why so many languages, even those seemingly completely unrelated, tend to use variations of “mama” and “papa” as a shorthand reference to your parents?


why so many languages, even those seemingly completely unrelated, tend to use variations of “mama” and “papa” as a shorthand reference to your parents?

In: Other

No one knows for sure! But the most plausible explanation is that the M and P/B sounds are the simplest, easiest sounds to make. As babies are learning to move their mouths and make noises, “mah” and “pah/bah” are going to be some of the first noises they can make deliberately. That’s because the consonants M and B/P use only your lips, with your tongue and teeth playing essentially zero role. You don’t need to carefully position anything, just squish your lips together. And the “ah” sound is just an open throat. *Super* simple. Since mom and dad are going to be the first *anything* the baby is going to be around and try to talk to, those simplest sounds get attached to those people.

It’s also theorized that “mama” is specifically used for mother because the M is kind of sort of the natural mouth shape and sound made by a baby attempting to nurse. So, the baby makes a nursing mouth and makes noise to get mom’s attention and indicate that the baby wants to nurse, and *mom* comes over. The baby will then kind of associate “mama” with mom instead of dad, who gets associated with the next easiest sound to make, papa or baba. (Side note: P and B are the same mouth shape, B is just *voiced* meaning you use your vocal cords with it.)

That started thousands upon thousands of years ago, and culturally we just kept reinforcing that idea. We also incorporated those sounds into the “proper” words, like Mother/Mutter/母亲 (Mǔqīn)/Mère/whatever language. And, of course, as you trace languages backwards you see common ancestors, such that once the “mama” sound got used as the proper word in Proto-Indo-European, every language that descends from that (which is [a lot](https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2015/1/7/1420647015259/3628f5a3-9110-4c01-bcfc-9b4ca9c00bd5-2060×1340.jpeg?width=1200&height=630&quality=85&auto=format&fit=crop&overlay-align=bottom%2Cleft&overlay-width=100p&overlay-base64=L2ltZy9zdGF0aWMvb3ZlcmxheXMvdGctZGVmYXVsdC5wbmc&s=f90b38f41c0fd469a5a45cdf1ecf497a) is going to share common word roots.

Since “mama” or “mom” or “mum” or other variations are such a core word in any language – the first or nearly the first word every child will learn – it gets preserved very well in the language as it evolves.

These sounds are among the easiest to learn to make consciously. Press your lips together and hum, then open your mouth. That will make the “ma” sound. Close your teeth (or gums) with your tongue pushed forward and open them again, expelling sound as you do. That is “da”.

These two sounds are easy. It really is as simple as that. “Pa” and “ba” are also easy sounds, which is why they are strong contenders for parent sounds, too.

There is increasing amounts of evidence that a global language or writing system existed in stone age times. [The same symbols have been found carved on cave walls on every continent](https://images.newscientist.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/mg30990701.jpg). And they’re not just simple symbols that an illiterate child might come up with (like a cross or a circle).

The other explanation is that some person or group of persons in the stone age could cross oceans and continents and for some reason carved hundreds of symbols at dozens of sites. And they did that without running into trouble with other humans or wildlife, for years and years.

The first theory is more likely than the second. It doesn’t definitively answer your question and it’s a bit of a stretch to try and say there was also a common global phonetic system and that certain symbols represented mama and papa. But it’s possible.

It’s also a stretch to say that various seemingly unrelated languages have some commonality to their origin if you go back all the way to the stone age. But that’s possible too.

But you would think that parents and family have always been important to humans. And that even such early and primitive writing/symbol/whatever systems would represent parents somehow.

Obviously nobody can say for sure and maybe my reply is too speculative, but I like that idea better than “plosives are the easiest sounds for an infant to make”.

As the parent of a baby learning to speak (10 mths), I can confirm those sounds are some of the few clear ones in her vocabulary at the moment. Did a bit of googling around the topic recently and there is some variation, but in places that didn’t have a mama type variant it was often based on a sound that bub had also learned early on (ga, ba etc). The noises for dad follow similar patterns but seem to have a bit more variation and some trickier noises (ta).

A lot of languages share a common root in proto-indo-european. Basically a bunch of cavemen made up a writing system and most of the commonly spoken languages are either descended from that language or have been heavily influenced by ones that were.

Some people have explained but not quite like you’re 5, so…


When you’re a baby, you can’t make many sounds. The easiest sound to make is “ma ma ma ma” and “pa pa pa” or “ba ba ba”. Mummies and daddies heard babies make these noises and thought that the babies were talking about them! So, forever since long ago, mummies and daddies have agreed with babies when they point at a person and “Mama! Mama!”