Why Do We Call Parents “Mom” and “Dad”?

Becky E. asks: Why do we call parents mom and dad?

dadCalling our parents anything other than mom, dad or one of the many variations thereof is an almost alien concept to many (and in some cultures is considered downright rude). So why is it we refer to our parents in this way? Where did it come from and perhaps, more curiously, is there any culture that forgoes this seemingly universal nickname custom for parental figures?

The words can be traced back to the 1500s for “dad” and the 1800s for “mom”. As with so many etymologies, where these words were first uttered and by whom is a mystery. Even the Oxford English Dictionary has admitted that they have “no evidence” on where the word “dad” originated. The word “mom”, on the other hand, is a slightly different story and it’s widely believed that the word was born from the much older word “mamma” which itself can be traced back to the 1500s in English. This, in turn, can be traced back to Latin where “mamma” meant “breast” or “teat”. From this word, we also got the word “mammalia” and later “mammal” to describe animals that suckle their young.

This brings us to the amazing part- a word extremely similar to “mom” occurs in almost every language on Earth. We don’t mean that there is a word for “mom” in every language; we mean that the word for “mom” is shockingly similar  across nearly all of the most commonly spoken languages on Earth.

For example, if you wanted to address your mother in Dutch you’d say “moeder”, if you were to travel to Germany on the other hand you’d call her “mutter” while over in Italy you’d refer to her as, “madre”. Now we know what you’re thinking, those are all European languages. So let’s mix things up a bit and list the words for mom or mother in some more, shall we say, “exotic” languages, from an English speaker’s point of view, and see if you start to notice a pattern:

  • Chinese: Mãma
  • Hindi: Mam
  • Afrikaans: Ma
  • Ancient Egyptian: Mut
  • Swahili: Mama

As you can clearly see from this list, there’s a very peculiar trend with “mom” in various languages in that it’s nearly universally pronounced with an “m” sound. If you’re still not convinced or think that we’re perhaps cherry picking examples, here’s a pretty exhaustive list of ways to say “mother” in a number of languages for you to peruse at your leisure. With a few exceptions, our favorite of which is the Mapunzugun “Ñuke”, you’ll note that they pretty much all employ an “m” and often a “ma” sound.

As for the word “dad”, while there is certainly more variation in the ways to address your man-mum in foreign languages, similar trends can be observed. For example, the word “Papa” is present in several languages including Russian, Hindi, Spanish and English, while slight variations on it appear in German (Papi), Icelandic (Pabbi), Swedish (Pappa) and a number of other languages across the globe. Likewise in Turkish, Greek, Swahili, Malay and several other languages the word for dad is “Baba” or a variation of it.

The current working theory to explain this fascinating phenomenon is that the words parents use to refer to themselves are derived from the babblings of their child during its “baby-talk” phase. It has been observed that babies, regardless of where in the world they’re born, naturally learn to make the same few sounds as they begin to learn to speak. It has also been noted that during the babbling stage, babies will create what is known as “protowords” by combining nonsensical combinations of consonants and vowels.

The really interesting part about these protowords is that they’re consistent across different cultures for reasons that aren’t quite clear. The words babies make in this early babbling stage tend to use the softer contestants like B, P and M, often leading to the creation of otherwise non-words like baba, papa and mama by the child in question.

It’s further theorised that as these are often the first sounds babies are able to make consistently, parents came to use them to refer to themselves, which explains why words like “mama”, “papa,” “dada”, “tata” and “baba” are present in so many languages as a way of addressing one’s parents. It’s usually less complex to say than the parent’s real names and works as a substitute that ultimately sticks.

As to why the “ma” sound in derivations like “mamma” came to be assigned to women instead of men, it is generally thought that it derived from the sound babies make while suckling or feeding. It’s noted that the only sound a baby can really make while its mouth is full of his or her mother’s life giving bosom is a “slight nasal murmur” or a repeated “m” sound.  Further, when the baby is hungry and sees the object of its foodie desires, it is not uncommon for the baby to, as linguist Roman Jakobson put it, “reproduced [it] as an anticipatory signal”.  While no one can prove this is how “mom” and its predecessor “mamma” came about, it would at the least explain why there is an almost universal trend of the word for mother in varying languages utilising the “m”, and often “ma” sound.

There is no such precise theory for why the word “dad” was specifically chosen (presumably from “dada”), but this lack of a good reason to assign “dada” to male parents over other variations like “papa”, “tata”, “baba”, etc. is perhaps why there is such variation on this one in terms of which repeated consonant is used to go along with the a’s in a given culture.

So is there any culture in which this nicknaming practise isn’t observed? There are certainly examples of cultures that don’t adhere to the idea of a nuclear family, but as far as applying similar types of nicknames to parental figures, not really… At least as far as we could find and we’re usually very good at this sort of thing and spent more hours than we care to admit trying to find the obligatory exception.  But if you happen to be an anthropologist or just someone who knows different and you know of an exception where children don’t commonly give their parental figures (whether truly their biological parents or not) some sort of nickname, please do let us know. We came up empty on it, which makes us a little uncomfortable as there seemingly always is at least one exception somewhere for just about any issue. Is this an exception to the rule that there is always an exception? It would seem so.

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  • philosp

    This page has translation of ‘mother’ to 171 languages, some with pronounciation audio:

    http://www.logosdictionary.org/index.php?code=4306137&from=EN

  • LOVEPAREEK

    SEEING THE TITLE, I STARTED READING IT PERFUNCTORILY GUESSING IT WILL B A BORE, BUT TURNED OUT A VERY INTERESTING AND ILLUMINATING READ. TNX KARL

  • Yocheved

    In addition to the traditional mama and dada, my daughter made up the protoword “mimi” to mean Cheerios. It took us a long time to figure out why she was pointing to a certain kitchen cabinet and yelling “Mimi!” Boy were we all relieved when we finally figured out what she wanted.

  • Rajalda

    In these days of initialisng,ma and pa are used,and when they are together,they can collectively be called mapa.

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  • Nooajnde

    In Turkish the word for mom is ‘anne’ (pronounced like an as in ‘anonym’ and ne in ‘never’).

    And in German you more commonly say ‘Papa’ instead of ‘Papi’. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t said at all but less commonly.

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  • Nicole

    This page is based on a false premise. Not every calls their parents “mom” and “dad”.

  • David

    In Japanese, Parents are called haha (mother) and chichi (father). So at least there is no “m” sound.
    There are also more respectful and complex forms, but today mama and papa are common there, too.

  • Dafydd

    The oldest Europian language is Cymraeg or Welsh.

    Mom and Dad in Welsh is Mam and Tad. Perhaps this answers your question?

    Not surprisingly, anglocentric Oxford ignore Wales and anything Welsh as being ifluential as usual. (‘no evidence’)

    There are many Brythonic/ Cymraeg words or derivatives of to be found in the English language today.

  • Leo T M

    In Finnish we call our mothers “äiti”.

  • Ian

    I have heard Romany speakers claim that “Dad” is a loan word from Romany (along with kushdy/cushy, minge/minging, shiv etc.). It is hard to say as Romany is an Indo European language, and thus has features in common with most of the languages of Europe and the Indian subcontinent, including Celtic languages (such as Welsh). British Roma also have historic links to the Balkans, and have picked up many loan words from the languages of this area, especially Bulgarian and Romanian. In Bulgaria the word tatko is used informally for father

  • Jake

    i thought “Dad” was derived from Dagda.. the male aspect of Danu in early Celtic culture. Kind of like calling your father “my creator”

  • Mac

    Dad comes from the Irish word Daidi (“Daddy”).

    Daddy-O (1960s American slang for an older man) comes from the Irish Daideo/Dado (grandfather).

    Several English words have Irish as their source, even if Webster’s does not note it as such yet..

  • Mia

    In Dutch we say mama and papa as well to their face, moeder and vader is the word we use to describe their role to others. Like the english difference between mother and mom, or father and dad…

  • Jean

    That explains why my oldest brother called our grandmother “Bobo.” Thanks for this interesting article.