The word 'mother' is special in all languages

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Mutter (German). Mère (French). Majka (Serbian). Mat' (Russian). Madre (Spanish). Moder (Swedish). Máthair (Irish). Mataji (Hindi). Móðir (Icelandic).

Oh, and Mama (Chinese). Mama (Swahili). Mama (English).

All around the world, the word for the person being honored today is almost always the "M" word.

A remarkable coincidence? Evidence of some great mythic, spiritual communion, a reminder that we are all our mother's children under the skin?

Not a chance.

The reason for the similarities are far more prosaic, experts say. Many of us, at around age 7 or 8 months, put our lips together, hum so that our larynxes buzz, and then open our mouths to unleash a sound: Ma.

At first, it's just baby talk, playing with sounds, but soon, "Ma" and its derivatives take on a deeper urgency: a command or a plea to fulfill the most primal desires within us, for food, warmth, love -- or to play Candy Land for the umpteenth time.

"The word evolved out of the sounds a baby could say early on" before taking on an actual meaning, said Cheryl Messick, associate professor in Communications Science and Disorders at the University of Pittsburgh.

Once the word "Ma" does start to mean something, it's virtually the same object in virtually all Indo-European languages, from Russian to German to Hindi: breast. Some experts believe it is the most widespread root word in the world, even in non-Indo-European languages, such as Chinese.

The English "mother" also includes the suffix "-ter" (or "-ther") -- also in "sister," "brother," "father" as well as the German "schwester," or sister -- and stems from the Latin "mater," the mother of so many English words: madrigal, material, maternal, matriculate, matrimony, matrix, matron and matter.

Nonetheless, the "M" word is not universal, warned Penn State University etymologist Philip Baldi.

"That's a dangerous assumption," Dr. Baldi said, adding that the Albanians call their mothers "Nene," a relative of the Latin word "Nonnus," which is defined by Latin-Dictionary.org as the word young monks use to address their elders.

"The Hittites used the word 'Annas,' which has a different Indo-European root, cognate with the Latin word 'Annus,' which means old woman," he added.

Old woman? And Happy Mother's Day to you, Dr. Baldi.

At any rate, the Hittites -- an ancient race that lived near what today is Turkey -- are long gone, but "Moder" and "Mutter" are still with us, and babies are still making what Dr. Baldi calls "an articulatory extension of the sucking impulse, a nasal consonant, in which the air flows through the nasal passage ... and the lips come together."

But "Ma," is not, contrary to received wisdom, necessarily the first utterance a baby makes when practicing sounds, Dr. Messick said.

"Actually, my kids said 'Daddy,' before they said 'Mommy,' " Dr. Messick said, noting that babies initially babble sounds that are separate from meaning -- usually a subset of consonants beginning with the letter "m," "b" or "d" and less commonly, "f."

Dr. Messick, who did her doctoral dissertation on the subject, said she found that babies around 9 or 10 months would babble about three or four consonants frequently.

"If you expose them to nonsense words that have the sounds the infants are already using and those they don't ever use, they will learn the words that they've already practiced babbling."

Each child is different, though, and so are their parents.

"Some people might reinforce sounds over others and get excited when baby makes a certain sound," which may determine which real word is uttered first, she said.

"Because I'm a speech pathologist and my son was my oldest, I taught him early on what the tick-tick sound the clock in our front hall makes, and at 9 months he'd look at the clock and make clicking sounds," Dr. Messick said, adding that when he finally did utter the "M" word, "it was for cow."

"We lived in a rural area and he said 'Moo,' long before he said 'Mom,' " she said, laughing.

Regardless of what comes before "Mama," it's still a word that's great at multitasking and has given birth to a lot of other words, linguists noted.

A few years ago, a post in YourDictionary.com defined the noun "mother" as "a female parent" -- as the redoubtable Oxford English Dictionary does -- noting that "just as many mothers work two jobs, it also does the work of a verb" in terms of mothering.

"When Saddam Hussein (remember him?) challenged the United States to the 'mother of all battles,' we all knew exactly what he meant because of the primordial force of motherhood throughout our language: Mother Earth, Mother Nature, Mother of God, Mother Goose, the mother lode, the motherland -- even the motherboard in your computer," wrote Audra Himes, then an English professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, now retired.

In some languages, however, the word for mother sounds a lot nicer than in others, depending on your nationality. For many Americans, for example, no sound is sweeter than the greeting from your teenager who -- before complaining there's no food in the house -- utters it not as a question, but as a statement of fact: "Mom."

Not all English-speakers find it so attractive, however.

"When it comes to motherhood, we should all give thanks that we are not domiciled in America. There are few uglier assaults on the ear than someone shrieking 'Mom!' " wrote Betty Kirkpatrick in Scotland's The Glasgow Herald a while back.

All right then: Mom, in some accents, can grate. But we should also probably give thanks that we are not domiciled in the United Kingdom, where the most common form for Mother is "Mummy," sometimes "Mumsy," and in certain areas of Scotland, it's -- God forbid -- "Mammy."

Happy Mother's Day, MOM.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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