When a baby first suckles at its mother’s breast the mouth is closed as it takes in nourishment from the mother. The only sound the baby can make in satisfaction is the sound of ‘mmmm.’ The bilabial /m/ sound is very easy to produce and also quite natural. It’s a sound of comfort and satiation in the mother’s arms. How interesting that even as adults we say “mmmm” when we eat something delicious. (In Why Mama and Papa linguist Roman Jakobson notes that babies make the sounds for mama as a “slight nasal murmur” while breastfeeding.) It’s interesting to note that in Latin mamma means ‘breast’ and is the obvious root of the word ‘mammary.’
Add to this the bilabial open vowel /a/, another easily producible sound and we have ma. Ma is among the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies. And humans being true to form, it’s believed that parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with themselves, therefore we have the words mama and papa associated with mother and father—at least this is what historians and linguists say. (/p/ is another of only a handful of bilabial sounds.)
The syllable ma is nearly universal among the Indo-European languages. In the ten most widely spoken languages in the world, the word for mama (mother) is: māma, mama, maman, mamá, ma, mama, mamã, maa, mama, haha and mamī.
In Mandarin it’s mãma, and in Hindi it’s māṃ.
In non-Indo-European languages, we still notice similar sounding words that mean “mother.” In Navajo it’s amá, in Quechua it’s mama, in Ancient Egyptian it’s mut (similar to ‘mother’), in Korean it’s eomma and in Swahili it’s mama.
The modern English word mother comes from Middle English moder, deriving from Old English mōdor.
Some scientists believe that mama and papa were among the first words that humans spoke.
Mama was first historically recorded in 1707. The more English mum appeared in use around 1823, mummy in 1839, mommy in 1844, momma in 1852, and eventually, we come to mom around 1867.
The American colloquial momma can conjure visions of sweetness and loveliness when Urban Dictionary says, “My momma is the best woman in the world!”
Momma can be used with sexist intent while summoning an image of voluptuousness as in “Whoah, that chick in the short skirt is a real momma!”
It’s slang for one’s wife or girlfriend as in, “I need to talk to momma before I buy the car.”
In earth’s ancient history, the primal Mesopotamian mother goddess, known under many Sumerian names (Nintud, Nintur, Ninhursag, Belet-ili) is very often referred to as Ninmah meaning ‘magnificent [or ‘great’] queen.’ (In Sanskrit, mah means ‘great.’) She appears as the mother of humankind and the gods on earth and was the matron of pregnancy and birth and queen of the birthing hut.
Her other names include Makh, Ninmakh, Mamma, and Mama. In iconography she is represented by a sign which resembles the Greek symbol omega accompanied by a knife representing the uterus and the blade used to severe the umbilical cord.
Ninmah is thought to be among the most likely candidates for the original mother earth figure since she is so prominently associated with fertility, creation, pregnancy, childbirth, and nurture. Still another of Ninmah’s early names was Ki or Kishar identifying her as mother earth. Again, we see a startling correlation to qi or chi, the unseen vital energy that sustains life.
In the Sumerian tablets Ninmah is depicted as the consort of Anu and co-creator of the world. She was the Great Mother who presided over all, commoners and nobles alike.
Given the history of the syllable ma(h) evolving to mama, mamma, and momma, and its early associations with birth, sustenance and nurture, do we think these are all mere coincidences? Many historians like to say yes, but you can be the judge.
Shepard, Edward. “Why ‘Mama’ Has the Same Meaning in Almost Every Language.” Motherly, Motherly, 12 June 2018, www.mother.ly/parenting/mama-is-most-universal-word.
Mark, Joshua J. “Ninhursag.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 8 Apr. 2019, www.ancient.eu/Ninhursag/.
“Roman Jakobson.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Jakobson.