Mama and papa

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In linguistics, mama and papa are considered a special case of false cognates. In many languages of the world, sequences of sounds similar to /mama/ and /papa/ mean "mother" and "father", usually but not always in that order. This is thought to be a coincidence resulting from the process of early language acquisition.[1][2][3][4]


'Mama' and 'papa' use speech sounds that are among the easiest to produce: bilabial consonants like /m/, /p/, and /b/, and the open vowel /a/. They are, therefore, often among the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies (babble words), and parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with themselves and to employ them subsequently as part of their baby-talk lexicon. Thus, there is no need to ascribe to common ancestry the similarities of !Kung ba, Aramaic abba, Mandarin Chinese bàba, Yoruba bàbá, and Persian baba (all "father"); or Navajo amá, Mandarin Chinese māma, Swahili mama, Quechua mama, and Polish mama (all "mother"). For the same reason, some scientists believe that 'mama' and 'papa' were among the first words that humans spoke.[5]

Linguist Roman Jakobson hypothesized that the nasal sound in "mama" comes from the nasal murmur that babies produce when breastfeeding:

Often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full. Later, this phonatory reaction to nursing is reproduced as an anticipatory signal at the mere sight of food and finally as a manifestation of a desire to eat, or more generally, as an expression of discontent and impatient longing for missing food or absent nurser, and any ungranted wish. When the mouth is free from nutrition, the nasal murmur may be supplied with an oral, particularly labial release; it may also obtain an optional vocalic support.

— Roman Jakobson, Why 'Mama' and 'Papa'?

The baby, with no particular thought, is babbling his "mamma, mamma", and the adults are interpreting it their own way. Some imagine he calls "mother", others believe he addresses his father, and yet others thinks he calls no one, but is simply hungry, wants to eat. They are all equally correct, and are all just as equally mistaken.

— Lev Uspensky, The Word About Words (1954)



Variants using other sounds do occur: for example, in Fijian, the word for "mother" is nana, in Turkish, the word for mother is ana, and in Old Japanese, the word for "mother" was papa. The modern Japanese word for "father", chichi, is from older titi (but papa is more common colloquially in modern Japanese). Very few languages lack labial consonants (this mostly being attested on a family basis, in the Iroquoian and some of the Athabaskan languages), and only Arapaho is known to lack an open vowel /a/. The Tagalog -na- / -ta- ("mom" / "dad" words) parallel the more common ma / pa in nasality / orality of the consonants and identity of place of articulation.

Examples by language family[edit]

"Mama" and "papa" in different languages:[7][8]

Afro-Asiatic languages[edit]

  • Aramaic: Imma for mother and Abba for father
  • Hebrew: Ima for mother and Aba for father
  • Arabic: أم ("Um") for mother and أب ("Ab") for father (formal). When actually talking to them, they are called Ummi for Mother and Abba for Father
  • Berber: Yemma/Ma for mother and Aba/Baba for father

Austroasiatic languages[edit]

  • Khmer has different words that indicate different levels of respect. They include the intimate ម៉ាក់ (mak/meak) and ប៉ា (pa), the general ម៉ែ (mai/me) and ពុក (puk), and the formal ម្ដាយ (madaay) and ឪពុក (ovpuk).[9]
  • Vietnamese, mẹ is mother and bố is father. and ba or cha respectively in Southern Vietnamese.

Austronesian languages[edit]

  • Tagalog, mothers can be called ina, and fathers ama. Two other words for the same in common use, nanay and tatay, came from Nahuatl by way of Spanish.[10][11][12] Owing to contact with Spanish and English, mamá, papá, ma(m(i)), and dad [dʌd] or dádi are also used. In addition Chinese has influenced the Tagalog languages even before the Spanish Colonial Period, in Old Tagalog the word Baba was used for Father. [13]
  • In Malay, mother is called Emak (mak) or Ibu (buk), father is called Bapak or Ayah. The modern Indonesian word for father is papi and mother is mami. The words mami and papi have been used since the days of the Dutch Indies Colonial, causing the mixing of the words "Papa & Mama", Europe to "Papi & Mami", Indonesia.
  • In Māori, Papa is the name of the Earth goddess in the creation myth, and as such is sometimes used to refer to the embodiment of motherhood. The sky father in the same myth is called Rangi.

Dravidian languages[edit]

  • Though amma and appa are used in Tulu, they are not really Tulu words but used due to the influence of neighboring states' languages. The actual words for mother in Tulu is appe (pronounced [apæ]) and the word for father in Tulu is amme (pronounced [amæ]). Note that the usage of these words is at odds with the usage pattern in other languages (similar to Georgian in that sense).
  • In Telugu, the common words for mother and father are amma and nanna.[14] "Thalli" and "Thandri" are used for mother and father in formal Telugu. Notice how nana refers to maternal grandfather in Hindi, and how that differs from its Telugu meaning. "Nayana" is also used for father in informal Telugu in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana of India. Note that the usage of these words is at odds with the usage pattern in other languages (similar to Tulu and Georgian in that sense).
  • In Malayalam, the common word for mother is "Amma" and for father is "Achan". In scholastic usage, Mathav and Pithav are used respectively. "Achan" is either a transformed Malayalam equivalent of the Sanskrit "Arya" for "Sir/Master" (Arya - >Ajja -> Acha) or originated from a native Dravidian word that means paternal grandfather (cf. Ajja in Kannada and Ajje in Tulu meaning grandfather and Achan is an uncommon word for father in Tamil). Other words like "Appan","Appachan","Chaachan" (all 3 forms common among Christians, Appan is also used by Hindus of Tamil influenced areas),"Baappa/Vaappa" ,"Uppa" (both common among Muslims) etc. are also used for father, and words such as "Umma" (among Muslims), "Ammachi" (among Christians) for mother. Christians use Achan to mean Church Father."Thalla" which means mother and "Thantha" which means father are currently never used formally and are considered derogatory/disrespectful. "Thaayi" is another old and extremely uncommon word for mother.
  • In Tamil, "thaayi" and "thanthai" are the formal Tamil words for mother and father; informally "amma" for mother and "appa" for father are much more common.
  • In the Kannada language, "thaayi" for mother and "thande" for father are used formally. But to address them informally Kannadigas use amma for mother and appa for father.

Uralic languages[edit]

  • Estonian ema for mother and isa for father.
  • Hungarian apa means "father" and anya means mother, which tends to use open vowels such as [ɑ] and [ɐ]. For formal usage, these words are applied, but both mama and papa are used as well, in informal speech. For family internal addressing, apu and anyu (variants of "apa" and "anya," respectively) are also used.
  • Finnish Äiti and Isä for mother and father, respectively. Also, the old Finnish word 'emä' for 'mother'.

Indo-European languages[edit]

In the Proto-Indo-European language, *mā́tēr (modern reconstruction: *méh₂tēr) meant "mother" while *pǝtḗr (modern reconstruction: *ph₂tḗr) and átta meant "father".


  • Catalan mamà / mama and papà / papa
  • French maman / papa (mother / father) and mamie / papy (grandmother / grandfather)
  • Galician nai, mai / pai
  • Italian mamma and papà or babbo
  • Lombard mader
  • Portuguese mãe / pai (mother / father); Portugal: mamã / papá; Brazil: mamãe / papai
  • Romanian mama / mamă (mother) and tata / tată (father)
  • Sardinian mama and babbu or formal "Mammai" and "Babbai"
  • Spanish mamá and papá


  • Belarusian мама (mama) for mom and тата (tata) for dad.
  • Bulgarian мама (mama) for mom and татко (tatko) for dad; майка (maika) for mother and баща (bashta) for father; баба (baba) for grandmother and дядо (dyado) for grandfather. For aunt and uncle: стринка (strinka) for father's brother's wife and чичо (chicho) for father's brother / вуйна (vuyna) for mother's brother's wife and вуйчо (vuycho) for mother's brother.
  • Czech máma and táta
  • Lithuanian mama
  • Macedonian мама/mama for mom, and татo/tato for dad. мајка/majka for mother, and татко/tatko for father.
  • Rusyn мама (mama) for mom and татo (tato) for dad.
  • Polish mama and tata
  • Russian мама (mama). In Russian papa, deda and baba mean "father", "grandfather" and "grandmother" respectively, though the last two can represent baby-talk (baba is also a slang word for "woman", and a folk word for a married woman with a child born). In popular speech tata and tyatya for "dad" were also used until the 20th century. In some dialects, papa means "food".
  • Serbo-Croatian мама/mama for mom, and тата/tata for dad.
  • Slovak mama / tata, also tato. In addition, papanie / papať means "food" / "eat" respectively.
  • Slovene mama / ata, also tata
  • Ukrainian мама (mamа) and тато (tato) (папа (papa) in South-eastern dialects).


  • Dutch mama / mam / ma and papa / pap / pa
  • English mama / mum/mummy (standard British) / mom/mommy (US/Canada/sometimes regional Irish) / momma / mam (regional British and regional Irish) / ma and dad / dada / daddy / papa / pa / da
  • Faroese mamma
  • German Mama and Papa
  • Icelandic mamma; pabbi
  • Norwegian mamma and pappa
  • Swedish mamma and pappa
  • Swiss German mami, but mame in the dialect from Graubünden and mamma in certain dialects from the Canton of Bern



Old Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit): Mātṛ / Ambā for "mother" and Pitṛ / Tātaḥ for "father".

  • Assamese has ma ("মা") and aai ("আই") as "mother" and deuta ("দেউতা") and pitai ("পিতাই") as "father". However, due to English borrowings, the words mamma and pappa are sometimes used today.
  • Bengali, the words maa ("মা") and baba ("বাবা") are used for "mother" and "father".
  • Bhojpuri has maai ("माई") and aama ("आमा") as "mother" and babu ("बाबू") as "father". Informally, the terms mami and papa are also used, possibly due to English influence.
  • Gujarati uses mātā, or , for mother and bāpuji, or pitā, for father. Informally, the terms mammi and pappā are also used, possibly due to English influence.
  • Hindi has the word mātā and pitaji as the formal words for "mother" and "father", though the shorter informal term maa and pita is more common. Due to English borrowings, the words mamma and pappa are also common.
  • Konkani language, the word "aai" for "mother" and "baba" "father" are used, given the language's close similarity to Marathi. However, due to English borrowings, the words mamma and pappa are much more common today.
  • Maithili language has the word Mami and Papa to refer mother and father respectively, which were borrowed from English and are very popular in Mithila federal state of Nepal and Bihar state of India.
  • Marathi Aai (“आई”) for mother and Baba (“बाबा”) for father. In some parts of Maharashtra Amma ("अम्मा") for mother and Appa ("अप्पा") or Tatya ("तात्या") for father is also used. However, due to English borrowings, the words mummy and pappa are much more common today in urban areas.
  • Nepali language has the words "ama" or "ma" to refer to mother and "baba" or "ba" for father.
  • Odia uses bapa (ବାପା) for father and maa(ମା), bou (ବୋଉ) for mother. However, due to English borrowings, the words mamma/mommy and pappa are much more common today.
  • Sinhalese, the word for mother originally was "abbe" ("abbiyande") and father was "appa " ("appanande"). Use of "amma" for mother and "nana" for father is due to heavy influence of Tamil. In some areas of Sri Lanka, particularly in the Central Province, Sinhalese use the word "nanachhi" for father.
  • Urdu the words for mother are maa/mɑ̃ː ماں, madar مادر or walida والدہ formally and ammi امی, mama مما informally, whereas father is baap باپ (not used as salutation), pedar' پدر or 'walid' والد formally and baba بابا or abba ابّا or abbu ابّو informally.

Other Indo-European languages[edit]

  • Albanian nena/nëna / mama
  • (Modern) Greek μάνα, μαμά (mana, mama) and μπαμπάς (babas)
  • Hittite 𒀭𒈾𒀸 (annaš, "mother") and 𒀜𒋫𒀸 (attaš, "father")
  • Pashto moor مور is the word for Mother. Plaar پلار is the word for Father and baba بابا is used for father as well.
  • Persian madar مادر is the formal word for mother, whereas مامان or maman is the informal word for mother. Pedar پدر is the formal word for father whereas baba or بابا is the informal word for father.
  • Hazaragi ‘’aya’’ is used for mother and ‘’ ata’’ is used for father.
  • Kurdish dayê and yadê or is the word for mother.
  • Lurish dā دا and dāleka دالکه is the word for mother, and is bowa or bawa is the word for father.

Kartvelian languages[edit]

  • Georgian is notable for having its similar words "backwards" compared to other languages: "father" in Georgian is მამა (mama), while "mother" is pronounced as დედა (deda). პაპა papa stands for "grandfather".

Mayan languages[edit]

Niger-Congo languages[edit]

Sino-Tibetan languages[edit]

  • Bodo, बिमा (bi-ma) and बिफा (bi-fa) are the words for "mother" and "father" respectively. However, parents are usually referred to by their children as आइ/आइयै (aai/aywi) or मा (ma) and आफा (afa) or बाबा (baba) — "Mom" and "Dad."
  • Burmese, မိခင် (mi khin) and ဖခင် (pha khin) are the words for "mother" and "father" respectively. However, parents are usually referred to by their children as မေမေ (may may) and ဖေဖေ (phay phay) — "Mom" and "Dad."
  • Cantonese, 母親 (móuchàn) and 父親 (fuchàn) are the formal words for "mother" and "father" respectively. 媽媽 (màmà) or 阿媽 (a mā) and 爸爸 (bàbā) or 阿爸 (a bà) are used informally for "Mom" and "Dad" respectively.
  • Mandarin Chinese, 母親 (pinyin: mǔqīn) and 父親 (fùqīn) are for "mother" and "father" respectively. Note that the f sound was pronounced bilabially (as with p or b) in older and some other forms of Chinese, thus fu is related to the common "father" word pa. In addition, parents are usually referred to by their children as 媽媽 (pinyin: māma; Wade–Giles: ma¹-ma) and 爸爸 (pinyin: bàba; Wade–Giles: pa⁴-pa) — "Mom" and "Dad". In informal language, and are sometimes used as shorter versions of the aforementioned words.
  • Taiwanese Hokkien, 老母 (lāu-bú) and 老爸 (lāu-pē) refer to "mother" and "father" respectively. Note that some of the b sounds in modern Taiwanese was pronounced as m in older Chinese languages, hence is related to the common "mother" word m. Additionally, parents are also referred as () / 阿母 (a-bú) and () / 阿爸 (a-pah), equivalents to "Mom" and "Dad", respectively.
  • Tibetan uses amma for mother and nana for father.

Kra–Dai languages[edit]

  • Thai, "mother" is แม่ ( [mɛ̂ː]) and "father" is พ่อ (phô [pʰɔ̂ː]). มะ (Má [mɑ]) and บะ (ba [ba]) or ฉะ (cha [tʃa]) respectively in Southern Thai. Colloquially, mamà and papà are also used.
  • Lao, "mother" is ແມ່ (maê) and "father" is ພໍ່ (phô).

Turkic languages[edit]

  • In Turkish, both anne and ana mean mother, and baba and ata means father. Also, nene can be used for grandma and dede for grandpa.
  • Uyghur, an East Asian Turkic language, uses ana or apa for mother, and ata or dada for father.
  • In the Crimean Tatar language, the word Ana means mother, and the word Baba means father.

Other families and language isolates[edit]

  • Basque: ama for mother and aita for father.
  • Japanese, 父 (chichi) and 母 (haha) are for "father" and "mother" respectively in formal style. They are the basic words which do not combine with honorifics *papa (modern Japanese /h/ derives from the voiceless bilabial fricative [ɸ]) which in turn is from the older *p.)[17] Japanese has also borrowed informal mama and papa along with the native terms, stemming from American influence post-World War II.[18] Before the borrowing became common, a child usually called its mother おかあさん (‘’okāsan’’), かあちゃん (‘’kāchan’’), or so, and its father おとうさん (‘‘otōsan’’), とうちゃん (‘’tōchan’’), etc.. On the other hand, マンマ(‘’mamma’’) means “food” in baby talk.
  • Korean, 엄마 (eom-ma) and 아빠 (a-bba) are mom and dad in informal language, whereas the formal words are 아버지 (a-beo-ji) and 어머니 (eo-meo-ni) for father and mother. Korean is usually considered a language isolate with no living relatives, but some authorities differ.
  • Kashmiri, Mauj/mauji for mother is used in both formal and informal language where as Moul for father in formal and Baabé/Baba in informal language.
  • Kutenai, a language isolate of southeastern British Columbia, uses the word Ma.
  • Sumerian: 𒀀𒈠 / ama
  • Mapudungun: Chachay and papay are respectively "daddy"[19] and "mommy",[20] Chaw and Ñuke being "father" and "mother", respectively. Chachay and papay are also terms of respect or sympathy towards other members of the community.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jakobson, R. (1962) "Why 'mama' and 'papa'?" In Jakobson, R. Selected Writings, Vol. I: Phonological Studies, pp. 538–545. The Hague: Mouton.
  2. ^ Nichols, J. (1999) "Why 'me' and 'thee'?" Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected Papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Vancouver, 9–13 August 1999, ed. Laurel J. Brinton, John Benjamins Publishing, 2001, pages 253-276.
  3. ^ Bancel, P.J. and A.M. de l'Etang. (2008) "The Age of Mama and Papa" Bengtson J. D. In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the four fields of anthropology. (John Benjamins Publishing, Dec 3, 2008), pages 417-438.
  4. ^ Bancel, P.J. and A.M. de l'Etang. (2013) "Brave new words" In New Perspectives on the Origins of Language, ed. C. Lefebvre, B. Comrie, H. Cohen (John Benjamins Publishing, Nov 15, 2013), pages 333-377.
  5. ^ Gosline, Anna (26 July 2004). "Family words came first for early humans". NEW SCIENTIST.
  6. ^ "Слово о словах", глава "Устами младенцев"
  7. ^ mama on the map
  8. ^ papa on the map
  9. ^ អឹង, គឹមសាន (2015). រិទ្យាសាស្រ្ដសិក្សាសង្គម (Grade 1 Society School Book). Cambodia: Publishing and Distributing House. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9789995001551.
  10. ^ Rodriguez, Evelyn Ibatan (2005-01-01). Coming of Age: Identities and Transformations in Filipina Debutantes and Mexicana Quinceañeras. University of California, Berkeley. p. 65. [A] considerable number of elements crept into Philippine languages...including...nanay...and tatay.
  11. ^ Morrow, Paul (2007-10-01). "Mexico is not just a town in Pampanga". Pilipino Express News Magazine. Retrieved 2017-01-17.
  12. ^ Wright, Mr Mal (2013-03-01). Shoestring Paradise - Facts and Anecdotes for Westerners Wanting to Live in the Philippines. Lulu Press, Inc. ISBN 9781105936265.
  13. ^ English, Leo James (2015). Tagalog-English Dictionary (27 ed.). Quezon City: Kalayaan Press Mktg. Ent. Inc. (National Book Store). ISBN 978-9710844654.
  14. ^ Ryali, Rajagopal (1984). A Semantic Analysis of Telugu Kinship Terms. Pravasandhra Bharati. p. 65.
  15. ^ Am Faclair Beag
  16. ^ Am Faclair Beag
  17. ^ Frellesvig, B. (2010). A history of the Japanese language. Cambridge University Press. p. 204-205, 311-316, 386-387, 414-415. ISBN 978-0-521-65320-6.
  18. ^ Shoji, Kaori (2004-10-28). "For Japanese, family names are the worst growing pains". The Japan Times. Retrieved 2022-06-09.
  19. ^ 2007. Ineke Smeets. A Grammar of Mapuche. Berlin: Mouton Grammar Library.
  20. ^ 1916. Fray Félix José de Augusta. Diccionario Araucano-Español y Español-Araucano. Santiago: Imprenta Universitaria