The Mystery Behind “Mama”

The Mystery Behind Mama

Among their beloved qualities and features, babies around the world share a lot more than just their charm. A common similarity has to do with their language development, specifically the first words developed at their early age. In fact, early language acquisition is a phenomenon shared among most human beings around the world. Clear evidence of this is when we analyze the word mom across different languages. While there are variations in tone and stress in other languages, the differences are minor. As examples, we list the word mom in 7 different languages:

  • Chinese: mama
  • Spanish: mamá
  • French: maman
  • Portuguese: mamãe
  • Norwegian: mamma
  • Swahili: mama
  • Korean: eomma

As you can see, the similarities are not only common within Latin-based languages. There clearly must be an explanation for this…And there is!

This all comes down to the science of child early language acquisition. The reason why the word mama does not vary much across different languages is because babies normally first develop bilabial consonant sounds—those requiring both lips—before developing other more advanced sounds.  This means that the syllables starting with “m,” “b,” and “p” will naturally be used before those starting with the letters “r” and “y.” Other syllables common in baby language begin with dental sounds, such as those starting with the letter “d.” This explains the reasoning behind the word dada for father.

Interested in reading more? Linguist Roman Jacobson researched the topic in his research in the Chapter “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’?” Read part of the chapter here.