Mom/mother sounds similar in many languages, why?
June 7, 2010 12:30 AM   Subscribe

Mom, mère, мама, แม่, μαμά, 媽媽, maminka, mẹ, mamãe... how did so many languages naturally come up with the starting sound of Mmmm for this word?

A coincidence? Natural phenomenon? Babies like the "M" sound?
posted by querty to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Because it's an easy sound for babies to make. Babies make it, Mom pays attention, so babies make it more, so mom reinforces, so....
posted by orthogonality at 12:37 AM on June 7, 2010

Well, if you mime sucking on a nipple (NB: not recommended at the workplace), you'll notice that your lips are going mmm..mmm..mmm. I always assumed, without ever bothering to check it out (how, anyway, without AskMeFi?) this was the etymology.
posted by aqsakal at 12:38 AM on June 7, 2010

The voiced bilabial nasal [m] followed by a vowel is one of the earliest sounds produced as it basically requires vibrating the vocal chords and then opening the mouth. Note that other bilabials, such as [p] and [b] are also involved in words assigned to early acquisition speech. As nasal consonants involve air escaping from the nose (try saying "mmmmm" and then pinch your nose shut) this is also the sound that a baby would be able to make while feeding, and thus likely to be one of the first sounds noticed by the mother.
posted by tractorfeed at 12:39 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Via Language Log: Larry Trask's Where do mama/papa words come from?

The answers in the thread so far seem to agree with Trask's detailed explanation.
posted by col_pogo at 12:46 AM on June 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Eponysterical here!

Yes, the voiced bilabial sounds are easy to make, and m is the easiest because you just close your lips and voice. B and P require some lip dexterity, so they generally come a little later. Sure, some kids say papa before mama, but not too many. This is partly because mom is usually the primary caretaker. Because mom is also a nearly universal caretaker figure, there is some entymology that shows the word mother in English going back to some ancient word for water and shares that origin in many modern languages. It's been 3 years or so since I've seem it in class, so it's possible that it's been debunked.
posted by bilabial at 5:09 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: With a sample size of four, my exhaustive research on the subject confirms that babies do indeed make the "mm" sound very early. However, the "d" sound also starts around the same time, and three of my ungrateful children have said "Dada" (as a word - not just as noise) long before they've said "Mama." "Mama" as a meaningful word hasn't come until quite late. Earlier words have included "ball," "hi," "up," "car," and "dog," despite the fact that I am a devoted full-time at home mom and we don't even have a dog. I'm still waiting for the fourth to start using words. She still has a chance to be my favorite.
posted by Dojie at 6:40 AM on June 7, 2010 [14 favorites]

I'm surprised that differing examples aren't cited. In Finnish, "mom" is "aïti" and "dad" is "isä". In Hungarian (I've purposely chosen two Finno-Ugric languages, btw) they're "anya" and "atya". In Japanese, "haha" and "chichi", and sometimes "haha-ue" and "chichi-ue" (although "mama" and "papa" are used now too).

Wiki article on Mama and papa I came across while perusing Google results.
posted by fraula at 8:41 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

three of my ungrateful children have said "Dada" (as a word - not just as noise) long before they've said "Mama."

You know this is your own fault, Dojie. You are too responsive and attentive; they don't need some word to get your attention. And your presence is never enough of a surprise to need to be noted aloud (like a dog's).
posted by Some1 at 9:23 AM on June 7, 2010


You might be interested to find that Japanese is cited in the Language Log article. According to it, "H" sounds in contemporary Japanese came from "P" sounds in the Japanese of several centuries ago. And "Pa-Pa" is, in the parlance of the article, a "mama/papa" word.

Your comment about "mama" and "papa" entering usage there would fit with the theme it describes of the word for "mama" eventually being adopted as the more formal word for "mother", while another "mama/papa" word takes its place as the word for "mama".
posted by theDTs at 9:46 AM on June 7, 2010

Best answer: Dinosaur Comics on the matter:

Hooray for egoism!
posted by i love cheese at 6:54 PM on June 7, 2010

In Georgian Mama and Dada are switched.
posted by k8t at 9:26 PM on June 8, 2010

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