Marc H. Bornstein
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
New parents around the world use similar-sounding familial kin terms, such as /ma/, /pa/, and /da/. Why? The linguistic theorist Jakobson (1971) once proposed the romantic view that parents adopt as names for themselves the sounds that infants initially produce. Jakobson (1969) claimed that, when infants first begin to speak, their articulations are limited to a set of sounds that follow a universal pattern of development based on the anatomical structure of the oral cavity and vocal tract and on ease of motor control (Kent, 1984). In this view, certain sound combinations—consonants articulated at the lips (/m/ and /p/) or teeth (/d/), and vowels articulated at the back of the oral cavity (/a/)—have primacy because their production maximizes contrasts. Thus infants' earliest sound combinations consist of front consonants with back vowels. Significantly, of four logically possible combinations, the front-consonant–back-vowel pairs (pa/, /da/, and /ma) are used as parental kin terms in nearly 60% of more than 1, 000 of the world's languages, many more than would be expected by chance (Murdock, 1959). It seems that parents of infants have adopted as generic labels for themselves their infants' earliest vocal productions.
Nothing stirs the emotions or rivets the attention of adults more than the birth of a child. By their very coming into existence, infants forever alter the sleeping, eating, and working habits of their parents; they change who parents are and how parents define themselves. Infants unthinkingly keep parents up late into the night or cause them to abandon late nights to accommodate early waking; they unknowingly require parents to give up a rewarding career to care for them or to take a second job to support them; they unwittingly lead parents to make new friends of others in similar situations and sometimes cause parents to abandon or lose old friends who are not parents. Yes, parents may even take for themselves the names that infants uncannily bestow. Parenting an infant is a “24/7” job, whether by the parent herself or himself or by a surrogate caregiver who is on call. That is because the human infant is totally dependent on parents for survival. Unlike the newborn colt which is on its feet within minutes of birth or the newborn chick which forages on its own more or less immediately after being hatched, the newborn human cannot walk, talk, or even ingest food without the aid of a competent caregiver. In a given year, approximately 4 million new babies are born in the United