Movie legend has it that Luke Skywalker’s father’s identity was always hidden from view—at least by a subtle naming hint. Linguistically, “Darth Vader” at least has a clearly fatherly sound. Had the big reveal been “I am your fader,” the panting villain’s name, with a nod to an old Dutch term for “father,” would have been a nice play on.
The true origin story of Vader’s nickname is not as cool as the myth. But as someone who study the origin of wordsI see that the story is an example of something real: the universality of names used for fathers in all languages.
Considering that fathers played a key role in populating the dawn of civilization, it is perhaps not so surprising that a label for the guy we call “father” appeared early in the development of languages. But whether it’s “papa,” “dada,” or “father,” what’s striking is the cross-cultural bias in the words used to describe him—and how the same names have stayed the same for millennia.
Why “Father” is familiar
If we follow the linguistic development of the 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 7th to 11th centuries. In Old Dutch There was “Fader“; in Old Icelandic we find “faðir”; in Old High German, a forerunner of New German, was called “fater” – now “vater”; and finally in Old Danish “fathær”.
This uniformity strongly suggests that this word was found in the languages’ early Germanic parent—that is, the parent language from which all these Germanic languages descended.
But the similarity of the terms “father” does not end with this Germanic ancestor. Related words are found throughout Indo-European language tree – a large group of distantly related languages, spanning most of Europe and a good part of Asia. For example, we find closely matching terms in Latin ‘pater’, Sanskrit ‘pitar’, and Greek ‘patér’ – all older languages that developed separately from the Germanic lineage.
This means that the word “father” probably came from a long-dead source language, Estimated to be 6,000 years old. This single-parent language – known as Proto-Indo-European – gave birth to all these later languages and their common word for father.
But how did the “p” in “pater” turn into the “f” found in all Germanic “father” words?
Historical linguists have reconstructed them most likely sounds that were used this hypothetical parent language. Since Ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit all have “p”, “t” and “k” sounds, their Indo-European source probably also had these or closely related sounds.
But when Germanic languages formed their own branch of the family tree, that “p” became an “f”. This explains why there is a “p” in Latin words like “fish,” “podology,” and “patriarchy,” but an “f” in the Germanic-derived equivalents like “fish,” “foot,” and father.” That sound Change was not accidental but followed what was named Grimm’s lawnamed after the same Brother Grimm who brought us “Hansel and Gretel”.
Grimm noticed a pattern of sound correspondences between the Indo-European languages that suggested that a series of regular changes must have taken place as Indo-European split into daughter languages. These changes likely began as dialect variants that became more evident as groups of speakers were separated and new languages evolved—with the shifted sounds.
The ‘Babas’ & the ‘Papas’
One might expect that closely related languages would share words for fathers, but even in languages where there is no known evidence of common ancestry, the words for “father” sound strikingly familiar.
A similar trend is found in English, where children use the more intimate “Papa,” “Dad,” or sometimes “Daddy” as an alternative to the more formal “Father,” especially when in trouble or being released from prison.
“Dad” and “Daddy” have become increasingly popular over the last few decades:
This tendency towards similar vocabulary suggests that there is something quite universal behind it. And although “d” and “p” and “b” may not sound very similar at first glance, they all belong to a class of so-called “stop consonants‘ in linguistics. Stop consonants are sounds made with a brief but complete obstruction of airflow through the mouth during their articulation.
Why is this important to pops everywhere? Because stop sounds along with vowels are the earliest and The most common sounds Babies tend to babble – meaning “pa”, “ta”, “ba” and “da” are all early infant vocalizations.
Also, repetition is a feature of both baby babble and what the parent babbles back. As a result, this particular propensity for babbling makes “dadas,” “babas,” and “papas” — along with “apas” and “abas” — very popular things for little Carlos or Keisha to say while hanging out in the cradle.
So when dad comes by and hears what he interprets as his callsign, a solemn remembrance of the first word begins, regardless of whether Junior actually intended it that way or not.
A universal dad
And that leads back to the origin story of the word “father”.
Linguists suggest that early in the development of the Indo-European language, the sound sequence “pa”—babbled in early speech and longingly interpreted as a reference to the good old father—with a suffix like “ter,” might have been indicates a family relationship.
Looking 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 from Africa—or whether this process took place several times throughout the history of the language.
But it does suggest that fathers have clearly been important enough throughout human history to deserve a special designation. And unlike so many other words, which have been shifted and reshaped or replaced over time through linguistic pressures and language contact, the fondness for “dadas,” “fathers,” “fathers,” and “papas” seems unusually resilient to change be .
Whether you call him your papa, your baba, or your abba, just give him a call and let him know how well he and his title have stood the test of time.
https://heavy.com/news/fathers-day-dad-names/ Father’s Day: Why We Use the Names We Use for Dads