Your language observation of the day


Has it never struck you that the word for “mama” is about the same in so many languages? It’s hardly a 100% scientific survey, but we went through French, English, Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Russian and Romanian [1], and it’s pretty much always a combination of “m”s and “a”s? (“papa” varies across languages, but “mama” doesn’t)

So, what? Is that a combinations of syllables that are easier to pronounce when you’re a baby? Did I miss the memo on universal bits of the language?

[1]just in case you’re wondering why those particular languages, it’s not some sinister conspiracy–just the particular subset of languages that happened to be known by the assembly at a friends’ party where we discussed this.


  1. And in Welsh, it’s ‘Mam’. It would be easier to explain if they were all European languages, but… I dunno. Maybe you’re right about the memo.

  2. It is “mamma” and “pappa” in Norwegian, which I am.

  3. A host of unrelated languages use something like “babble” when describing “nonsense speech.” According to the translation of Genesis I use in my AP Lit. class, that’s evidently because of the word’s relationship to the actual sounds of babies, much like “mama.”

  4. In Polish it’s “Mamo”.

  5. I believe the linguistic theory is that those two sounds are two of the easiest for babies to make–certainly the “a” is considered the easiest vowel for the human mouth to produce, since the mouth is fully open and no effort is required to shape the lips. But I’m not a linguist.

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