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Mom, Mummy, Mama, Maman, Maminka…

September 13, 2010

I was thinking about language universals. Something that all languages share. Not advanced linguistic stuff like recursion but something very simple. Then I had a hypothesis:

Assuming that babies begin to speak by producing the same sounds in any ethnic group. Assuming that the first distinct syllables they utter are of a biological rather than linguistic nature. Assuming that ‘ma’ is the first syllable most babies pronounce more or less distinctly and, as they do, the person who is most likely to be around and be the first to hear it is their mom. And she is most likely to interpret it as a word and attribute it to herself, delighted that her baby has talked to her – ‘ma’, ‘mama’. So my hypothesis was that what is written as ‘Mom(my)’ in US English and ‘Mum(my)’ in UK English would be pronounced in the same or similar way in any human language. Not even ‘Mother’ but the childish form of the word.

So I went to the Google Translator and did quick research. I translated the Russian Мама into every language available. A few such as Hebrew didn’t give me a Latin transcription, and I didn’t know how to read them. But apart from those few, my hypothesis was generally supported. Languages as diverse and distant from one another as Bulgarian, Chinese, Japanese, Swahili and even Basque, belonging to different language families, had variations on the Мама theme. The syllable ‘Mo’ or ‘Ma’ was in all of them, and very often it was just ‘mama’.

Not with a handful of other languages.

My brilliant theory of a universal biological origin of the word Мама, which was going to shake the foundations of linguistic science, was challenged by a couple of Ugro-Finnic languages, namely Finnish and Hungarian, as well as Turkish. The Hungarian for ‘Mom’ is ‘Anya’ (which was nice to learn as it is actually my own mother’s name!) Having discovered that, I decided that anyway there was a voiced consonant which made it similar to all the ‘ma’ words. Turkish seemed to confirm it with ‘Anne’. But then Finnish challenged even that theory with ‘Äiti’ (unless ‘t’ is actually voiced in the language, because I don’t know how to read Finnish).

Then a couple of languages of the former Soviet republics really threw me for a loop. The Azeri ‘Cici’ didn’t even remotely resemble the ‘prototype’, and the Georgian ‘Deda’ sounded like the Russian baby talk for ‘Granddad’. Then I remembered watching one of my favorite films Mimino. It’s a classic Soviet comedy directed by a Georgian, Georgi Danelia. The first 20 minutes or so is set in a small village in the mountains of Georgia where the hero is from. Everyone speaks Georgian during that part. There’s Russian voice-over but you can hear the original too. I remember once wondering if I misheard it, but I thought I could hear someone saying ‘mama’ and the translator saying ‘отец’ (Father). So I decided to check, and yes – the Georgian for ‘father’ is Latinized as ‘mama’.

Mystified by my discovery, I hypothesized that maybe in Georgian culture it was the father who traditionally spent lots of time with the baby so the first word it uttered was attributed to him. I googled for Georgian culture and traditions and found out that, on the contrary, the mother’s role has always been central in the household and in caring for babies.

So I have both proved my hypothesis and disproved it. There is definitely some universality here but there are also exceptions. Making any generalizations is not an easy business when it comes to human languages. What can I say? Mothers love their babies. Babies love their mothers. That’s one universal you can’t disprove.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Svetlana R. permalink
    September 13, 2010 9:57 am

    I forget where I read it, but the similarities (and the differences) may be explained through phonics. What all those words share is a (consonant)-vowel-consonant-vowel repetition, which is created by opening the mouth ([a]) and closing the lips ([m]), putting the tongue upwards [d,t,n] and releasing the air through the nose or through the mouth in a random fashion.

    • September 13, 2010 10:19 am

      Yes, good point Sveta, that’s what all these words seem to have in common, but then again expect the Finnish ‘Äiti’. By the way, I just realized that I can listen to the pronunciation on google too, so no, there’s no voiced consonant in that word and there are two vowels together. It’s pronounced AH-iti.

      • Svetlana R. permalink
        September 13, 2010 10:25 am

        don’t want to be stubborn, but how do you know it does not qualify as a diphthong – one vowel? Finnish has real diphthongs.

        In the great scheme of things – does it mean that the Finnish learned their language from the aliens? or their word for mother does not originate from children’s speech? or may be it is the translation for “mother” rather than “mama” – this is the real problem with Google translate.

  2. Svetlana R. permalink
    September 13, 2010 9:59 am

    as for Georgians, it may be, that the first word is attributed to father, because he is deemed to be the head of the family – so babies know it even before they are born, that they have a father, and, “naturally” they try to say their name first.

    • September 13, 2010 10:15 am

      The problem is that the Georgian father doesn’t appear to be any more of a family head than the father in other cultures, yet he’s called ‘mama’…

  3. Svetlana R. permalink
    September 13, 2010 10:18 am

    but then isn’t the problem in our affiliation with the certain word? Why do we want the mother to be called “mama”, why does “dada” sound more “fatherish”?

    • September 13, 2010 10:25 am

      ‘Why’ is an open question here but somehow that’s the case with most languages, at least as far as ‘mama’ is concerned. Need to do the same research on ‘dad’ too, am a bit busy at the moment.

  4. Svetlana R. permalink
    September 13, 2010 10:19 am

    children crying with accents

    • September 20, 2010 11:36 pm

      Sveta, thanks for the link, it’s very interesting! So it all starts in the womb, can you believe that?! Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, I’ve only just checked my spam folder and your comment was there. For some reason, the system decided to spam it.

  5. Cliff Arroyo permalink
    September 13, 2010 2:09 pm

    The search for this kind of universal is sort of a fools errand, but you knew that. Finnish aiti doesn’t mean anything by itself. Is it more like ‘mother’ or more like ‘mom’ or something else? What other words might be used?

    The prevelance of bilabial nasals in words for ‘mother’ or ‘mom’ cross cultures that have nothing to do with each other is compelling evidence of some kind of sound symbolism and/or near-universal tendency at work. A few counterexamples just show it’s not universal, but statistically it is an outlier and unlikely to be by chance.

    Similarly I knew a linguist that had lists hundreds of languages where the word for neck or throat has a velar sound (k, g or ng) or can be reconstructed to a velar sound. The numbers are far greater than what you might expect by random chance. His idea was that this was related to the human supra-laryngeal vocal tract and bipedalism. He had other examples of statistically improbable sound/meaning correspondences across cultures and languages but I can’t remember them.

    • September 13, 2010 9:53 pm

      Thanks for your comment Cliff. A fool’s errand, yes, but so tempting! Everyone wants to create a theory and name it after himself! 🙂

      I’m not really sure whether Äiti stands for mother or mom (as I’ve already mentioned in another response to comments). Or maybe there’s no distinction in the language. I hope someone who knows Finnish reads this and sheds some light on the matter.

      It’s interesting what you wrote about the linguist. I wonder how he proved the connection between velar sounds and bipedalism. Anyway, the Russian for ‘neck’ is pronounced SHEH-ya, contrary to his theory. But it would be interesting to read more about that.

  6. September 13, 2010 9:44 pm

    Sveta, yes sometimes I’m not sure whether google gave me ‘mother’ or ‘mom’ because when I tried both, with some languages it was the same but with others it was different. With Finnish, I’ve tried several dictionaries but they all give me Äiti for both ‘mother’ and ‘mom’. I doubt if it’s a diphthong because the way Google’s robotic voice pronounces it Ä and i are two distinct sounds.

  7. jacobtullos permalink
    September 18, 2010 4:54 pm

    Hey Alex, I was reading “The Oxford History of English”, and I found this passage and thought of your post. Check it out…

    “Some items have been, nevertheless, both in very widespread use and extremely durable. For example, the modern English kinship terms mother, brother, sister continue words which are represented in all the branches of Indo-European apart from Hittite (the Greek word corresponding to sister is recorded only once, as a word needing explanation). They therefore come close, if no more, to being words that we can assume to have been in use throughout a hypothetical IndoEuropean speech community. The word which appears in modern English as father, however, is not only (like mother, etc.) unrecorded in Hittite but is also not evidenced in the Baltic languages (such as Lithuanian and Latvian), and only slight traces of it are found in the Slavonic branch of Indo-European. Words corresponding to modern English son and daughter are missing from what we know of Hittite, but they are also absent from Latin and the Celtic languages. Rarely can linguists explain such gaps in the evidence for what seem otherwise to be elements of the most ancient Indo-European vocabulary, but they can occasionally see something of what is likely to have happened. For example, the Slavonic word for ‘father’ represented by Russian ote´ts is generally believed to be in origin a nursery word, like English daddy, that has, for reasons we cannot now recover, come to replace the term preserved in more formal use in most of the Indo-European languages.

    “To look towards the other end of the spectrum, a word like the modern English verb mow has its only close correspondent in Greek ama´o (one of the few other points of contact elsewhere in Indo-European is through the related word (after)math, which shares its origins with words of comparable sense in Latin and the Celtic languages). The Old English word æðm (‘breath’) clearly has a closely similar origin to that of Sanskrit a¯tma, but otherwise the only (uncertain) Indo-European connection seems to be with Old Irish athach.

    “It is not possible to know, in examples such as these, whether the words in question were once in use throughout the early Indo-European speech community, or whether they were always less widespread. If the former had been the case we cannot be certain when and why the word fellout of use among particular groups of speakers, although it may sometimes be possible to make an informed guess. For example, the modern English word arse corresponds to words in Hittite, Greek, Old Irish, and Armenian, but seems to be unrecorded in any of the other branches of Indo-European. As in other languages, there have at different times been strong restrictions on the circumstances in which it is acceptable to use such words as arse in modern English. It seems reasonable to suppose that similar taboos on naming certain parts of the body have at least played a role in the replacement of words like arse by other (often euphemistic) terms elsewhere in Indo-European.”

    Perhaps there is even more literature on Indo-European languages and words for family members. But my question for you is: were all the languages you translated of this major family? It’s something to go back and check on, eh?

  8. September 18, 2010 9:15 pm

    Jacob, thanks for pasting this in. Some interesting facts here. I didn’t actually just limit my search to Indo-European languages. As I mentioned in my post, Chinese, Japanese and Swahili also had variants of ‘mama’. So did Korean and Indonesian.

    If we think about the baby talk for ‘father’, it’s ‘papa’ in Russian and it seems that quite a few languages have variants of that (‘pa’, ‘papa’, etc) – I’ve just checked itwith the Google Translator. Even Chinese has ‘baba’ , which is a labial too. A few of the languages that don’t have ‘pa’ or ‘ba’ have variants of ‘dada’ or ‘tata’.

  9. September 24, 2010 4:15 pm

    Just learned that the Hebrew for ‘mum’ is ‘ima’. So there’s the ma syllable again!

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