Why do sounds close to “mama” appear in so many languages?

Mother, maman, mommy, amma, mama, em, mum, mamma, mutter, mare, maty, ana . . . Across languages an uncanny pattern appears for the word “mother.” Why? Is it evidence of universal language? Is this evidence of sound symbolism at work, when a phoneme (sound) has meaning completely unto itself?

If you are a linguist, baby talk is not a cute and meaning-lite semi-language used with infants. Babble is the first step towards helping nursery-form words, which classify an infant’s early language acquisition environment. Who inhabits this environment with a child? Parents.

Developmentally, babies babble nonsense sounds to try them out. The simplest form of babble is a consonant followed by a vowel: labial (/m/, /p/, /b/); dental (/t/, /d/, /n/, /l/) consonants followed by a wide vowel sound (/a/) are the most dominant. The opening and closing of the mouth is the most natural order of sound production. Repetition of phonemes set identifiers (names) apart from other babble a baby is making as it explores language. “Nursery names for mother and father, like the earliest meaningful units emerging in infant speech, are based on the polarity between the optimal consonant and optimal vowel,” writes Roman Jakobson in his 1962 article “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’?” the most comprehensible linguistic examination of the global similarities for the names of parents.

So the foundation for the words mama and papa come from the most convenient sounds babies naturally make as they learn language. That answers the first part of our question, but why is it that mama or some other combination of /m/ and /a/ are even more common than papa, dada, or baba?

Jakobson has a theory for this phenomenon as well: “often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full. Later, this phonatory reaction to nursing is reproduced as an anticipatory signal at the mere sight of food and finally as a manifestation of a desire to eat, or more generally, as an expression of discontent and impatient longing for missing food or absent nurser, and any ungranted wish. When the mouth is free from nutrition, the nasal murmur may be supplied with an oral, particularly labial release; it may also obtain an optional vocalic support.”

So when you wish your Mama a happy Mother’s Day, remember that even the sounds of what you call her are connected to the core of who you are.