top of page
  • Writer's pictureN. Jacob Tercero

Mama, by Any Other Name

There are all sorts of milestones that parents look forward to in their baby’s life. Baby’s first steps, baby’s first laugh, and of course baby’s first words; and of all the words that parents eagerly wait for their baby to say, the two most anticipated more than any other are of course “mama” and “dada”. Forget all those other boring words like “bottle”, “doggy”, or “ball”, “mama” and “dada” are chief among the nouns which parents long to hear. There is a desire to be known by name by their baby, and such longing even can lead to (sometimes) playful competition. Did they say “mama” first? Did they say “dada” first?

And there’s something sort of funny about these words, no? Anyone who has taken a foreign language class in High School knows that these names seem almost universal. “Mama” and “dada” are what we call our parents in English, in Spanish it’s “mamá” and “papá”. In French? “maman et papa”. And German? Well, you guessed it “mama und papa.” But this seems a little less wild when we remember that all of these languages are related in some way. They are Germanic or Latin and belong to a broader language family, so that’s not that weird that they share names for Mom and Dad. But further away, even in a place like India, with a language like Sanskrit, we still find kids calling ma and pop “mama “and “pápá”. Now those who are linguistically informed will be quick to mention that even though India is nearly half the world away from Europe English, French, German, and Spanish still share a common linguistic ancestor with Sanskrit, called Indo-European. So that still makes sense that distant cousins would share these words. But Mandarin? (māmā, bàba) Twi? (maame, papa) Navajo? (ma, and ta) well, now something interesting seems to be afoot.

Why do all of these languages, which share almost no relation, share these words? This doesn’t happen at all for any other word. German speakers call a dog “hund”, Twi speakers call it “kraman”, and Quenya speakers “huan”. In this blog post, we will consider why it is that across the globe, languages that have effectively no relation share similar words for how they refer to parents and look at why that may be.


In the 1950’s the academic George Murdock was active at work developing the field of anthropology and part of his work involved looking at how different societies around the world related to each other in family units. How do families conceptualize themselves and their relationships? What his work demonstrated in part was that languages across the world, that have no historical relation (other than of course that they are all human languages) are strikingly similar in how they call “mom” and “dad”. Over half of the languages that he looked at used words that were strikingly similar to one another and had only marginal differences when it came to the words that people used to refer to their parents. [1]

Murdock found that the majority of these words began with the sounds “m”, “n”, “p”, and “t”, and further found that in the majority of instances the terms that began with “m” and “n” were used when referring to the mother and in the majority of instances the terms that began with “p” or “t” were used when referring to the father. [1] This raises the question then, why? Again, as has been established, there is hardly such cross-linguistic consistency across the globe when it comes to almost any other type of word. We don’t see this type of consistency when it comes to people in Australia and people in the North Atlantic talking about their dogs, or folks in West Africa and folks in Central America talking about clouds. Why then do we see such global consistency in these particular words?


The Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson proposed that the reason for this similarity across languages had to do with how infants grow. [2] As we discussed in our previous blog post the development of language in babies is restricted by their underdeveloped articulators (that is the parts of their vocal tract that they use to actually make speech; e.g. nose, teeth, tongue, lips, etc.). The development of a baby’s ability to understand language far outpaces its ability to produce language because the development of the infant’s articulators lags behind the development of its understanding of language. And it just so happens that a healthy typical baby already has everything it needs to say “mama” or “papa” when it is born! Lips and vocal folds!

Let’s do an experiment. Open your mouth and say “ahh”. Now keep saying “ahh” but close your lips, then open them, then close them again, and repeat more quickly each time. What do you hear? Well, you probably hear something like “mamamamamama”! When babies are making these sounds all they are doing is just stretching their linguistic legs, learning how to make sounds. The same thing happens with sounds like “p” or “b” where all that needs to happen for the infant to make these sounds is to express air in a plosive manner.

Understanding this, when we think of why is it that so many languages have similar words for “mom” and “dad” we find that it may be less because of traditional reasons like etymology, which is the sort of genealogical study of words and their meanings. The meaning of these parental terms are literally uttered nonsense on the part of the infant but we have injected meaning into the sounds of babies and find ourselves in their speech.

When the baby is old enough to utter “mamama” or “baba” they have not quite yet reached the age where they connect that particular sounds have particular meanings; that the sound “dog” has the meaning of their family’s furry four-legged friend and so on. The baby makes particular sounds without intending particular meanings, but we find meaning in them. The linguist John McWhorter refers to this as a sort of “mama mistake” and writes [3]

A baby says “mama” and it sounds as if he’s addressing someone-and the person he’s most likely addressing so early on is his mother. The mother takes “mom” as meaning her, and in speaking to her child refers to herself as “mama”. Voila: a word mama that “means” mother. That would have happened with the first humans-but more to the point, it has happened with baby humans worldwide, whatever language they are speaking. That means that even as the first language was becoming countless others, this “mama mistake” was recreating “mama” as the word for “mom” …

Almost all of our words are descendants of some older words. Our modern English word “library” has a long history and is descended from the middle English “librarie” which came from Anglo-Norman, which itself was taken from the Latin word “librarium” (meaning bookcase, or chest for books), which itself comes from the Latin “libraries” and further from “liber” (meaning parchment or book) that itself may even come from a much older word “leubh-” that means to strip or peel [bark to make parchment]. [4]

But this seems to not be the case with Mama or Papa! Of course, forms of these words exist that have their own unique histories, like mother or father (which both come from the Latin mater and pater and which have even longer histories) but these words themselves have their origin in the speech of these babies. We are not creating affectionate diminutive forms of mother and father in using mama and papa, (like how we create the words “bro” or “sis” out of “brother” and “sister”) rather mother and father seem to be born right out of the mouths of babes!


Across the globe scores of languages use very similar ways to name their parents, languages that have effectively no relationship, on opposite sides of the world even, share radical similarities in these most essential of words. What this says to us is that there has to be some reason for such a unique situation. In our look at how infant language develops we see that these two sounds “ma” and “b/pa” are some of baby’s first sounds and that through what McWhorter refers to as the “mama mistake” we create meaning in playful utterances, naming ourselves as mama and papa.

The ways that we refer to ourselves and the way that others refer to us are incredibly important parts of our identity. Baby knowing mama as “mama” is a central aspect of the development of the mother/child relationship. No longer -in the mind of the mother - is she just the caretaker, the person who feeds and tends to baby’s needs, but now she is known, she has a name, an identity. She is known as “mama” to her baby, and in being known as “mama” experiences the rich joy of being known by the precious little life which she already has so deeply known for so long.


C.A.R.E. Medical Center is a reproductive health clinic and family support services center in Mount Vernon WA that is here to help you navigate your journey of parenthood. Whether you just found out you are pregnant and are not sure what to do next, or if you already have a couple at home but need help figuring out what parenthood looks like for you, we are here to support you along the way. All of our services are FREE and CONFIDENTIAL. Call or email to make an appointment today. Walk-ins welcome.


[1] Murdock, G. P. (1959). Cross-Language Parallels in Parental Kin Terms. Anthropological Linguistics, 1(9), 1–5.

[2] Jakobson, Roman. "2. Why "Mama" And "Papa"?". Studies on Child Language and Aphasia, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 1971, pp. 21-30

[3] McWhorter, John (2015)"Why the Words for 'Mom' and 'Dad' Sound So Similar in So Many Languages" The Atlantic

69 views0 comments


bottom of page