Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Happy Mothers' day... week

Going back to my roots today, I thought it'd be fun to talk about the etymology of the word mom. Did we get it from the Swahili word mama or the Gaelic word mam? Did it come from Arabic ahm or Hindi ma? Maybe from the Urdu amee? Or did they all come from proto-Indo-European, that great great great grandparent of so many of the languages spoken throughout Europe and India.
Nope. Turns out the reason that people in countries from the arctic circle to the horn of Africa have such similar names for mom is that the term is coined by babies, who develop the ability to make sounds in roughly the same order, no matter the language those around them speak. See, sometime in the 6 month range, they leave the directionless babbling of infancy behind and start experimenting with intentional sounds. Ahh is the easiest vowel sound to control, as it requires no special movement of the throat, mouth, or lips. And since the m sound requires one simple movement of the lips, it'll be one of the first consonant sounds they make. Moms respond to the sound of ma-ma-ma, which reinforces to babies that saying ma-ma-ma summons mom-mom-mom, and eventually, the sounds become words. The other sounds babies develop around this time, of course, are da-da, na-na, pa-pa, ba-ba, and ta-ta, in no particular order.