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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.

http://www.happymothersday2016quotes.in

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:

Is this theory remotely plausible, or just fanciful thinking on my part? Are there any other "universal" words like this? (Could "OK" be considered such?)

  • "Taxi" would be one such word. indifferentlanguages.com/words/taxi – MorganFR May 3 '16 at 11:56
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    OK is a U.S. American word dating back to the early 1800s, and is simply a loanword in other languages. It is not "universal" in the way that "mama" is. – Reinstate Monica May 3 '16 at 12:03
  • I'm pretty sure you are correct. The "mama" sound is basically the first thing babies learn, and is likely "wired in" to a degree. I wouldn't be surprised if some apes have a similar "word". – Hot Licks May 3 '16 at 12:10
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    Many linguists have been interested in this topic. For example, see the links from this question on Linguistics SE: Why do most words for “mother”, across languages, start with an /m/, and for “father” with /p/ or /b/, but not vice versa? – herisson May 3 '16 at 12:39
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    "Mama" is one of the simplest 'words' to say-- just start your vocal chords humming and then open your lips. Double it up and you have what could be considered a word, not just a random mouth sound. With "papa", you blow your mouth open with a breath first, then hum your vocal chords a few milliseconds afterwards. Takes a little more timing and co-ordination. – user1359 May 3 '16 at 16:12
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"mama" is a pre-verbal vocalisation by children - usually one of the first sounds that they make. Often infants will say "mamamamama" as one of their first vocalisations, and this often doesn't appear to have any real meaning - it's not clear that they are addressing their mothers or if they are just practising speaking. I don't know why this particular sound emerges, but I assume it's an accident (ie biological phenomenon) of the way that the brain and speaking organs function or develop. It might be the easiest speech sound to make.

So, I suspect that "mama" has entered the language because young children naturally say it, rather than children saying it because it's in the language.

Later on in the child's development, "mama" properly takes on the meaning of "mother", ie the child deliberately says "mama" to attract their mother's attention for example. This might be because the mother says it back to them, or there might be something about the word itself which is intrinsically linked to the mother, in the child's mind: perhaps it always has some degree of semantic function, in a primitive way.

Further reading:

http://www.livescience.com/32191-why-are-mama-and-dada-a-babys-first-words.html

http://theweek.com/articles/464678/why-babies-every-country-earth-say-mama

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    Hmmm... maybe but I think this answer needs "support" – Mari-Lou A May 3 '16 at 12:11
  • @Mari-LouA added a couple of not-quite-citations but supporting articles at least. – Max Williams May 3 '16 at 12:16
  • I believe babies in japan are associated with the sound "poyo" instead, which is why "poyo" is the only word kirby can say. And if you search for poyo on google, it'll mostly bring up pages related to babies. – MorganFR May 3 '16 at 12:21
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    @MorganFR according to Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mama_and_papa Japanese babies also say "mama" as one of their first words but it's interpreted as "food" rather than "mother" - i think that to babies, "mother" and "food" might mean more or less the same thing :) – Max Williams May 3 '16 at 12:30
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    @MaxWilliams See this paper – called2voyage May 3 '16 at 15:49
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As Hot Licks and Max Williams correctly pointed out, mama is probably the simplest sequence for a baby to say. But nobody has yet pointed out the connection between mama and mammary, from Latin mamma - the breast. And a baby at the breast can be heard making mama sounds while suckling.
But that doesn't mean that to the baby the sounds mean either mother or breast. Those associations are learned later from adults.

In Gujarati, mother is ba for Hindus, whereas for Muslims, father is baji. Mama is mother's brother, and mami is his wife. So there are as many differences as similarities.
As for Chinese, ma has 5 different meanings, according to the tones used.
Mama, dada, nana, baba, papa are all very simple sequences you will hear in the babbling of all babies everywhere, so it's not strange that all of them occur as relationship terms in many languages. They're part of human speech - the ability to produce sounds - which is innate.
Human language - the ability to use sounds to convey meaning - is not innate, and must be learned. Sometimes different groups of humans assign the same meaning to the same sound sequence, just by accident.

Only when you find a statistically significant set of such parallels should you begin to suspect a relationship between the languages.

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    In Chinese "ma" has a lot more different meanings; there are 5 different tones but many characters for each tone, and many meanings for each character. – user103093 May 3 '16 at 22:31
  • I think 5 different meanings is enough to make my point! – frank May 3 '16 at 23:48

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