How Many Different Words for 'Mother' Are There?
Updated: Mar 21, 2021
Many traditions throughout history honoured women, but Anna Jarvis was the first to celebrate Mother's Day as we know it. It began in America in 1908, when Jarvis held a memorial for her mother in her local church.
Over time it grew into what we recognise now (chocolates and Zoom calls, anyone?) and is even celebrated across Asia. The placing of the apostrophe in Mother's Day was deliberate: Jarvis chose the singular form to indicate how the holiday should be personal to every family.
In Japan, it is common to give flowers - specifically carnations - on Mother's Day (母の日, Haha no Hi), which falls on the second Sunday of May.
Mother's Day in China started in 1977 to honour poorer mothers in rural towns. Some Chinese people give lilies for Mother's Day, because of an old tradition of mothers planting lilies when their children left home. Although a Western holiday, it is now widely celebrated because it ties in with the Chinese core values of respecting family and elders.
Taiwan celebrates Mother's Day alongside Buddha's birthday on the second Sunday in May (Tzu Chi Day). Meanwhile, in Thailand, Mother's Day falls on the 12th of August and serves as a celebration of the royal family.
And that's just a few Asian countries! So with so many Mother's Day celebrations globally, how many different words are there for 'mother'? Not as many as you'd think.
'Mama' appears in almost all languages, and almost always means 'mother'. In the 10 most spoken languages, there's not much variation at all:
"mama (媽媽), mama, mamá, ma, mama, mamã, maa, mama, haha and mami" (taken from https://www.parent.com/blogs/conversations/mama-is-most-universal-word)
To understand why, let's talk about babies. As they learn to babble, the simplest sounds to make are 'm', 'b', and 'p'. So, the first noises that babies make are 'mama', 'baba', and 'papa'.
In most families, the mother spends more time with the child: as the baby "talks", the mother assigns the sound 'mama' to herself. There is more global variation in the words for 'father' because his 'nickname' generally comes later (although there are exceptions). The nicknames stick and are passed down through generations, eventually forming part of the language. All of that culture from baby babbling!
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Happy Mother's Day!