You Called Her Mama

Tun Teja wrote in the comment box about the origin of the word 'Babu' which are used by some of our Bruneians for 'mother'. The perception is that the word 'babu' is used by family of Pengirans but of course that are also non-Pengiran families who used the word as well. In Brunei, our usage for the word mother ranged from the English Mummy or Mum to the Arabic Umi to the Brunei Mama or Babu. Seldom surprisingly I have heard Brunei children used Emak or Ibu even though these are standard Malay. We do use Abah or Bapa.

Why Babu? I don't know and I haven't had the time to do a research on how babu came about. I would suggest however that we go back in time. In English, for the meat, we have cows when the animal was still alive but we used beef to call its meat. I read somewhere this is due that in the old days, the common English people spoke English whereas the royalty or those high up spoke in French. So in French, boeuf means the meat of a cow and hence beef was used. As time passes by, cows and beef became English words.

Babu, from what I have read, I would guess would most likely come from the word, 'va pruh' which is a Sanskrit word. Like the English/French, our word origin would likely be Sanskrit/Malay. There are many Sanskrit words which became Malay words without us realising it. 'Va pruh' means leader or father, grandfather etc. It is quite spectacular though for it to become 'mother' in Brunei's context. But if we were to follow the English commoner/French royalty theory and apply it to the Brunei commoner/Sanskrit royalty (Pengirans), we may be on the right track.

Anyway, I may be very very wrong. If someone out there has a better theory, I and the readers of this blog would love to hear about it. 'Va pruh' became 'Baba' or 'Aba' in Persian and Arabic and also in Urdu and Hindi.

A quick check on Wikipedia, looking up Wiktionary, you get the following definition:-


The term babu, also spelled baboo, is used in modern-day South Asia as a sign of respect towards men. It is a derivation of bapu which means father. The honorific "ji" is sometimes added as a suffix to create the double honorific Babuji. In northern and eastern parts of India, "babuji" is a term of respect for one's father. It can also be used as a term of respect for any respected elder or man. In some Indian states, "babu" is also used as a generic word of respect to address men, especially unknown ones, e.g., "Babu, can you help me ?" In Bengali, "babu" is used as suffix to a person's name to show respect while calling him by name, e.g., "Sudarshan-babu, could you please come here!"

In British India, "Babu" was a term used to describe a native Indian clerk. The word was originally used as a term of respect attached to a proper name, but later, especially when used alone and not as a suffix, was a derogatory word signifying a semi-literate native, with a mere veneer of modern education.[1] In the early 20th century the term Babu was frequently used to refer to bureaucrats and other government officials, especially by the Indian media; in this sense the word hints at corrupt or lazy work practices. It can also mean the pimp or client of a sex worker. The term babu has thus fallen out of favour in polite society, since it may be taken as an insult.

In Indian languages, the term "babu" may be suffixed to a person's name, but the term "babuji" is always used by itself.

"Babu" also means grandfather in Swahili.


Like I said, it would really be interesting how 'babu' became 'mother' in Brunei.


Jay said…

You might be approaching this from the wrong angle.

You got to start from your childhood, or when you were a baby. The first words would probably either be 'baba,' 'papa' or 'mama', even 'dada' and 'tata.' Baba, mama, and papa are labial words, i.e. they are made with the lips. 'Dada' or 'tata' are dental words, These are the easiest sounds babies can make, and they will associate it with the things they see the most, their parents.

This explains why seemingly unrelated languages have very similar words for mother and father. Here are some examples:

English: mother, father
Swahili: mama, baba
Urdu: mang, bap
Mandarin: Mama, Baba
Quechua (Ecuador): mama, tayta

Usually 'mama' and its variants always refer to the mother, while 'papa', 'dada' and its variants always refer to the father. But in a few (very few) languages it's the other way around.

So in the case of Malay, there might have a simple 'mistake' or distortion that's gained popularity over a few generations, that babu is now used for mother. Language change happens very rapidly.

So words for mother and father usually comes from babies themselves, not the language of the parents or any of the languages coming before it.
Rozan Yunos said…
Sounds plausible. But why only Babu in Brunei and not in any other country?
Roxie said…
My parents said i learnt how to say 'Baba' all by myself whereas they had to teach me how to say 'Babu'.
Jay said…

You might as well as why only in Urdu they say 'bap' or why only in Hungarian they say 'anya.'

Sure, there's bound to be variations of similar sounding words. Italians, for example, use the word 'babbo' as well as 'papa.'

And it's actually not uncommon for babies to switch the two sounds' association with either mother or father. A study by Brooks-Gunn & Lewis (1979) suggests that generalisation - for babies to apply the term mama for mother and papa for father - occurs only later in infancy.

As is common in all languages, language distortion through mistakes or mispronunciation can become the norm in a relatively short time.

I admit, I may be biased about this. I'm studying linguistics and is incredibly interested in the field of language acquisition in children and sociolinguistics.
ungkayah said…
The term was originated , i believe from hindu influence~ "babuji"- although it may means father and 'babu2' (yang bekerja keras or..) .. it also means someone who works hard for their family, and one whom earn respects*.

As many linguistic experts noted, the language and terms actually also faced changes and experienced evolution. These can be influenced via inter-marriages, the assimilation of non-local term to local dialects, historical culturalization process(mcm henna(pacar), dowry, baras kuning due to early tradings etc.) ,the differences in pronunciations, intonations and so on( which may explains the lost in -ji). Since during the early days, most or even literally all of our mothers nurtured us by fulfilling their role as full-time mother and housewife. (so, they do work hard and from there, also earn respects: hence therefore the term applies*)

All i know, the locals long long time ago (zaman datu nini kitani) may have addressed people who are really into (his/her) work as "macam babu2 jua ko ani bekeraja saja" mostly reflecting their actions-(you work so hard like a 'babu'<---refer to babuji above)

This process is known as labeling. Thus when the labeling doesn't take off, it remains and conformed into the society as consensus.


the evolution of languages samples as below:

bahasa asing ke bahasa pasar...

go stunt - GOSTAN

and then bahasa inggeris ke bahasa melayu nusantara (standard)

discrimination -DISKRIMINASI

and yes like jay mentioned 'language distortion' also happens along the way

Wallahuakhlam :)) and of course the lost of the --ji will remain a mystery to the webmaster huh or perhaps not? hehe =D

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