Apologies in advance for this question being only indirectly related to the English language, but I find it fascinating.

I note with interest that the English words "mother" and "mama" have similar sounding equivalents in almost all languages, even those that appear to have no historical recent relationship.


Not even mentioned in that link is the Mandarin word "māmā", a language I always assumed had no relationship with English whatsoever.

This suggests to me that "mother" / "mama" could be one of the oldest surviving words, belonging to some lost parent language from which most modern languages derive.

My questions are:

  1. Is this theory remotely plausible, or just fanciful thinking on my part?
  2. Are there any other "universal" words like this? (Could "OK" be considered such?)
  • 4
    qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1581 Feb 22, 2011 at 12:53
  • Isn't it bizarre that there are only four languages on that big list where the word isn't [optional-vowel][m or n][vowel] (Finnish, Japanese, Czech, and something called Caló) and most of the vowels are open-mouthed sounds like "ah" "oh". I guess it must have something to do with what babies can say. Jul 31, 2011 at 19:14

4 Answers 4


According to wiktionary:

From Middle English moder, from Old English mōdor, from Proto-Germanic *mōdēr (cf. East Frisian muur, Dutch moeder, German Mutter), from Proto-Indo-European *méh₂tēr (cf. Irish máthair, Tocharian A mācar, B mācer, Lithuanian mótė).

That's abosultely right. Proto-Indo-European is the hypothetical ancestor language or protolanguage of most European and Indian languages.

That's why in many languages of the same origin the word "Mother" is used with trivial variations. I'm don't have a listing of the words you're looking for.

Note that some words might have been used in other languages because of reasons other than language origins. For example many Arabic words are used by Muslims in middle east in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, etc. Or some other words like okay are gaining popularity in different languages and get used by many people. But as RegDwight mentions for the word okay this is a case of borrowing a word.

The word Mama or Papa are one of the easiest words that can be produced or repeated or by babies. Maybe that's one of other reasons which has made the words being used in most of the languages around the world.

To get more information about Proto-Indo-European language visit here.

To get more information about the list of Proto-Indo-European languages visit here.

  • 1
    Interesting. Is Mandarin considered an Indian language? Taxonomically, how does that fit in? Feb 22, 2011 at 12:25
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    Nope! check out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_languages
    – Manoochehr
    Feb 22, 2011 at 12:35
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    @Mikey Cee: There's an update in the answer
    – Manoochehr
    Feb 22, 2011 at 12:35
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    Mandarin is Sino-Tibetan. And the deal with mama and papa is not that they can be easily repeated by babies, but rather that they are the first sounds produced by babies, and parents attribute those "words" to themselves. Lastly, okay has nothing to do with anything here, see the difference between borrowing and inheriting words.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 22, 2011 at 12:41
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    @RegDwight: Thanks, you're right about the inheritance and borrowing, thought could be traced in language origins.
    – Manoochehr
    Feb 22, 2011 at 12:49

As others have said, "mother" is a word that we can trace back to Proto Indo-European.

However, the occurrence of similar words all over the world is not reliable evidence of genetic connection between languages, since there is such a strong alternative hypothesis (a baby's first sounds, and sucking sounds).

I'm not saying all languages are not related, just that this is not evidence for it. There is a body of opinion that the ultimate relationship of all languages has been demonstrated, but it's a pretty marginal view in the linguistics community (see Proto-World). My own belief, which I think is quite widely held, is that we are unlikely ever to obtain enough evidence either to establish or to refute the hypothesis.

Incidentally, Georgian has "მამა" ("mama") for "father" and "დედა" ("deda") for "mother".

  • +1 for being right, but personally I think the Bouba/Kiki Effect, inter alia somewhat undermines those who claim all languages are "historically/evolutionarily" related. Which, as you imply, may never be established for certain. But noting that Wikipedia now says the eye evolved independently 50-100 times, I think it's unlikely language only got started once, in any way that makes sense to me. Mar 18, 2012 at 23:17
  • @FumbleFingers, I don't think either of your arguments is germane. While bouba/kiki is interesting (and I hadn't come across it before) it is about naming things, but that is not what is special about human language: even if it could be established that groups of proto-humans independently started named things, that does not necessarily mean that they all created language: it is conceivable that the idea of naming objects arose in several places, but that grammar only arose once. I guess that the creation of creoles argues against this but the environment is now different.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 19, 2012 at 0:32
  • As for the eye, the reason we can tell that it evolved many times is that the different kinds of eye are structurally so different, and adapted from different kinds of underlying structure (though fascinatingly, often under the control of the same homeobox gene). But the 'structure' I'm talking about here is the physical structure in the organism. We know little about how "The language organ" (if you believe in such a thing) is structured, and nothing about what might be the observable consequences of a difference in it.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 19, 2012 at 0:37
  • Well, I think bouba/kiki pushes in the same direction as "why does the word for mother/mum/ma often start with M in apparently unrelated languages?". I also think language started with "naming things" - nouns, as the most basic kind of "symbols". I think "grammar" is a totally different (and much later) addition that would also be likely to arise independently many times (and repeatedly get lost and re-invented, as is now known to happen with certain kinds of tool-using among primates) Mar 19, 2012 at 1:01
  • As plausible sounding as the hypothesis is ('m' words for the mother because of initial sucking movements), child language studies have shown that the first distinct phoneme exhibited by an infant across -all- languages is a dental. At least in English this culturally annoying, because it makes the first word most likely to be 'dada' rather than 'mama' (despite a child spending more time with the mother).
    – Mitch
    Mar 19, 2012 at 1:43

The word mother can be traced back cleanly to Proto-Indo-European, as can father, brother and sister -- it appears in cognate form in languages like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and so forth, and it may go back further.

Mama and its cognates are among the easiest (and most likely) sounds for a baby to form deliberately; it has been theorised (quite reasonably) that the word arose as the result of associating meaning with a spontaneous utterance. After all, an infant is most likely going to want something from Mama when making a fuss, so why not make it mean exactly that? It wouldn't exactly take eons for something like that to spread, would it?

Mother (or mater, matar, mère and other variants) smacks of a little more deliberation, a little more adult involvement, don't you think? It's old, no doubt about it, but it has a more precise meaning than she who feeds me, and can be used by a third party to describe a relationship.

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    This is a near-duplicate of Manoochehr's answer -- blame my lousy internet connection.
    – bye
    Feb 22, 2011 at 12:40
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    I don't regard this is as a duplicate! This has got some good info.
    – Manoochehr
    Feb 22, 2011 at 13:13

mother or the sounds 'mo' or 'ma' in those words universally originate from the primordial sound of life and existence, as held by vedic hinduism: OM.

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    So are you claiming that all of the worlds languages are derived somehow from Sanskrit?
    – Mitch
    Mar 18, 2012 at 21:05
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    @Mitch The answer itself may be not be correct, but the contention that all of the worlds languages are derived somehow from Sanskrit is not implied in it.
    – Kris
    Oct 4, 2012 at 15:18

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