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MAMMA MIA!

By Joana Atanasova

How “mama” was the first word in recorded history

8th of march – the international women’s day. Bulgaria celebrates it as well, acknowledging all the wonderful women that contribute to our lives, as well as society, however we have put a little twist on it – we mainly celebrate is as mother’s day, how and why that originated is a little misty, but it’s widely accepted that since there’s no other official mother’s day in the calendars, we’ll just hop on the trail and might as well celebrate it today. Generally the celebrations consist mainly of gifting a flower or a whole bouquet to one’s mother or mother figure, and by choice – the women you appreciate in your life. Celebrations are a little bit fuzzy as there’s no tradition or anything solid left from generation to generation to follow, which is honestly surprising for Bulgaria, rather it’s a free range to do whatever you see the fittest. Most ladies have a girls’ night out, some are treated to dinners from their significant others, basically a small holiday without traditions. But for us linguists, what better way to celebrate mother’s day than digging into the history of the word for “mother”. 

The word for “mother”, mama, ma, etc. and its derivatives, is one of the oldest words in existence. Not only is it one of the oldest, but to this day “mama” is the same in pretty much all known languages with some exceptions of course. Anywhere you go in the world, everybody will understand the word in one way or another. What a fascinating thing!

In a previous article I’ve gone over the oldest known words, listing the findings of linguists in a nifty table and explaining how and why, but this time I want to focus just on the word for “mother” as it’s thematic and a particularly interesting one, because of its universality.

The universal thing of all living creatures is that everyone has a mother. Everybody and everything existing today is here because someone gave birth to them. And it’s been like that since the dawn of time, since before villages, tribes, shelters, fire, there were mothers. It’s only natural for one of the first words that was derived from human speech would indeed be “mother”, I’m sure that’s no surprise for anybody. The word was alongside other valuable words like “fire”, “man”, “to flow”, and other odd ones like “worm” and “bark”. This is based on research going back to the ice age, with evidence as old as 15,000 years old. The interesting thing here is that while the rest of the words have gone upon ages and ages of transformations, varying from language to language, the word for “mother” has pretty much remained the same. 

Here’s where the universality comes along – in almost every known language “mama” is known in this exact form. Whether it’s “ma”, “mama”, “imma”, “ema”, “mata” – the meaning is the same. It’s one of the most universal words in every known language, and one that would be understood pretty much everywhere. In the table below that’s been graciously provided by mothersdaycelebration.com (thematic, I know), you can see on hand the resemblance of the word in the languages below.

AfrikaansMoeder, Ma
AlbanianNënë, Mëmë
ArabicAhm
AragonesMai
AsturianMa
AymaraTaica
Azeri (Latin Script)Ana
BasqueAma
BelarusanMatka
BergamascoMàder
BologneseMàder
BosnianMajka
Brazilian PortugueseMäe
BrescianoMadér
BretonMamm
BulgarianMajka
ByelorussianMacii
CalabreseMatre, Mamma
Hindiमाँ के दिन
CalóBata, Dai
Cambodian (Khmer)Mæ, Madai, Mák
CatalanMare
CebuanoInahan, Nanay
ChechenNana
CroatianMati, Majka
CzechMatka, Mama, Maminka
DanishMor
DutchMoeder, Moer
DzoratâiMére
EnglishMother, Mama, Mom
EsperantoPatrino, Panjo
EstonianEma
FaroeseMóðir
Finnishäiti
FlemishMoeder
FrenchMère, Maman
FrisianEmo, Emä, Kantaäiti
FurlanMari
GalicianNai
GermanMutter
GreekMána
GrikoSalentino, Mána
HawaiianMakuahine
Hindi –Ma, Maji
HungarianAnya, Fu
Hebrewיום האם
IcelandicMóðir
IlongoIloy, Nanay, Nay
IndonesianInduk, Ibu, Biang, Nyokap
IrishMáthair
ItalianMadre, Mamma
JapaneseOkaasan, Haha
Judeo SpanishMadre
KannadaAmma
Kurdish KurmanjiDaya
LadinoUma
LatinMater
LeoneseMai
LigurianMaire
LimburgianModer, Mojer, Mam
LingalaMama
LithuanianMotina
Lombardo OccidentaleMadar
LunfardoVieja
MacedonianMajka
MalagasyReny
MalayEmak
MalteseOmm
MantuanMadar
MaoriEwe, Haakui
MapunzugunÂuke, Âuque
MarathiAayi
Mongolian`eh
MudnésMedra, mama
NeapolitanMamma
NorwegianMadre
OccitanMaire
Old GreekMytyr
ParmigianoMädra
PersianMadr, Maman
PiemonteseMare
PolishMatka, Mama
PortugueseMãe
PunjabiMai, Mataji, Pabo
QuechuaMama
ReggianoMèdra
RomagnoloMèder
RapanuiMatu’a Vahine
RomanianMama, Maica
RomanshMamma
RussianMat’
SaamiEadni
SamoanTina
Sardinian (Limba Sarda Unificada)Mama
Sardinian Campidanesumamai
Sardinian LogudoresuMadre, Mamma
SerbianMajka
ShonaAmai
SicilianMatri
SlovakMama, Matka
SlovenianMáti
SpanishMadre, Mamá, Mami
SwahiliMama, Mzazi, Mzaa
SwedishMamma, Mor, Morsa
Swiss GermanMueter
TeleguAmma
TriestinoMare
TurkishAnne, Ana, Valide
TurkmenEje
UkrainianMati
UrduAmmee
ValencianMare
VenetianMare
ViestanoMamm’
VietnameseMe
WelshMam
YiddishMuter

See what I mean? You can find the resemblance in the words even where the word varies like in Estonian or Maltese, you can still catch the subtle meaning of it even if you’re not familiar with the language. Language changes all the time, it’s fluid and it’s here to serve the user more than the other way around, so you can imagine that language goes over change in a matter of years, it doesn’t take millennia to see actual changes and new adopted words. Knowing all that, you can imagine how absolutely fascinating it is for a word to not only remain the same since its conception, but also remain similar or analogous in every single human language tens of thousands of years later.

How has “mama” remained the same through time? Simple, linguists believe that the origin of the word itself is the sound that babies first make when being breastfed. Of course babies have no idea what they are saying, it’s just a sound that they are making when being hungry and when the nipple or bottle is in their mouth, adults are the ones that interpret the sound that the baby makes, the mother thinks that the baby recognizes her since they make that sound when they see her, and responds to it. From there the baby knows to make it when the mother is present so that they can have their next meal, and from using it they know that with it that the mother will recognize it and would be able to call her over. All that results in the sound being used as a full blown word and here we are tens of thousands of years later using it still. 

So why hasn’t it changed? Because it doesn’t need to. It’s perfect in its simplicity and usage, a baby can use it, an adult can use, it serves its purpose perfectly as it is, it doesn’t need changing. If it did, it would have fluctuated through thousands of years of linguistic evolution, like the word “fire”. Fire is also a proto word that’s been used since the dawn of time, or rather, the creation of fire, but it’s gone over so many changes that it’s different in every single language, even the root words in every ancient language, the base for our modern languages, vary – in Latin it’s “ignis”, in ancient Greek it’s “pur”, in Old English it’s “fyr”, in Sanskrit it’s “agni” (hence the Latin), but you get the idea. In our modern languages the word has changed tremendously that it differs everywhere. 

“Mama” has remained the same and survived the test of time, the same way as us humans have, thanks to said mothers. Which is why I want to take the time to thank all the mothers and mother figures in our lives that make sure we know many more words than just “mama”. Be it mothers, step-mothers, adoptive mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and all other women we see as mother, sister figures – all of the valuable ladies that grace our lives that deserve our love and gratitude, thank you for being you, for the help, for the love, for everything you stand and fight for, for your strength that reflects on us, and for being the stronghold of society! Happy international women’s day!

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