Why “Mama” Has the Same Meaning in Almost Every Language

For most people on Earth, “mama” shares a singular meaning: mother. Here’s why.

In the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, the word for mama (meaning “mother”) is: māma, mama, mamá, ma, mama, mamã, maa, mama, haha and mamī.

Another way to see it: 3.35 billion people speak either Mandarin (Mãma), Hindi (māṃ), English (mama), or Arabic (māma).

The sound “ma” is nearly universal among the Indo-European languages. (Check out the long list of amazingly similar European words for mama on this Wikipedia page.)  

But even in non-Indo-European languages, very similar sounding words correspond to the word for “mother.” Navajo is amá,  Quechua is mama,  Ancient is Egyptian is mut, Korean is eomma and Swahili is mama.

The modern English word “mother” comes from Middle English moder, deriving from Old English mōdor.

While this seems like evidence of an ancient universal language or collective unconscious, research shows it’s actually because the m, p, and b sounds are the first consonant sounds babies can make. Babies only need to open and close their lips to make these sounds (no teeth or tongue required).

So why “mama” and not “papa” or “baba?” In “Why Mama and Papa” linguist Roman Jakobson notes that babies make the sounds for “mama” as a  “slight nasal murmur” while breastfeeding.

So, for babies around the world (and through ancient time) “mama” first means “food” before it means “mother” as we think of it. (Indeed, in Latin mamma means “breast,” which is where our word “mammary” comes  from.)

Don’t despair, dads. The most common first word for babies is reportedly “dadda.” Of course, “dadda” probably doesn’t actually mean “father” when babies first start saying it, just as ‘mama’ first means ‘food.’

The word “mom” has a bit of a weird written history in English. Mama was first written in 1707, mum in from 1823, mummy in 1839, mommy in 1844, momma in 1852, and mom 1867.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 13th century, mome meant “an aunt; an old woman.”

I still think the Italians express it best: “Momma mia!”

Also read: “The unexpected history of Mother’s Day