Ad Litteram is a new podcast series on words brought to you by HPR. What better way to begin a series on words than with the first human word?
The episode begins with the story of Joe Medicine Crow, a member of the Crow tribe of Montana. Joe was the first Crow to attend college, earning a master’s degree in anthropology in 1939. And while working on his doctorate a few years later, World War Two broke out.
Joe joined the army and fought with the 103rd Infantry Division. While in combat, Joe wore the traditional Crow warrior paint under his uniform and carried a sacred pink eagle feather for protection.
Joe tells the story about one encounter he had with a German soldier during a raid. They were in the middle of a siege and Joe was running down a back alley when he literally ran into the German soldier.
The two began fighting and Joe managed to get his hands around the guy’s neck, squeezing tighter and tighter, and as the German soldier was taking his last breath, he yelled this word: “Mama!”
Joe stopped, loosened his grip, and let the guy go. He said it was the moment the soldier said that word that he decided to let him live.
It’s not too surprising that Germans speakers call their mothers what English speakers call theirs, because they aren’t too far off linguistically, they’re pretty close. But, “mama” is “mama” in a shocking number of disparate languages (Mandarin, Somali, Russian, Sanskrit etc.) that have no historical relationship whatsoever.
Linguist Roman Jakobson’s belief is that through breastfeeding, the word transcends eras and cultures and may be one of the first words humans ever spoke. Was the soldier using his last breath to comfort himself or was he inadvertently communicating with Joe on an intrinsically human level?
Listen to Ad Litteram at hpr1.com or adlitteram.org The next podcast episode covers the word "Millennial." Readers can call 315-967-3763 and leave a message which may be included in that episode.
by Sabrina Hornung
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