Why Mama and Papa?

A study of two of our most familiar words show their similarities in languages around the world
AROUND THE GLOBE, May and June represent the most common months to honour mothers and fathers respectively; and the near universality of recognition is almost matched by the similarity that many languages have for those two words.

In the 1950s the American anthropologist George Murdoch studied the words for mother and father in 470 languages around the world. Murdoch's analysis showed that the word for mother contained a syllable similar to ma in 52 per cent of cases, whereas the word for father contained this syllable in only 15 per cent of the languages. However, the word for father had a syllable akin to pa or ta in 55 per cent of his language sample, while these syllables occurred in the word for mother in only seven per cent of cases.
What accounts for these proclivities?

One theory, the Proto-World or Proto-Human hypothesis, posits that the similarity of words for mother and father in various languages can be explained by the words being present in the ancestral language of mankind and that these words have simply survived in hundreds of languages in a similar form and with the exact same meaning.

But first, let’s look at some of the words for parents in various languages. Since Mother’s Day celebrations usually precede those for Father’s Day and we hold to the traditional principal of “ladies first,” we will start with mother words. Most languages seem to have a word for mother that is either “mama” or has a nasal sound similar to mama, such as “nana.” Observe the Arabic ahm or ’um, Basque ama, Bosnian majha, Chechen nana, Dutch moeder, Greek mana, Quechua and Romanian mama, Tagalog nanay, Urdu ammee and Welsh mam, to name but a few. 

On the paternal side we have the Albanian, Mandarin, Arabic and Turkish baba, Greek babbas, Hindi and Russian papa, Italian padre, Latvian tevs, Welsh tad and Xhosa tata.

In the Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson’s 1959 article “Why ‘mama’ and ‘papa’?,” he explained that babies everywhere acquire language in an orderly fashion. At first the vocalizations of a baby are done by crying or shrieking. After this, the infant moves to a cooing stage characterized by distinct baby noises. In this period the young child is not making any recognizable speech sounds and is still in the pre-verbal period. But it is during the next phase — the babbling stage — that something significant occurs. Here we begin to hear recognizable speech sounds in the form of vowels and consonants. The easiest vowel sound for babies to utter is ah because it can be made without doing anything with the tongue or lips, and thus the “ah” sounds in “mahs” and “pahs.” 

Very often these speech sounds are repeated and the “mah” sound turns into “mahmah.” Of course the baby isn’t really speaking, it’s babbling, but it sounds like speaking to adults and as if the baby is addressing someone who most likely is her or his mother. Naturally, a mother takes mama as meaning her, and when speaking to her baby she refers to herself as mama.

As anyone learning English as a second language knows, certain consonants can be difficult to pronounce, such as the th sound at the beginning of words such as “the” and at the end of words like “south.” Even a three-year-old whose first language is English might have difficulty with this sound, and his pronunciation of think might emerge as fink.

On the other hand, some consonants are quite easy to produce. These are the sounds that are made with the lips, such as m, p or b. These are easier because they require no tongue work; all that is required for their production is placing the two lips together and releasing them, with some vocalization. The m sound is the easiest of all to make, which explains why mama invariably precedes papa.

Papa is virtually ubiquitous for a similar reason. After babies begin making the m sound with their lips, they’re likely to make a sound that involves slightly more than just putting their lips together. This new sound involves not only doing this, but holding the lips in that position for a second or two and then blowing out a puff of air. This invariably produces a p sound.

A slightly more complicated sound is made when the baby touches and then releases the tip of its tongue along the roof of its mouth behind the lips, eliciting a t or d sound. The order in which babies acquire these sounds explains why the second-in-command caretaker to mama is usually called papa, baba, tata, or dada.

So, a happy Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to all — even to those whose mother tongues are those rare languages whose words for parental figures diverge from this theory. 

Howard Richler’s latest book, Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit, is published by Ronsdale Press.