Amma, mama, maman, mother?The tale of a curious linguistic wonder

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Be Rochana Jayasinghe-

This Mother’s Day (March 14th) promised to be as jubilant as ever, with a lot of mothers around the world being made special, being paid gratitude to. In short, Mother’s Day is a day for celebrating and appreciating the revered state of motherhood.
In our part of the world, this day is called Mawwarungedinaya, Annaiyardinam, Ammamardinam, Matri divas while in Europe it is Mother’s Day, Morsday, Fête des Mères, Dia da Mãa, Mors Dag or Dzien Matila. If you’ve apprehended anything strange in all these phrases, bingo! It is quite evidently the eery similarity between all these words for ‘mother’ (and day too, but we’ll keep that for another time)!
We call our mothers Amma, Ammi, Mama here at home, unsurprisingly quite similar to the Hindi Maji, Urdu Ammee, Nepali Aama and Amma in all Dravidian languages ( apart from Tamil; Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam). But this is only natural isn’t it, given that all languages sprung from the same subcontinent?
Well, moving a little West, we have mère or maman in French, Mutter in German, madre or mamma in Italian as well as the Dutch moeder and even the Greek mánaormitéra. We have the Celtic languages calling the mother maitaar and diverting a bit, the Baltic-Slavic languages calling the mother mama, matkee, motina, māte and so on. Almost all countries in the Middle East use the term mama, too.
Then again, all these languages (save for the Dravidian ones) have their root in the same linguistic family – the Proto-Indo-European branch of languages. Hence, over many thousands of years, these languages would have slushed together due to travel, trade and commerce, which brings me to my next point.
Don’t all these languages change during the course of these very many thousands of years?  I mean, you hardly call your lover, a ‘swain’anymore. Nor do you use ‘bedight’ instead of ‘decorate’,  ‘wiffmann’ instead of ‘woman’ or ‘munuc’ instead of ‘monk’.
Not very many of these languages -even the closest of all- share common words for the same thing. The dog is called ‘naai’ in Tamil while in Telugu the word is ‘kukka’. ‘Bribe’ in Sinhala is ‘pagawa’ while in Hindi it is ‘ghoos’. ‘Brat’ in English is the Polish word for ‘brother’, ‘déception’ the French word, means disappointment and not deception, the German ‘arm’ means the poor and not the body part,and the list goes on.So, languages CHANGE from one another, take different forms even amongst themselves, their sounds morph into completely different patterns. So how is it that ‘mother’ stubbornly refuses to change?Why do all these words seem to be variations of mom, mommy, amma? And no, oh no, this isn’t common to just the Indo-European or Dravidian languages. Mandarin, which shares absolutely no similarity with any of our languages, calls the mother… yes you guessed it – mama! And that is certainly not it.
Other Sino-Tibetan languages call the mother mo, ama, ma (Tibetan)mae(Thai) andmihikain (Burmese). Why, speakers of Swahili call their mother mama too! (Independent of colonial influences) Not to mention most Native American tribes; amá (Navajo), mama (Quechua), omaamaamaa (Ojibwe), mema (Tagish).
Pure coincidence? I think not. I think its safe to establish that these are certainly not cognates (words of common etymological origin).
So is this proof of some sort of ancient universal language? Or maybe its some sort of collective conscious?
Roman Jakobson, a famous linguist researched on this bizarre similarity. These words for mother are said to be based on a bilabial nasal or similar consonant. Basically, when a baby starts making random sounds, the easiest vowel he or she can make is ‘ah’. Babies usually make these sounds when they are being fed breast milk or when hungry for more. When the baby suckles at the mother’s breast, it learns the easiest close-lipped sound: ‘m’. This combined with ‘ah’ forms ‘ma’. In communicating, the baby cries out a string of many ‘ma’s which, yes, forms the word ‘mama’, which mimics the mouth motion of sucking at the mother’s breast. This is of course, interpreted as mama,amma,maman world over. Indeed, most languages vary when it comes to the formal word ‘mother’, but almost every language boasts a recognizable form of ‘mama’.
These open-mouth vowel sounds are the easiest vocalizations for humans to make. It’s the most convenient sound babies naturally make even before they learn language. Indeed, one can even say the word mama laid grounds for the Latin mamma which means ‘breast’ from which came the terms ‘mammary’ and ‘mammary glands’.
Where the letter m isn’t the mainstream letter in the word for mother, it is the letter ‘n’; annai(formal Tamil), nana (Fijian), anana (Eskimo), nanay (Tagalog). This is also a type of vocalization that babies constantly use, that everyone else interprets as a call for their mother. This is how these sounds have come to form words in the adult language. Adults assume the baby automatically ‘learns’ the word for mother, when in reality it is a call of yearning for the one person they know, who can provide for them, nurture them and love them.
On a side note, quite interestingly, babies’ secondary choices of consonants are p or b and t or d. This why in most countries all over the world, the father is informally papa, baba, babboand in more formal terms pita, piyain some places, and thaththa, dad, tad in others. In Native American Koasuti, the term for the father istaata(thaththa?) and not only that, but in Korea, the father is appa or abba (appa, appachchi?). It is said that babies, when unable to reach out for their mothers, makes different noises to catch the attention of the other person that they know, who could tend to them; the father. The interpretation of these sounds as the word for ‘father’, comes in consequence.
Of course, this phenomenon isn’t shared by all languages in the world; the Japanese informal terms for their parents are hahaand chichi! Quite different to anything mentioned above. Most languages in the Polynesian part of the world have stark differences too.
However, one simply cannot ignore this curious, yet beautiful and amazing linguistic wonder that knows no borders. It IS true, then that a mother’s influence runs wide and strong. So the next time you call your mother, remember that the bond between you and your mother is very special. There is a reason as to why ‘amma’, ‘ammi’ or ‘mama’ was your first word ever. It was simply because even back then you knew she was the first person you ever needed. The bond between you and your mother was formed at the very core of your being.
So, I wish a very Happy Mother’s Day to my Ammi as well as all the other ammas, moms, mamas, mamans in the world!
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