Maman. Madre. Mamma. Mam. Amá. ‘Um. Mama. Eomma. Māmā. Mama. Mamay. Maan. Sound similar? That was mother in different languages — specifically in French, Spanish, Italian, Welsh, Navajo, Arabic, Swahili, Korean, Telugu, Mandarin, Quechua and Hindi, in that order.
What do all these languages have in common? Well, not much, unless you count the fact that they’re all languages.
It’d be one thing if they all belonged, say, to the Indo-European family. At least then we could trace the echo of “mama” back to a definitive origin. But this small sampling of “mother” in different languages accounts for pretty much every corner of the globe. It doesn’t take a linguistics degree to see that “mama” belongs to a dialect far more universal than a single protolanguage.
Moreover, languages tend to change a lot over time, and even if “mama” did come from a singular mother tongue (see what we did there?), it seems unlikely that this word would retain its consistency thousands of years after the fact.
If you’re wondering, though, there are 23 words that are considered the oldest in the world, and “mother” is one of them. This list of “ultraconserved words” (which have remained more or less the same for 15,000 years) are thought to originate from such a mother tongue, which was used around the time of the last ice age.
But here’s a slightly less complicated (and way cuter) explanation: the word “mother” didn’t arise randomly in the human lexicon. It’s actually just the outgrowth of the way all babies learn to talk.
In his groundbreaking paper “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’?,” linguist Roman Jakobson pointed to the first syllable babies are usually capable of making: “ah,” or “mah.” These are usually the first sounds babies reach for because they don’t require complex mouth positions (or the use of tongue or teeth).
This also explains the universality of words like “papa” and “dada” — the “p” or “b” sound usually follows the “m” sound in baby linguistics. Once babies start saying “ma,” they soon start saying “pa” and “da.”
Moreover, “mah” is associated with the murmuring sound a baby makes when it’s breastfeeding. Jakobson wrote:
“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.”
In other words, “mama” doesn’t literally mean “mother” — at least from the perspective of a baby. If anything, “mama” is more directly translated from baby-ese as “food” (think: “mammary,” which comes from the Latin word for “breast”). Still, there’s something rather deep and symbolic in the connection between a baby’s first utterances and a baby’s first relationship with the outside world.