Why is "mama" Easily Recognizable in Almost Any Language?

“Mama” is one of the many words children use to refer to their mother. We see the same or similar word being used across various languages. When native English speaking children start talking, they start calling their mothers “mama”, “momma” or “mom”. In German, Russian, Greek, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese Romanian and Dutch mother is, “mama”. In French it is “maman” and in Italian, Swedish and Norwegian it is “mamma”. Of course, pronunciation can vary a little, but they have the same sound of consecutive m’s and a’s.

What is the reason for this word to be similar across all these different languages? In linguistics “mama” and the other versions are formed with a sequence of sounds that are said to be easy to produce for children that are just beginning to babble. During language acquisition and specifically the babbling stage, children are experimenting with the different sounds they can make with their mouths and therefore produce nonsense sounds. The most convenient sounds are those that the baby can easily produce when beginning to learn a language. These simple sounds of babble are rendered when consonants with the sound /d/ or the bilabial /m/, /p/ and /b/ are followed by a simple open vowel /a/. This holds true for the words used for father, which are “papa”, “baba” or “dada.”

Why are they coined to mean “mother” and “father”? Parents get excited when their baby starts to make sounds and associate the first sounds as an attempt to speaking and naturally assume that they are trying to call out to them. So the babbling sounds become lexicalised as parents interpret them as being meaningful.

Reference: Jakobson, R. (1962) “Why ‘mama’ and ‘papa’?” In Jakobson, R. Selected Writings, Vol. I: Phonological Studies, pp. 538–545. The Hague: Mouton

-Pratiksha Vansia

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The Slavic languages also use the word “mama” for mother. Futhermore, in Macedonian, “dada” means sister, and “baba” means grandmother, while “papa” is a childish form of saying “eat” or it is used for saying “bye-bye”.

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