Why do sounds close to "mama" appear in so many languages?

Mother, maman, mommy, amma, mama, em, mum, mamma, mutter, mare, maty, ana . . . Across languages an uncanny pattern appears for the word “mother.” Why? Is it evidence of universal language? Is this evidence of sound symbolism at work, when a phoneme (sound) has meaning completely unto itself?

If you are a linguist, baby talk is not a cute and meaning-lite semi-language used with infants. Babble is the first step towards helping nursery-form words, which classify an infant’s early language acquisition environment. Who inhabits this environment with a child? Parents.

Developmentally, babies babble nonsense sounds to try them out. The simplest form of babble is a consonant followed by a vowel: labial (/m/, /p/, /b/); dental (/t/, /d/, /n/, /l/) consonants followed by a wide vowel sound (/a/) are the most dominant. The opening and closing of the mouth is the most natural order of sound production. Repetition of phonemes set identifiers (names) apart from other babble a baby is making as it explores language. “Nursery names for mother and father, like the earliest meaningful units emerging in infant speech, are based on the polarity between the optimal consonant and optimal vowel,” writes Roman Jakobson in his 1962 article “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’?” the most comprehensible linguistic examination of the global similarities for the names of parents.

So the foundation for the words mama and papa come from the most convenient sounds babies naturally make as they learn language. That answers the first part of our question, but why is it that mama or some other combination of /m/ and /a/ are even more common than papa, dada, or baba?

Jakobson has a theory for this phenomenon as well: “often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full. Later, this phonatory reaction to nursing is reproduced as an anticipatory signal at the mere sight of food and finally as a manifestation of a desire to eat, or more generally, as an expression of discontent and impatient longing for missing food or absent nurser, and any ungranted wish. When the mouth is free from nutrition, the nasal murmur may be supplied with an oral, particularly labial release; it may also obtain an optional vocalic support.”

So when you wish your Mama a happy Mother’s Day, remember that even the sounds of what you call her are connected to the core of who you are.

Turning 5 in 2005 Millennium twins know all about Dora, but too much about death

Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME) January 1, 2005 | DEBORAH TURCOTTE; OF THE NEWS STAFF Lexie and Jaedyn Worster-Conley really do not know how special their birthday is today.

The twin sisters from Lincoln, who were the second and third babies born in Maine on Jan. 1, 2000, are too young to comprehend how cool it is to be 5 in 2005.

They do not understand that the day they were born was the first day of a new century and a new millennium. And they cannot figure out how a pesky Y2K bug threatened to destroy all of the world’s computers but decided to be nice instead.

Maybe they will when they are 10 in 2010.

Lexie and Jaedyn (JAY-din) do know what they are supposed to for their age – plus more than 5-year-olds should.

They know that Barbie likes to ride around in a convertible. That Dora the Explorer’s best friend is a monkey named Boots. That all of the Disney Princesses are their favorites. And that “The Incredibles” was a good movie but really scary in parts.

They also know about chemotherapy and hair loss. And that what’s truly scary is cancer.

Lexie was diagnosed with neuroblastoma – a rare cancer of the nervous system – in October 2003 and given a 25 percent chance of surviving two years.

“I think you get all these things in your head when you’re pregnant with them, that everything is going to be this way,” said Ronette Worster, the twins’ mother, during a recent interview at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where Lexie once again was recuperating from chemotherapy.

“And it never turns out that way.” – . – Ronette Worster and Michael Conley were not expecting to have two of the first millennium babies in the Eastern Time zone. With a Jan. 18 due date, they believed that distinction would go to someone else.

When Ronette went into labor on Dec. 30, the couple was thinking about gaining two tax deductions for 1999 and not about the girls being two Year 2000 kids. easternmainemedicalcenternow.net eastern maine medical center

At midnight on Jan. 1, fireworks were bursting above the Penobscot River as Ronette was being told to push. Thirty-three minutes after midnight, Lexie, whose formal name is Alexandra Roniya, was born weighing 6 pounds, 1 ounce. Twenty minutes later, Jaedyn Carianne arrived weighing an ounce more.

The first millennium baby in Maine was born 53 seconds after midnight in York, and then Lexie and Jaedyn followed at Eastern Maine Medical Center. Twenty-eight babies were born statewide on Jan. 1, 2000, and 279 were born during the first week of the new year.

“We beat a lot of other babies,” Lexie said. That much she knows.

For Lexie and Jaedyn, that first year went just like it should according to baby books. They started getting their first teeth around 8 months old, and Jaedyn took her first steps before Christmas. Lexie followed days later, right before her first birthday.

Each of the girls had a small chocolate cake of her own at their first birthday party and they smeared it all over their faces.

In their 1-year-old portraits, the twins look like the teddy bears on their shirts – robust with pinchable cheeks and short, fuzzy hair.

The Christmas before their third birthday, Lexie and Jaedyn are normal toddlers, posing in a formal portrait wearing red velvety dresses, their long golden-brown hair flowing down their backs.

But this year’s Christmas picture, taken by their mother at the hospital, shows Lexie wearing a pink hood to mask her bald head, Jaedyn sitting casually beside her.

While the pictures are permanent snapshots of time, sometimes the best moments are not captured on film. Jaedyn rubbing Lexie’s now bald head as they giggle. Ronette and Lexie reaching out to each other, their fingertips lightly touching, as they flash mother- daughter smiles.

“My sister is kissing me all the time when I’m sleeping in my room,” Lexie said.

- . – The hugs and kisses given by her sister are what each twin likes most about the other.

They also like ponies and swimming. When they grow up, they want to be ballerinas in pink tutus. Or cowboys. Not in pink tutus.

“Sometimes they walk around together and say, ‘she’s my best friend,’” Ronette said.

These days, though, Jaedyn is scared of what could happen to her best friend.

A dog scratch can be lethal. So can any type of infection. One night, by accident, Jaedyn touched the medicine port embedded in Lexie’s chest while the girls were sleeping. A trip to the emergency room ensued to fix the drip and ward off any infection.

Anyone visiting Lexie at Eastern Maine Medical Center is required to bathe their hands with antibacterial solution, put on latex gloves and a mask.

“It’s called reverse isolation,” said a nurse outside Lexie’s hospital room during her recent stay. “It’s to protect her from you.” It was through a common cold that the Worster-Conleys found out about Lexie’s cancer. Late summer 2003, two relatives were suffering through pneumonia. Shortly thereafter, Lexie began coughing, too.

Unlike when she had other colds, Lexie complained about a sharp pain on the left side of her chest, slightly underneath her collarbone. X-rays revealed the tumor, and further tests confirmed neuroblastoma. It was October 2003.

“They gave her a 25 percent chance to live two years with chemo,” Michael said. “We’ve been through one year so far.” “So far so good,” Lexie added victoriously.

- . – Lexie doesn’t believe she’s sick. In her mind, it’s the chemotherapy that is making her ill. The cancer has spread to her bone marrow – stage five of six stages.

“She’s actually said she’s going to the hospital to get sick,” Michael said.

Lexie and Jaedyn no longer can share the same clothes. Jaedyn now is at least two inches taller and bulkier. She looks like a typical 5- year-old.

Lexie is frail yet vibrant.

“They were, until this happened, neck and neck,” Michael said.

That included the beautiful darkening hair – they called it “choc- y hair” for chocolate – that cascaded down their backs.

Ronette and Michael, in trying to explain the cancer to Lexie, had to break the news to her that the medicine she would be given to fight the disease would cause her hair to fall out.

That frightened the then 3-year-old.

Then, one day, Lexie and Jaedyn’s Uncle Rusty stopped by for a visit. He had shaved his head to show Lexie that losing her hair wasn’t so bad after all.

“She said she wanted to lose her choc-y hair just like Uncle Rusty,” her grandmother, Barbara Worster, said.

Jaedyn continued to grow her hair, eventually cutting it off and donating it to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for cancer sufferers.

Lexie, however, could not get a wig made from her sister’s hair. Natural hair may have germs that can cause infections.

- . – The last 14 months have been hell for the Worster-Conleys. go to site eastern maine medical center

Along with Lexie’s cancer diagnosis, two other relatives were informed that they have lung cancer. Ronette and Michael divorced. Michael’s grandmother died in mid-December.

And beloved Uncle Rusty commited suicide last July.

To a preschooler, death means a person goes away and does not come back.

“Whenever [Jaedyn's] mom and Lexie are gone for long periods of time, Jaedyn thinks they’ve died,” Barbara said.

“She’s very worried that if I die or if my mother dies, she’s going to be all alone,” Ronette added. “That’s something that a 4- year-old shouldn’t be worried about. But she does. They’re growing up way too fast.” Lexie is grieving in another way. She’s personalizing her Uncle Rusty’s death.

“She says she doesn’t want to die,” Michael said. “But she says she wants to be buried right next to her Uncle Rusty.” – . – Jaedyn is seeing a counselor now, usually visiting the specialist once a week after preschool. From there, if Lexie is in the hospital like she was for two weeks in December, Jaedyn and her grandmother will drive to Bangor to hang out with her sister and her mom on the pediatric ward.

For Ronette, the trials of having to watch her children go through the experience of cancer is unbearable.

At one point, the family thought the cancer had left Lexie’s body for good, that all of the treatments had worked.

It came back.

“I keep thinking about when is it going to end,” Ronette said. “It’s supposed to be over by now, all of her treatments and stuff.” A week into the last hospital visit, the strain became too much for Ronette. She wasn’t sleeping, barely eating. And she was scared. She sought counseling from Acadia Hospital.

“I always think the worst,” Ronette said. “What am I supposed to do when she’s not getting better?” Lexie arrived at Eastern Maine Medical Center on Dec. 9 for chemotherapy. Twelve days later, her white blood cell count finally showed improvement, enough to fight off infection.

The next day – exactly one week before Christmas – Lexie was able to go home.

She was craving bacon and she needed to prepare for a trip to New York City.

- . – Christmas came a little early for Lexie when, during a scheduled visit to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter stopped by. Jeter was delivering Christmas presents to the kids in the cancer ward, and he gave Lexie a doll and a tea set.

“She didn’t know who he was,” Ronette said. “But he brought her a present so she thought he was nice.” The Worster-Conley family is in what could be their last phase in fighting Lexie’s neuroblastoma.

The cause of neuroblastoma is unknown, according to Sloan- Kettering’s Web site, but many physicians believe that it is an accidental cell growth that occurs during normal development of the adrenal gland. Its symptoms – fatigue, loss of appetite, swollen belly or weakness in the legs – are similar to those of more common diseases.

“Neuroblastomas are highly diverse in their behavior,” according to the Web site. “Some will go away without any treatment; others can be treated effectively with surgery alone. Nearly half of these tumors spread quickly to the bone and bone marrow and require one or more of the following treatments: chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow transplantation.” The treatments that Lexie will undergo will require several trips to New York City. The most recent visit was for blood work, and Lexie and her parents were home in time for Christmas.

Sometime early this month, they’ll return for Lexie to begin what’s called 3F8 monoclonal antibody treatment to clear her bone marrow of the cancer cells, an experimental treatment that Ronette says she’s been told has a 50-50 success rate.

The monoclonal antibody is produced by white blood cells of mice and must be carefully prepared for use in people, according to the hospital. The antibody is supposed to attach itself to the surface of the neuroblastoma cells and serve as a signal to Lexie’s immune system to fight the cancer.

If the bone marrow clears, Lexie will undergo a stem cell transplant.

The cells will come from Jaedyn.

“One thing we have going for us is that when they do the stem cell transplant, they don’t have to look for somebody else because they’re identical twins,” Michael said. “The one thing we found out through all of this is that they’re identical twins. We can see the difference between them.” “Hopefully they’ll do the stem cells and then it will be done, that it will go away, go away forever,” Ronette added.

Jaedyn will not be able to go to New York City with her sister until she’s needed there. MaineCare insurance will not cover the expenses but of a few people.

She’ll stay home, hoping that her sister hasn’t died, and praying to God that he’ll make her well so they can celebrate more birthdays together.

“Make Lexie better,” Jaedyn said she tells God. “Amen.” DEBORAH TURCOTTE; OF THE NEWS STAFF

Related articles

Back to Top