June: The Mother Tongue

On 21February 2018, BBC News released a story ‘You fit speak your language?’ for International Mother Language Day. A range of young people in Nigeria were asked if they spoke their indigenous language. Some said they did not speak their ‘mother tongue’ much or at all. One who did speak his mother tongue self-identified as a ‘Yoruba boy’. Most people, he noted, preferred to speak English and so their Yoruba had dropped away.

In 1997 researchers suggested some languages, including the Niger-Congo languages of which Yoruba is one, have a correlation to the spread of males migrating with a variant Y-chromosome, suggesting female partners were teaching their offspring a different language. This led to coinage of the term ‘father tongue’ in anthropological linguistics. Meanwhile ‘mother tongue’ reduced from what J. R. R. Tolkien called our ‘cradle-tongue’ to what modern linguists call ‘L1’.

If mother tongue now means our first language, our L1, it also meant in times past, says the Oxford English Dictionary,   ‘A language which gives rise to others; esp. one regarded as the source of a group or family of other languages, or (occasionally) as the source of all other languages.’ That ur-Tongue was thought by seventeenth-century linguists to have been German. Today, linguists do not think that there was ever a single language from which all 7000 modern language have developed. Those languages fall into perhaps nine language groups or families, with each its own mother tongue or proto-language. If that is right, then language developed nine times independently at nine points on the globe.

This spring, the BBC World Service published Death and the King’s Horsemen, a play by Wole Soyinka, that ‘showed the future of English’. Soyinka presented his nineteenth-century Nigerian characters speaking in English rather than Soyinka’s native Yoruba. The BBC commented that this use of English ‘reflected a new global culture and a linguistic destiny many did not see coming… using Yoruba proverbs and idioms with a cannibalised version of the Queen’s tongue to create a new, hybrid linguistic entity.’

We now have mother, father and Queen’s tongue, each representing a different linguistic concept – and that is not the end of the mother-tongue story. We have a special, social dialect (a sociolect) that we use to talk to young children – this dialect has been called motherese. Recent observation has suggested motherese can be challenged by studying the variant language men use to talk to small children and that older children use to younger siblings.

The study of nomenclature is revealing: motherese, parentese, care-taker language, input language, child-directed speech, babytalk - all of these terms reflect shifts in understanding and emphasis which have moved away from gender assumptions. While it is thought some language cultures do not emphasise this adult-to-child variety, in many language communities this more focused way of addressing a child becomes a fundamental support to a child’s language development.

The characteristics we associate with motherese such as higher pitch, longer vowels, repeated phrases, questions and what often seem like nonsense words may have originated  in pre-historic vocalisations that foraging mothers used while they put their babies down to search for food. It has been suggested these noises served as reassurance and may have developed from initial codes into what we would classify as words. Child-directed speech may provide part of an explanation as to why humans developed language at all. Motherese may have given birth to humanity. 

UNESCO celebrates ‘International Mother Tongue Day’ on 21 February. The English Project celebrates English Language Day on 13 October – the date in 1362 on which English was first used to open ‘the mother of parliaments’ as John Bright called it. It was that parliament of 1362 in which the English language became an official tongue for legal pleadings. As it was noted in The Brut - The Chronicles of England: ‘Hit was ordeyned … þat men of lawe … fro þat tyme forth shold plede in her moder tunge.’ In our year of Women and the English Language, we would note the modern women of law as well as those ancient men of lawe.



BBC News. ‘BBC Starts Pidgin Digital Service for West Africa Audiences.’ BBC News (21 August 2017): www.bbc.co.uk.

Jeyifo, Biodun. ‘This Wole Soyinka Play Showed the Future of English.’ BBC Culture (9 May 2018): www.bbc.com.

Myszor, Frank. Language Acquisition. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999.

Radford, Tim. ‘Baby Talk Key to Evolution. The Guardian (20 December 2004): www.theguardian.com.

Thurman, Judith. ‘A Loss for Words: Can a Dying Language be Saved?’ The New Yorker (30 March 2015): www.newyorker.com.

United Nations. ‘International Mother Language Day: 21 February.’ United Nations (21 February 2018): www.un.org.

Zadik, Daniel. ‘A Handful of Bronze-Age Men Could have Fathered Two Thirds of Europeans.’ The Conversation (21 May 2015): theconversation.com..

See the Bibliography for the entire 'Women and The English Language' series here.