Why do most words for "mother", across languages, start with an [m], and for "father" with [p]/[b], but not vice versa?



It has been observed that in general, a word for "mother" tends to be based on a bilabial nasal [m] or similar consonant, and for father it tends to be [b] or [p]. This is found in many language families, so they can't be considered cognates. This is usually explained by the easiness of babies making this sound early in their babbling, so the parents just use those sounds to refer to themselves. However why is it that few languages have used the reverse? (i.e. [p]/[b] for mother and [m] for father)? Wikipedia lists only Georgian, where "father" is /mama/ and "mother" is /deda/.

Louis Rhys

Posted 2011-10-21T14:57:43.727

Reputation: 4 363

1The question in the title seems different from the question in the text. Do you want to know why (from the babbling) parents take the /m/-sounds to refer to mom, and /p/-sounds to refer to dad? If the baby is just babbling, and the parents extrapolate from that, then babies don't "mix up" the names, they're not even using them.Alexis Wellwood 2011-10-21T15:10:15.117

You're right, the title was not really correct. Can you suggest a better one? (You have my permission to edit it right away)Louis Rhys 2011-10-21T15:14:01.583


Proto-Old Japanese had *papa for mother (became [haha] in Modern Japanese), and [mamma] is interpreted by modern parents to mean "food". (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mama_and_papa)

musicallinguist 2011-10-21T15:21:10.210

@musicallinguist perhaps there are other examples, too, but the point is those are rare and most of other languages follow the m-p/b pattern. Why is it so?Louis Rhys 2011-10-21T16:56:22.797

Ah, I see. I was just responding to "Wikipedia lists only..." At any rate, I would remove the word "universally" from the question (and from the tags) since you are acknowledging that it's just a tendency.musicallinguist 2011-10-21T17:23:08.073

1@LouisRhys Many Australian languages have /mama/ for 'father'.Gaston Ümlaut 2011-10-21T22:50:54.270



This issue is discussed in some detail in this paper by the late, great linguist Larry Trask. The paper also gives a very nice introduction to argumentation in historical linguistics.

The answer is that these terms are based on the earliest 'intelligible' babble of babies. The most common first syllable produced by babies is [ma], with [pa/ba/ta/da] following soon after. These earliest articulations are probably just play for the child, but are interpreted by parents as attempts by the baby to address them. As mothers tend to be the main early caregiver the earliest-occurring syllable, typically [ma], is interpreted as referring to them, while the next-occurring syllables are very commonly interpreted as referring to the father. This gives rise to the strong, but not invariant, association of [ma] with 'mother' and [pa/ba/ta/da] with 'father'.

Gaston Ümlaut

Posted 2011-10-21T14:57:43.727

Reputation: 5 356

@GastonÜmlaut, it is first presented by JakobsonXL _at_China 2014-11-26T04:30:01.310

@XL_at_China yes, if you read the paper by Trask that I link to in my answer you'll see it presents Jakobson's explanation (along with a more detailed description of the facts)Gaston Ümlaut 2014-11-26T21:04:33.273

2Do you know why Georgian (& some Australian languages) have it the other way around (deda for Mother), seems very rare. Is it something cultural? The paper didn't seem to go into any reasons why.Nausher 2012-05-25T04:10:02.493

1@Nausher I don't know of any Australian languages that have dada for "mother", but I know of several that have mama for "father". I'm sure it's just chance.Gaston Ümlaut 2012-05-25T06:17:52.353


Although it is a strong tendency it is still only a tendency. The prevalence of these two sounds in the names of parents is not surprising, given that they're two of the easiest sounds to make regardless of the sound system of your language. Think about English - we have 'mother' and 'father' but we'll accept 'mama' or 'dada' as a first word, because they're easy to make - open CV structure and basic stop sounds.

Basically, across the world caregivers have an incentive to hear what they want to hear - and they want to hear their children say their names. Given that cross-linguistically mothers are generally caregivers, the easiest sound 'ma' usually is used first and the harder sound 'pa' or 'da' somewhere around second. Children are already very aware of who their caregivers are before they can articulate that, so as soon as they can articulate something, even something as simple as 'ma' this gets attributed as a name.

So it's less that these words are a strong cross-linguistic tendency and more that parents are anxious to hear meaning in a child's early babbling-like word production!


Posted 2011-10-21T14:57:43.727

Reputation: 2 489


I dont think things like that happen by concidence. The ancestry of Europeans and Asians can be commonly traced to the African sand tribes of 2 million years or so ago. So if our common ancestors were already using the words 'ma' and 'pa' at that time , which is likely, then it makes perfect sense that all cultures spread across The Indo-European supercontinent have a commonly reference a derivitive of those words.

Has this study been applied to African cultures? If Africans use totally different words for their mother and father, then thats conclusive evidence that our ancestors that emigrated out of Africa were already communicating via speech and that the words 'ma' and 'pa' would likely be the oldest words known by humanity.

Tu Pham

Posted 2011-10-21T14:57:43.727

Reputation: 1

why is this answered downvoted?Ooker 2017-08-11T21:22:07.203

I think the answer has been downvoted because it is precisely the reasoning that is criticized in the (excellent) paper of the accepted answer.apat 2017-12-19T13:46:07.277