People in various parts of the world are today sending wishes to their mothers, addressing them as mummy, ma, moeder (Dutch), mamma (Italian), mãe (Portuguese), mæ (Thai), amma (Sinhala), ammi (Urdu) and emak (Malay).
Is this a case of common ancestry or of languages influencing one another in the course of history?
It’s true that numerous languages – such as the Old English modor (“female parent”) – trace the “mother” form back to the Proto-Germanic (the source of languages such as Danish, Dutch, German) mothær, in turn from Proto-Indo-European mater “mother” (the source also of Sanskrit, Latin, Greek). Similarly the “mamma” form is traced back to Latin mamma, from the Ancient Greek mámm ē .
But the explanation for the similarities of “mother” (and “father”) forms across diverse languages – including Arabic ahm, Basque amak, Putonghua 妈妈 m ā ma, Vietnamese me,. Zulu umama – lies in the nature of child-language acquisition. When babies start babbling, wherever they are in the world, the most common intelligible first syllable produced is “ma”, with “pa” and “ba” following soon after.
The soft consonants “m”, “p” and “b” are bilabials – sounds produced via contact between both lips; for “m”, the airstream escapes through the nose. Bilabials, together with an open vowel such as “a”, are the earliest sounds produced because of ease of articulation. Contrast this with the control of movements necessary to produce the sound “s” – requiring the tongue tip to be raised close to but not touching the alveolar ridge (behind the upper front teeth) with the airstream passing through the narrow channel between. Not so easy.
These early articulations were interpreted by adults as referring to the infants’ caregivers. With primary caregivers tending to be mothers, this gave rise to the strong – though not invariant – association of [ma] forms with “mother”. The next bilabial articulations “pa”/“ba”, as well as “ta”/“da”, produced with tongue tip held against alveolar ridge, then came to be associated with “father”.
Variants do occur – Cebuano inahan, Finnish äiti, Yoruba iya – as does language borrowing due to contact (witness contemporary Japanese mama) – but these are stories for another day.
The use of the word “mother” to signal respect is manifested in language, too: Indonesian ibu is also used to respectfully address older women, and in Korean, the wife of one’s father’s older or younger brother is keun eomma (“big mother”) or jageun eomma (“little mother”), respectively.
However we address her, let’s pucker up to give our mother a kiss today!