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Why do the words for "mom" sound the same across most languages?

Quora UserQuora User, BA in Classics
19 upvotes by Quora User, Peter Deng, Marc Bodnick, (more)
The "ma" sound is one of the first sounds babies make, and is possibly the easiest syllable to pronounce.

The OED has this to say about the etymology of "mama":
Of uncertain origin, but probably ultimately [derived from] a (reduplicated)  syllable /ma/ which is characteristic of  early infantile vocalization and regarded by some as a development of  the sound sometimes made by a baby when breastfeeding.
Urmi GhoshUrmi Ghosh
57 upvotes by Quora User, Erica Friedman, Rupert Baines, (more)
Kinship terms, mostly ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ are similar across most languages but these are not cognates (related in origin).
To explain this, first you need to understand an infant’s phonemic pattern.
Bilabials (sounds produced by using both lips : p, b,m) are the easiest to produce followed by the dentals and alveolars (t,d,n). Velars (k,g) and palatals (c,j) form only 10% of the ‘nursery forms’ (babytalk).  Consonantal clusters (kl, sm etc) rarely appear in the child’s speech at its early stages.
So, when a baby blabbers ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ etc , parents conclude that it is calling out for them and associate these utterances with themselves. Of course, there are variations across languages.

Bengali, mother: ma, father: baba
Telugu, mother: amma, father: nanna
PS: Why ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ by Jakobson might be an interesting read.

EDITED: Recommended readings :
Also explains why the idea of a 'Proto-World' language fails to explain this.
Quora UserQuora User, B.A. in Linguistics
Just a note -- babies do not acquire the word for mom. On the contrary, it's the parents who attribute meaning to their first sounds.
Visakan VeerasamyVisakan Veerasamy, curses fluently in Hokkien.
The Bouba/Kiki Effect is a non-arbitrary mapping between speech sounds and the visual shape of objects. This effect was first observed by German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler in 1929. In psychological experiments, first conducted on the island of Tenerife (in which the primary language is Spanish), Köhler showed forms similar to those shown at the right and asked participants which shape was called "takete" and which was called "baluba" ("maluma" in the 1947 version). Data suggested a strong preference to pair the jagged shape with "takete" and the rounded shape with "baluba".

In 2001, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated Köhler's experiment using the words "kiki" and "bouba" and asked American college undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India "Which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?" In both the English and the Tamil speakers, 95% to 98% selected the curvy shape as "bouba" and the jagged one as "kiki", suggesting that the human brain is somehow able to extract abstract properties from the shapes and sounds. Recent work by Daphne Maurer and colleagues shows that even children as young as 2.5 (too young to read) may show this effect as well.

Ramachandran and Hubbard suggest that the kiki/bouba effect has implications for the evolution of language, because it suggests that the naming of objects is not completely arbitrary. The rounded shape may most commonly be named "bouba" because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound while a more taut, angular mouth shape is needed to make the sound "kiki". The sounds of a K are harder and more forceful than those of a B, as well. The presence of these "synesthesia-like mappings" suggest that this effect might be the neurological basis for sound symbolism, in which sounds are non-arbitrarily mapped to objects and events in the world.

This picture is used as a test to demonstrate that people may not attach sounds to shapes arbitrarily: American college undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India called the shape on the left "kiki" and the one on the right "bouba".

- from Wikipedia
Suryansh JalanSuryansh Jalan, I am you and what I see is me
2 upvotes by Abhi Shek and Mushtaque Hashimi.
Very interesting question. I have mulled over this many times and after seeing quite a few documentaries and articles these are some of my observations.

- Warning: Following text might offend Creationist as it strongly enforces the rational argument of evolution- 

Now that we've dealt with that, just to peak your curiosity these are few of the words that i've found common between English (source-latin and other older languages of Europe) and Sanskrit (one of the oldest languages on this side of the world):

  • Name = ‘Naam’ in sanskrit/hindi/urdu
  • Path = ‘Path’: sanskrit, pronounced pəth
  • Mother = ‘Mata’: sanskrit, pronounced mätä
  • Pa = Pita, or
  • Serpent = ‘Sarp’: sanskrit
  • Man = ‘Manuj’: sanskrit
  • Saint = ‘Sant’: sanskrit
  • Bad = ‘bad’: urdu but it sounds slightly different and is used as a prefix
  • Star = ‘tara’ in hindi
  • Nose = ‘nasika’
  • Mouth = ‘mukh’
  • -ped- (suffix/prefix meaning foot, like in centipede, pedal) = ‘padh’: sanskrit
  • Divine = ‘divya’
  • Cruel = ‘krura’
  • Agnostic = Nastik (Nastik actually means athiest, but I’ll count it)
  • Saturday = ‘Shanivaar’ in Sanskrit. And ‘Shani’ means Saturn. ‘vaar’ is apparently ‘day’. Similarly, Sunday = ‘Ravivaar’ and ‘Ravi’ mean sun. Monday = ‘Somvaar’ and ‘Som’ means moon.
  • Cent (hundred) = ‘Shat’: pronounced shət with a soft ‘t’ at the end.
  • The counting number are also interesting. Though individually they do not sound very similar, but on the whole the similarities add up and become apparent. So, here is how one counts from 1 to 9 in sanskrit: (some of these gotten from this sanskrit website): Éka (one), Dvi (two), Trí (three), Catúr (four), pañcan (five), sás (six), saptán (seven), astan (eight), Návan (nine).

Now that is rarely a coincidence. Most of the basic words that you might think were used really early on tend to be similar (not just within European languages but bridging this great distance across continents).

This is almost certainly because they have been derived from the same language, which Sir William Jones first suggested.
This was later termed the Prot-Indo-European Language. Besides sounding similar, linguists have studied several different older languages and have arrived on " irrefutable proof on their common origin and gradual evolution."

How did that happen?

It's suggested that this common language originated somewhere near present day Turkey around 6500 B.C. and then migrating populations spread it around the world.

Okay, so what can be the significance?

Once the above point has been established, its application by a further group of historians and scientists has been extremely interesting. They suggest this to be another proof of the Evolution. (As if that was even required)

Specifically, life originated in Africa and gradually forced by natural conditions or otherwise migrated all over the world. If this was true (!) it logically follows that if there were a language spoken then, there should be a common footprint among all the older languages in the world.

Isn't it great when new findings confirm established theories?

For further reading refer:
Origin and development of Sanskrit - (comprehensive list of common words and the PIE language theory)

Celto Himalayan connection- Two of the oldest languages/cultures in the world.

An interesting question would be, How were names/ words formed. eg. Why is the table called so? (I get that a baby might utter something similar to ma and pa and hence that relation, but does looking/hitting a table evoke such emotions?)
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