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Along the same lines, what I find fascinating is how similar the words for mother and father are across nearly all languages, even non-IndoEuropean ones.


There are 2 main competing hypotheses to explain this. The first one is that these words are historically related. The other one, which is controversial, is that these are the result of Sound Symbolism:


In particular sound symbolism hypothesizes that the initial "m" of many similar "mother" words is related to the sound of a lips sucking milk, like the verb "mamare" in Latin meaning "to suck".

Neither of those match the rather unsurprising answer I've heard before, which is that "mama" and "papa" are two of the simplest sounds babies can make and therefore two of the sounds babies are most likely to start making first as they learn to speak. And us parents naturally assume the baby is trying to talk to us when they start making sounds, so we latched onto "mama" and "papa" (or the various extremely similar sounds in other languages) as being the words the baby was using to refer to us.

Yes but then we might expect that in some languages "mama" and "papa" are reversed. What is surprising is not just that these simple words seem to be preserved but that they mean the same thing.

I think "ma" generally comes first in baby's lexicon, and historically the gestational parent has been the primary caretaker (and the gestational parent in most cases has the identity "mother"), so it's no surprise that the "ma" sound is associated with mother.

The counter argument is that there are gobs of languages whose names for mother and father sound nothing like ma or pa.

What are these "gobs of languages"? I know there are a few, but the sounds there are generally still things that are really easy for babies to say. What's interesting about "mama" is that it's the same (or very nearly) in tons of languages that don't share common roots.

Japanese, Many native american languages, Sundanese, Malay, many African languages.

Not to say that sound symbolism of the "ma" sound isn't a real thing, but rather that its adoption for the "mother" word is far from universal, but just frequent enough to be interesting.

I didn't say it was universal, but it's extremely widespread, and more importantly, it's widespread among a diverse set of languages that don't share a common root.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for "Mama and papa" says that in Old Japanese the word for "mother" was papa.

These three theories are convergent and not mutually exclusive

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