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


  1. itstherecit -  November 3, 2011 - 7:50 pm

    My wife and I were sitting in our car with our 3 and 1/2 month old son, Patrick, strapped into his car seat in the rear seat. We were exploring the route my wife had to travel in her school bus the following week when school began. Our discussions intensity escalated in volume as we were attempting to figure the route out. Out of no where we both heard Patrick utter his first 2 words. As if he were telling us to knock the conversation off. He said “oh boy” perfectly in context. I know it’s hard to believe but we both heard it. No M’s for him…..LOL

  2. Jo English -  August 18, 2011 - 3:26 am

    I’m no language specialist but I am a mom…. and I was calling myself mama to my daughter since before she was born and there was no man around to call papa… she said mama at a very young age of nine months…. I would make animal sounds to her in the womb and she learned to make these sounds, again, very young… I think we are the teachers as parents and we learned from our parents…. back and back in time…. somewhere all languages had to come from the same place… then we split off into other sects and bastardized the language we grew up with… happened five thousand years ago and is still happening today…. but to talk about language comming from a single place is obvious since we all began in a single place thousands of years ago…….. duh…. only a GED here but this makes sense….at least to me it does.

  3. Quora -  May 24, 2011 - 10:19 am

    What is the reason for similarity of the phonetic variations of the common noun ‘mother’ similar in most of the languages?…

    Labials (including the /m/ sound) and dentals (including the /d/ sound) are some of the first syllables infants begin learning to pronounce when they start babbling (an important step towards talking). Naturally, new parents are anxious for a more bila…

  4. chuck noris -  May 16, 2011 - 7:09 am

    This iwas awesome it could be better though

  5. Some one -  May 15, 2011 - 5:42 pm

    Im with lori and bruce. a hole lot of people were workin on the tower on Babylon and they thought they would get all the way up to heaven , but god didn’ want them to so he made them all start Babylon different languages

  6. AmateurCommenter-924 -  May 12, 2011 - 1:57 pm

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  7. Small Potatoes -  May 11, 2011 - 12:02 pm

    “Mama” may not be universal, but in almost all of the examples given, the word for mother followed the pattern outlined in the article: a labial or dental followed by a wide vowel. In the case of Japanese, I believe “haha” would fall into this category just because the /h/ would be even easier for a baby to pronounce than a labial or dental. They all follow the pattern of being very simple sounds that babies can make before they learn the “adult” terms like “mother,” “Mutter,” or “okaasan.”

  8. Science4God -  May 10, 2011 - 1:23 pm

    I love my Mama… thats all I know. :)

  9. Tania -  May 10, 2011 - 10:05 am

    I really liked this post. Whether I agree with it or not, it made me think, and realise that there might be some connections between the first sounds a baby makes, and the first things he wants to say: mama, papa, food.

    Of course, I agree with John that you cannot leave the fact that there are a few archaic languages were the rest come from. But, then, how those primitive languages were formed?
    I am just guessing, but it might’ve been from very basic sounds. Nowadays we learn from our parents, there is no doubt. We say wow wow and then we learn it’s dog, or perro, chien, whatever… We say ma-da-pa and our parents correct us and we end up saying Mum and Dad, or even Father or Mother.

    But how did our ancestors came to name a mother “m…” or “p…” or ibu, deda, daya, all of which are very easy to pronounce by a baby, they seem directly taken from baby babbling?

    Just imagine there is no language, and you need to transmit an idea, the idea of a mother, and the baby babbles… And what is a mother? A woman with a baby. I am no scientific myself, but it seems rather possible that it might come from there.

    Personally, I think baby babbling helped form the words “mum”, “dad” and perhaps even “no” in primitive languages, and those words evolved through time and differently through civilizations and languages. Ancient Turkmenistan is maybe the base for many of our modern languages, and probably brought the word mum to us, but it came from somewhere as well, from something much more primitive.

    I think these post are not to be agreed or not, just to make you think. It doesn’t have to fit with what you know already, but it can complement it. We just have to open our minds to it.

    • marc -  August 23, 2015 - 9:08 am

      4 YEARS LATER: likely, a child utters from a closed mouth, and mmm is the first sound an opening moouth will make. AH, added to m, is “ma”. Cave Man, (or in mama’s case, Cave Woman) heard her child’s voice and responded. ma became a useful word to Cave Baby, and later evolved to Mother!

    • S K Vasishta -  October 18, 2015 - 8:22 pm

      I agree with you. . very often. a point, an issue, an argument is just like the sun, like the air, like the life. it is there and it is there. live with it.

  10. Ghengis John -  May 9, 2011 - 3:21 pm

    @ Matt

    Hatefulness? No. It’s not like I’m heartless. I can understand why people would want to believe this. It’s a heartwarming thought that fundamental commonalities of our humanity could make themselves so apparent as to crop up even in languages. Let alone in the nurturing environment shared between mother and child. It’s certainly a more appealing thought than the grim reality, that the word was spread by conquest and cultural subjugation of people. So people want to believe it. Because even if it’s a lie it’s a beautiful lie. But like the toothfairy and the easter bunny it is a whimsical and heart warming falsehood.

    I could go into the various reasons that it’s wrong, I could cite studies on the transmission of culture, studies on phonological progression, I could discuss at length that parent’s don’t adopt their children’s mispronunciations of words like “tiss” for kiss and “wite” for right or ask why “twinspeak” co-opts into the parent’s language and not the other way around. I might point out the folly of citing a 50 year old scientific text, with a protracted list of examples in other fields where we would find that dinosaurs were cold blooded and featherless, or that there was no such thing as DNA. I would love to discuss the Aryan empire of Turkmenistan and ask Jakobson how the suckling process gave many of these old civilizations the same word for “horse”, “asva”. I could discuss how “common sense” observation led to geo-centric theory or how this “simple words must be invented by children.” kind of correlation, causation confusion is simply putting the cart before the horse. The case, I’m afraid is pretty ironclad actually. But none of that would matter. It would be even more long winded and a big waste time. Like Global Warming or the Theory Of Evolution if you don’t want to believe something, no matter how strong the case is you won’t.

    Two hundred years on and people are still debating evolution. In the least proponents on both sides can choose what they want to believe. If you didn’t know there was a logical, fact based explanation for the wide spread adoption of the world “mama” I have provided it. The choice is there. You can choose to take it or not. But it’s there. And in that my intentions are also good. Should I say nothing because of this article’s good intentions? Misguided but well meaning intentions can do as much harm as purposefully malevolent ones can, sometimes more. Is an objection always a bad thing? If you object to somebody’s racism does that make you negative? There should always be another option than ignorance. Nobody has been forced to listen to or to accept it, but my hope is the reason of it will speak to some of the people who would have walked away from this article misinformed and disseminated that misinformation. In the very least perhaps presenting a reasonable doubt early will keep this from being the next “you eat 6 spiders a year” or “men think of sex every seven seconds” “factoid”.

    You can’t make somebody believe something that they refuse to though. Bottom line. This is a pretty hotly debated idea in the Indian subcontinent for instance, where scholars press the idea while nationalist movements see it as an affront to their identity. That doesn’t mean however that a fact ceases to be simply because you don’t like it. I hate that I can’t fly like superman. No matter how much I hate it though, I still can’t. Perhaps there’s some kryptonite sneaking it’s way into my diet but I doubt it. I’m actually surprised to see such vitriol from people concerning a “fact” they just learned five minutes ago. It’s like some kind of sociological experiment. But I know life is funner with magic. Perhaps people are offended because they liked the idea and I came along and jarred them from it. I think there’s still some commentary on the thread of our common humanity to be salvaged though. You still have the feelings that the thought of the word “mother” evokes, and no matter the tongue those are universal. Hold to that and nothing has really changed.

    @ JacuzziSplot

    Give my regards to The Rail Tracer!

    • tappo -  December 25, 2014 - 3:21 pm

      why does everything has to be Turkified?

  11. louis paiz -  May 9, 2011 - 12:16 pm

    children teach adults when reffering to languages the same as we see the different steps in development in a child face. have any one notice the fisiognomy of babies when they borned how they change from one day to another;some morning they look like grandparents other mornings they look like the parents.same is with words some beging saying tata nana others dada mom mama.if one would like to knw his her roots just listening to what the first words in a baby are not only mama or papa but great variety of sounds that when listening properly one can say why my baby is talking like that none of us speack german or greek. thank you very much.

  12. David -  May 9, 2011 - 12:11 pm

    Chicken or egg? Personally I think babies make the “ma” sound very easily, and culturally we reinforce “mama” = “mother” because we want that to be their first word (or words – “dada” etc. ) I think many babies’ first word that they intend to convey meaning with is “NO” :-)

  13. European Urpanz -  May 9, 2011 - 9:14 am

    All this begs the question–why do some people from countries, like Hungary and a few other say the dog says “vow vow” or “wow wow” (Germanic types) vs. English speakers who seem pretty bent on “bow wow”? Does this play in to or answer any question of how we perceive language?

  14. Matt -  May 9, 2011 - 8:50 am

    @Veronica — Right on! I was thinking the same thing.

    Why does it seem that some people so quickly respond to any theory (from somebody else) with dissent or outright hatefulness? I understand that on many (if not most) things, not everybody will agree, and that people involved in the details will inevitably miss details (i.e., ‘Across languages an uncanny pattern appears for the word “mother.”’ — If you paid attention, is there a claim of ‘across every language’ or ‘across all possible languages’? No).

    Seriously, people, try to relax a little. No statement that presents any useful or interesting information will ever describe every language… Don’t pick apart something that was written with good intentions simply because you think you can. Most often, you will not present the iron-clad argument that you expected.

    NOTE: I am fully aware that it could be considered hypocritical to pick apart the dissenting opinions, if they were also with good intentions. This is not to be taken in reference to them. My whole point is that being negative just to be negative does nothing for anybody — do you feel better after you have contributed? If not, or if you feel vindicated, you’re probably acting out of (misdirected) aggression.

  15. AdeleH -  May 9, 2011 - 7:29 am

    Interesting. But I wonder if it’s suckling as much as kissing. Mothers worldwide (surely!) are constantly hovering over little faces and making little kissies. And when a baby’s learning to kiss, she/he really just does a big lip smack and makes the “muh” sound. Of course maybe kissing is rooted in suckling. Who knows. But, whether it’s food or kisses, it’s great to be a mom.

  16. Jillian Galloway -  May 9, 2011 - 7:22 am

    It just makes sense for parents to choose the first stable sounds a baby makes as their own “names”. The breast feeding bit was interesting, logical and unexpected though. Before one year of age a parent doesn’t teach a child (that’s physically not possible), the child teaches the parent.

  17. Suji -  May 9, 2011 - 7:01 am

    Once a babe’s first babble was mama in some oldest civilization and the mother must be so happy to define her as mama… (lik in the article)..

    Later the other civilizations that originated from this must have taken the word wit them… Its as simple as that.. So both the theories must be right…

    Anyway it was from our mothers, the living gods and the cradle where we grew- civilizations

  18. Dani -  May 9, 2011 - 4:19 am

    It’s interesting, but it breaks down a bit in the country of Georgia where “mama” actually means father.

  19. Anucat -  May 9, 2011 - 2:13 am

    amma ia a tamil word meaning “mother”

  20. Lori -  May 9, 2011 - 1:34 am

    I have an alternative explanation. It’s the biblical one. We started out with one language, but God confused language at the Tower of Babel. Henceforth many languages have very similar, yet different, or even backward, words in them. And these languages have splintered and changed over time, some more than others. I do hope all mothers have had a Happy Mother’s Day today and may God Bless them.

    • tappo -  December 25, 2014 - 3:23 pm

      Thank GOD I don’t believe in religion

  21. ds -  May 9, 2011 - 12:33 am

    With regards to Japanese, it’s true that “okaasan” doesn’t fit the explanation above. But “mamma” is common baby-talk for food, so this would appear to lend some support to the babble-feeding connection.

    While it’s true that babies learn language from adults, not vice versa, if babies produce random sounds and adults react to them and reward them (with love, feeding, etc.) then this becomes de facto communicative, and the babies will quite naturally learn to associate those sounds with e.g. mother or food. In other words, babies produce sounds, then adults teach the babies what they (the adults) think those sounds mean.

  22. saqib -  May 8, 2011 - 11:28 pm

    @ Ghengis John.
    I would urge others to answer Ghengis John’s following question, without which the Jakobson’s propositon is incomplete.

    Parents influence their children, nobody says “lets all do what the baby does”. ??

  23. saqib -  May 8, 2011 - 11:21 pm

    Ok, Its a good effort by Jakobson, but the matter is still unanswered. It explains the cause of the baby’s “m” sound but how was it transferred to the vocabulary of the different cultures around the world. Did the cultures really considered the “m” sound produced by the babies in vocabularizing the word for “mother” ?

  24. Gerrard -  May 8, 2011 - 11:17 pm

    hi everyone!!!

  25. Sorry! >=D -  May 8, 2011 - 11:16 pm

    im Gerrard

  26. Gerrard -  May 8, 2011 - 11:15 pm

    My baby relative can’t swallow properly without coughing……

  27. Gerrard -  May 8, 2011 - 11:14 pm

    that’s awesome! thanks for the explanation!xD

  28. Bruce -  May 8, 2011 - 8:47 pm

    And is there no one who believes in the account of the Tower of Babel and the confounding of languages?

  29. anon123 -  May 8, 2011 - 8:27 pm

    in indonesian, the word for mama is ibu – so it doesnt work for turkish, indonesian, georgian, or kurdish.

    but papa in indonesian follows the pattern – it is bapak (pronounced bapa)

  30. mike -  May 8, 2011 - 8:07 pm

    Babies can breathe and swallow at the same time.

  31. I'm an evil potato. -  May 8, 2011 - 5:50 pm

    To Ghengis John: It is true that parents influence their children and not vice versa, but language did have to come from somewhere, and wouldn’t a phonetic sound that came naturally to humans be convenient to use as a word? Remember that lots of languages are either very old or come from very old languages. This seems like a plausible explanation, unless someone has another explanation.

  32. Nitya -  May 8, 2011 - 4:35 pm

    For those entries that insist that adults teach chilldren how to speak; the teaching of children and babies is a reciprocal arrangement. Parents actually want to be able to encourage and exchange with their offspring. It’s in the interests of both parents and children to have a word that is easy and comes naturally to the child. Look at all those important early words such as “no”, “bye-bye” , “ta”. All easily pronounced.

  33. Asentro -  May 8, 2011 - 3:36 pm


  34. Tijani ibrahim -  May 8, 2011 - 3:04 pm

    Lovely informative information especialy on mother’s day. Well timed

  35. Omid -  May 8, 2011 - 2:24 pm

    What a marvelous tribute to all mothers.Thank you for all the liguistic information you put on Dictionary.com. Such posts encourage visitors to stop by on a regular basis

  36. Veronica -  May 8, 2011 - 2:14 pm

    Happy mother’s day to all the mom’s out there!

    I think that this post was quite interesting and I can see the connections. But my comment is towards the negative comments.

    Why are you guys so angry? So what if the author didn’t think of a specific culture out of all the other ones worldwide! Is it really that big of a deal?

    Stop being so serious about a post on a dictionary site and have some fun with your life!

  37. Happy Mother's Day =D -  May 8, 2011 - 1:40 pm

    Dear haters

    Where did language originate from? certainly, humans did no come into this world with a language already established. At one point, we had no language and had to make up sounds to convey thoughts. in essence, all the languages in the world was created by humans experimenting with sounds that their mouth can make. if a baby is capable of easily accomplishing this feat that adults are credited for, why not let them contribute to the creation of a language? What is the difference between an adult making arbitrary sounds and a baby making arbitrary sounds? In the end, they are both making arbitrary sounds. Babies, in fact, are even more creative, since they are yet uninfluenced by the present framework of the language.
    A long time ago, the sound that many babies made towards their moms happened to be ‘mama’ and it is quite logical for the earlier people to use this word for children to address their moms. Even today, without teaching babies the current language, their first word (in most cases) is still ‘mama’, an existing word in our language.

    Happy Mother’s Day =D

  38. Eric -  May 8, 2011 - 12:21 pm

    It sounds like the Georgians are very confused. Even Russian uses “mat’” (or mama) and “otetz” for mother and father, respectively – Georgian “DEDA” sounds like Russian “dedushka”, which is grandfather, or Russian “dyadya”, which is uncle.

  39. Lauren -  May 8, 2011 - 11:57 am

    in Arabic, mama is mom. and baba is dad or papa. there is no “p” sound in the Arabic language. just so you know……

  40. Leonard Graium -  May 8, 2011 - 11:45 am

    This is very interesting…I also would like to add that when the baby first makes the connection between sucking and nutrition (a case of classical conditioning), he would most definitely generalize his knowledge to the one who controls when or how much he could have of that nutrition, who is, obviously, his mother. therefore, he not only addresses the sucking as something that contains the phoneme “ma” (or “am” in certain cases) but his mother as well. The mother of course, would gleefully interpret this as first steps in the baby’s language acquisition (and it is) and establish herself as whatever the baby calls her–mama.

  41. Lilly -  May 8, 2011 - 10:51 am

    @ Genghis… the behaviorist theory is older than 1960′s and antiquated, outdated and disproved. Children learn language – on their own – whether or not adults correct them – in fact – several studies have shown that children will disregard grammatical corrections until they understand them. They do not just start using it because a parent tells them to. Anyway – even children who are never corrected figure out language, vocabulary, and grammar. So your argument is false. Read up on the current events – it is 2011 and 50 years of research have concluded.

  42. Lilly -  May 8, 2011 - 10:45 am

    Seriously – Are Americans so egocentric as to think that the word for Mama is world-wide? How stupid! Babbling is when babies start trying to make sounds that are familiar and I guarantee a Chinese babbling baby does not sound like an British babbling baby to linguistic.

  43. JacuzziSplot -  May 8, 2011 - 8:50 am

    Hmm…. In Japanese the word for Mom is okaasan or haha. Doesn’t come near to sounding like “Mama”.

  44. Allen -  May 8, 2011 - 8:39 am

    @ Ghengis John seems to make some good points here. Are we perpetuating another urban myth?

  45. Jim Macy -  May 8, 2011 - 8:30 am

    So, it appears that we all learned what the infant was anticipating from the sounds he or she makes when sucking on a breast and then we learned what to call each other. Sorry, this makes NO SENSE.

  46. Liana -  May 8, 2011 - 8:01 am

    And then there are languages that outrightly defy this pattern, like “äiti” — mother, in Finnish.

  47. Hervé BERNARD -  May 8, 2011 - 4:54 am


    Could complete your article with some african oe aborigen words for mama, it would reinforce your explanation.

  48. Ghengis John -  May 8, 2011 - 1:40 am

    This explanation is ridiculous and completly ignores the influence of the Aryan empire out of Turkmanistan whose language was the root of latin, greek, sanscrit, arabic and other languges. What’s more children do not simply settle on whatever sounds they choose and form languages. Parents influence their children, nobody says “lets all do what the baby does”. The babies are making this sound out of imitation and if it were not simply a diminutive of their parent’s own word for mother said parents would not simply accept it but would actively correct them. You can not tell me in a world where parents actually untrain left handedness they would accept their children inventing words. Furthermore a text from 1962 is naturally unaware of advances in linguistic archaeology that have been made in the last half century.

  49. Lydia -  May 7, 2011 - 11:22 pm

    Dear Hernan,

    I would like to confirm that in Kurdish the word for mother is ‘daya’. It might be that etymologicall this word is close to a Kurdish verb ‘dan’, which means to give. So the meaning behind the word ‘daya’ might be ‘a giver’, which is so very true. Perhaps it is the same story in Georgian language!

    With regard to ‘papa’, there is no problem. It is ‘baba’.

  50. CC -  May 7, 2011 - 9:14 pm

    Thanks for this printing this informative article on Mother’s day!

  51. Book Beater -  May 7, 2011 - 8:46 pm

    Deets; didn’t you have something to say about this @ 1.45 fortnights ago as the biblio-zazi’s were derailing the thread?
    Also hoping our linguist’s of the norse come back to chime in.

  52. me -  May 7, 2011 - 8:22 pm


  53. Ivanhoe -  May 7, 2011 - 8:05 pm

    Leonard Bernstein had a theory just like this! Check out his wonderful video on youtube, “Origin of Music.”

  54. Darren -  May 7, 2011 - 7:48 pm

    This was a good explanation. I’m personally a little tired of people using the fact that the word for “mama” is very similar in practically all languages as supposed evidence that all languages descend from a common ancestor.

  55. MAMA | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  May 7, 2011 - 7:09 pm

    [...] MAMA and her mameries — cue cards for the kid — Pap smears give the all clear — for what Papa and Mama did — that preoccupation with the breasts — is no linguistic Feat — have another taste of mother’s milk — the cross generational cultured treat. — wrap the child in the finest silk — unless poverty prevents all tests. — One more cheer for mother’s milk and three cheers for Mama’s Breasts! –>>L.T.Rhyme [...]

  56. calicoixal -  May 7, 2011 - 6:41 pm

    First comment! I like your ending to the article. It was very nice. I’m glad I know this information.

  57. George William Herbert -  May 7, 2011 - 6:07 pm

    What a beautiful entry! I will say this to my mommy when I talk to her tomorrow!

  58. George William Herbert -  May 7, 2011 - 6:06 pm

    What a beautiful story! I will say this to my mommy when I talk to her tomorrow!

  59. Hernan -  May 7, 2011 - 5:57 pm

    Yes, but in Georgian… “MAMA” (here phonetically…)means “dad” and the word for mom is “DEDA” (idem)…

    Any explanations as to why the Georgian language seems to go in exactly the opposite direction ???

    • tappo -  December 25, 2014 - 3:30 pm

      well in greek ne means yes and ohi means no. isn’t it reversed too?

  60. Tobias Mook -  May 7, 2011 - 5:13 pm

    Truly marvelous post. As a avid linguist, I have realized this phenomenon as well, even as far away as China and Iceland!!!

  61. Barthalemu -  May 7, 2011 - 5:04 pm

    Hmm. This i must say is very interesting….although i BEG to differ.

  62. SERGE -  May 7, 2011 - 4:33 pm

    Le first? yah?

  63. Joe Smith -  May 7, 2011 - 4:21 pm


  64. I'm an evil potato. -  May 7, 2011 - 4:19 pm

    That is pretty cool. It’s especially interesting that all languages developed the word for ‘mother’ with at least a similar subconcious reasoning. Very appropriate article for Mother’s Day.

  65. Vaci -  May 7, 2011 - 3:32 pm

    yay, first comment, and wow cool ^^

  66. zllex -  May 7, 2011 - 2:17 pm

    towards is British…we use toward

  67. Robb Shaffer -  May 7, 2011 - 1:57 pm

    I arrived at Jakobson’s conclusion independently after realizing that “mamar” in Spanish means “to suck.” Then I put two and two together when I considered that get the words “mammal” and “mammary” from that basic sound of human function. It just makes sense. Happy “Mama’s Day.”

  68. reptos -  May 7, 2011 - 1:40 pm

    I am the first one :)

    Now for sure I will get some mum mum or gu gu!!

  69. reptos -  May 7, 2011 - 1:38 pm

    Really cool info.

    I need mum mum..gu gu..ba ba hehe :)

  70. Craig Schoonmaker -  May 7, 2011 - 1:21 pm

    That makes very little sense. Infants do not teach adults to speak, but the other way around.

  71. :) -  May 7, 2011 - 12:34 pm

    its mothers day eve 2day :)

  72. :) -  May 7, 2011 - 12:33 pm


  73. Chelsea-Brooke -  May 7, 2011 - 12:29 pm

    first to comment!. interesting tho.


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