Linguist Brian Loo Soon Hua helps answer the question.
Walk along the streets of Beijing and listen carefully to the little toddlers calling for their mothers while out on an evening stroll and what do you hear? 妈妈 or māma. On the other side of the world you’ll hear Spanish children crying for mamá while Italian and French babies want their mamma and maman respectively. That’s not all. In East Africa, Swahili-speakers say mama and Arab-speaking children often call their mothers yemma. And in tropical Malaysia, it’s not unusual for mothers to be addressed as mak. The sound ma is almost universal in Europe, and very common even among completely unrelated languages spoken in faraway places. How did this come about? How did one syllable become so deeply entrenched in children’s vocabularies the world over?
If that’s not curious enough, what about the way we say “father”? Looking at words referring to fathers, the most common ones are basically variations of baba, papa, dada and tata. Even if English speakers have the word “father”, most children would rather say “daddy” or “pa” or some variation of these. The mystery deepens.
Some linguists believe that the simplest explanation lies in the very first sounds babies make. Hungry babies only have to open their mouths wide and scream AAAAAAH to pronounce their first vowel, A. Later, as they start playing around with their mouths, all they have to do is to close and open their lips to make an M, their very first consonant. Voilà, they’ve discovered another sound! Adults hearing babies making this charming string of mamama sounds might think that the babies are calling out to them. A mother would then naturally assume that she’s the one being addressed, and so would refer to herself as mama!
Another theory is that babies naturally produce nasal murmuring sounds, like a very soft mhmh-mhmh while breastfeeding. Indeed, mamma means “breast” in Latin and this also happens to be the source of both “mammary” and “mammal”.
So, what about “papa”, “daddy” and the other names children call their fathers? Well, once babies learn to say “ma” or “mama” and naturally start toying around with their newfound gift of speech, they soon discover that if they hold their lips close together with more force and for a longer time, or if they puff air out from their mouths while doing that, they will inevitably make “ba-“ or “pa-“ sounds. Progressing from this discovery, they might even start experimenting by moving their tongues about inside their mouths as they babble. When they figure out that they can also make sounds by raising the tips of their tongues and touching them against the soft ridge behind their front gums, they end up producing “ta-“ or “da-“ sounds. Noticing their babies babbling with these exciting new sounds, proud fathers now think that they’re the ones being addressed!
However, there are notable exceptions to this. In Georgian, for some reason, the usual meanings seem to have been switched around: deda means “mother” and mama means “father”! In ancient Japanese, “mother” used to be pronounced papa and “father” used to be titi although the pronunciation has shifted to haha and chichi in modern Japanese.
Hawaiian is even more interesting, as it doesn’t even have specific words for “mother” and “father”! Yes, that’s right, in the Hawaiian language all relatives of one’s parents’ generation are simply called makua. A mother is a makua hine or “female makua” and this term equally applies to one’s mother’s sisters and female cousins, one’s father’s sisters and female cousins, as well as the wives of the mother’s brothers and the wives of the father’s brothers! Makua hine thus covers the semantic range of the English words “mother” and “aunt”. Likewise, one’s father is one’s makua kāne or “male makua”, and one would also use this to mean “father’s brothers and male cousins”, “mother’s brothers and male cousins”, as well as “husbands of one’s father’s sisters” and “husbands of one’s mother’s sisters”! Makua kāne, therefore, corresponds to both the English terms “father” and “uncle”.
Finally, the most extreme case is that of the Amazonian Pirahã language. The Pirahã tribe use a single word, baíxi, to refer to one’s mother, father, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers! It is used to refer to anyone worthy of respect or to whom one wishes to express submission.
We can safely say that the profusion of similar words for “mother” and ”father” in a huge number of languages, related and unrelated, is largely due to the natural development of speech in babies. There are, however, quite a few interesting exceptions, proving that languages can be unpredictable, complex and above all, fun to learn.