may be the easiest for babies to produce when suckling to theories that all languages derive from a common root.
In classic Saussurian linguistics it is deemed that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary (Bally & Sechehaye, 1916). However, research by Blasi et al (2016) indicates that some phonemes correlate with certain basic vocabulary. This study examines whether a particular manner of articulation may by invoked by a basic meaning. It looks at the prevalence of nasal sounds across unrelated languages used for the maternal kin term and examines whether there is a statistical correlation between these and the use of nasal terms for first person object designators. This study demonstrates that such a relationship exists. This relationship is statistically significant. The implication is that there is a deep meaning that can be ascribed to the nasal phenomenon that allowed for it to move from denoting the care giver to the first person. This may, to some extent, explain how languages evolved. The literature on language evolution discusses the process of evolution from primate sounds, through phonemes, syllables to words and grammar (Corballis, 2009). It may be that the evolution of phoneme sounds from one meaning to another were part of this process.
Nine languages were chosen for examination. Due to various practical reasons only seven were usable as statistical items. The analysis consisted of probability calculations to ascertain the likelihood of certain sounds occurring. Languages that had a nasally dominant “mum” term were more likely than would be expected by random occurrence to also have a nasally dominant “me” term.

Repository Staff Only: item control page