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Why are parents called “mama” and “papa” worldwide?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2015

In seemingly disparate languages around the world, the words for “mother” and “father” are surprisingly similar…usually “mama” or “nana” for “mother” and “papa”, “baba”, “dada”, or “tata” for “father”. It’s tempting to believe these parental words were all derived from a single proto-language, but according to the work of Roman Jakobson, the words come from the first sounds all babies make.

If you’re a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you’ve been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals.

(via df)