This morning’s New Testament reading was Romans 8:14-17. Of particular linguistic interest is verse 10: ‘you received the Spirit of sonship [fn: Or adoption]. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”‘ (NIV) Abba is the Aramaic word for father, which Paul uses alongside the Greek equivalent: Αββα ὁ πατήρ (abba ho pater). (Paul uses it twice, here and in Gal 4.6, and Mark once, in 14.36.) Some commentaries state that the Aramaic word has connotations of intimacy and childlike trust (indeed some paraphrase it as ‘Daddy, Father); others that it is the usual, natural, neutral word. If there is a connotation of intimacy, it is because Aramaic was the language of the home and everyday life, whereas Koine Greek was the lingua – um – franca of international communication (which is why the New Testament was written in it).
In every English translation of the Bible I have seen, this is rendered as ‘Abba, Father’ (this was the source of the some amusement to us during the heyday of the Swedish pop group). In Korean, the cry is ‘아빠, 아버지’ (a-ppa, a-beo-ji). The first word is not a rendering of the Aramaic word, but is the Korean word for ‘dad’, being a childish or childlike variant of the second word. The corresponding names for the maternal parent are 엄마 (oem-ma) and 어머니 (eo-meo-ni).
Almost every language in the world has a word for ‘mother’ containing the sound /m/ (the exceptions almost all have /n/ (compare English ‘nana’)*, and most have a word for ‘father’ containing the sound /p/, or the closely related /b/, /f/ or /v/. Further, the most common vowel is /a/. Wikipedia has an article called ‘Mama and papa’, which explains, ‘These words are the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies, and parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with themselves and to employ them subsequently as part of their baby-talk lexicon … These terms are built up from speech sounds that are easiest to produce’. German ‘vater’ and English ‘father’ are a partial exception to the latter statement, which is why English speaking babies start with ‘dada’, ‘daddy’ and ‘dad’. (Google Translate translates ‘daddy’ as ‘(der) Vati’ and ‘dad’ as ‘(der) Papa’.)
Korean and English both have an informal word (or two) alongside a neutral one: 아빠, daddy and dad, and 엄마, mummy/mommy and mum/mom. English children tend to switch from ‘daddy and mummy’ to ‘dad and mum’ earlier than Korean children switch from 아빠 and 엄마 to 아버지 and 어머니. But it also depends on the relationship between the child and the parent: my wife said she continued to call her mother 엄마 up to her death.
But ‘father’ and ‘mother’ are neutral only when talking about one’s parents, not talking to them. An English-speaking adult will probably refer to ‘my father’ and ‘my mother’, but call them ‘dad’ and ‘mum’. (Or at least I do/did, respectively.) In 2012, on the queen’s 60th anniversary, Prince Charles opened a public speech with ‘Your majesty … mummy’, which was a very strange juxtaposition of the very formal and the very informal. I can well imagine English adults calling their parents either ‘father’ and ‘mother’ or ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy’. When I was a child, my grandparents’ next door neighbours were two elderly sisters born in Australia but raised in England. They still referred to their parents as ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy’.
*The very different exception to the general rule is Georgian, in which ‘father’ is მამა (mama) and ‘mother’ is დედა (deda), just to confuse things. Don’t make ‘yo mama’ jokes in Tbilisi. (In fact, please don’t make ‘yo mama’ jokes anyway.) (If you don’t know what a ‘yo mama’ joke is, do not look it up. (I really mean it!))
[Edit: Stan Carey of Sentence First discusses this in greater detail here]