A mother’s love

by Mellissa Martinez


When two languages share a word that is similar in sound and meaning, it’s likely that those languages are either related, or, at some point in history, they intermingled so that one language borrowed from the other. There is one word, however, shared by hundreds of unrelated languages that did not derive from the same origin and was not borrowed between languages. 


This universal word can be found across the globe—from English to Swahili, Basque to Mandarin, Quechua to Xhosa, in language after language. It is often the first word uttered by humans and if we are lucky, we get to use it throughout our lifetimes. The person who gets the honor of this most pervasive word is mom. 

In the 1950s, an American anthropologist conducted a study of almost 500 languages and found that the word for ‘mother’ was ‘mama,’ ‘nana’ or contained the syllables ‘ma,’ ‘me’ or ‘mo’ in almost 60% of his sample. There is no way that this could be a coincidence. As one linguist points out, aside from the words ‘papa’ or ‘dada,’ this phenomenon does not exist across languages. He notes that “we don’t find hundreds of languages with words like gugu or hoho or zaza with the same meanings.”

In the early 1900s some suggested that ‘mama’ was so broadly used because it came from one large Proto-World language. But, this theory was soon replaced by the more tender truth. The word ‘mama’ came from babies and parents all over the world. Children go about acquiring their first language in a relatively orderly way. When babies coo, parents don’t think that they are speaking. However, when they move onto the next step, babbling, suddenly parents get excited. 

As babies begin to combine consonant, vowel sounds and repeat them, they tend to break up the easy vowel sound, produced by opening their mouths and making noise, with the easiest consonants, those that simply involve the lips, /p/, /b/, and /m/. Of the three, /m/ is slightly easier since it involves no work in the back of the mouth, and as a result the first babbling sound a baby typically makes is ‘mama’ followed by ‘papa’ and ‘baba.’ The next easiest consonants are /n/, /d/, and /t/, which lead to ‘nana,’ ‘tata’ and ‘dada’ (also words assigned to moms and dads and important loved ones).

Although babbling babies of yesteryear were simply following the necessary steps for learning, eager parents from a variety of language families heard ‘mama’ and came to the conclusion that the baby was identifying the beloved woman who had cared for her since birth. At that point the parents started using ‘mama’ to refer to the mother and together, baby and parents assigned meaning to that easy first word. 

When I think of all of the sacrifices that mothers make, it seems fitting that they should be honored with the first word that comes out of our mouths. I recently came across a Mother’s Day blog which asked people to describe their moms in one word. The responses were divided into categories with those denoting ‘loving and caring’ at the top of the list. This group was followed by words that indicate strength, then spirituality, uniqueness, steadfastness, loyalty, wisdom, and beauty. In the end, many simply referred to their moms as their best friends.

My mom certainly embodies all of these qualities and more. She taught my brothers and me to be empathetic and kind. I can remember driving around Claremont with her delivering “Meals on Wheels” to elderly Claremont residents or waiting on street corners for her to dig into her purse to offer help to every homeless person we came across.

Now in her 70s, my mom spends her Saturdays with her church group moving homeless people into apartments. Sometimes I come home from work to find that my dishes have been done or my laundry folded. She tirelessly attends all of her grandchildren’s events and is still quick to put us in our place with one of her famously witty side comments.  

The real reason for this tribute, however, is that I’d like add one more adjective to the list of descriptors for my mom—courageous. If you read last week’s COURIER you will know that my mom, Annette Stahly Martinez, saved my young son and niece from a burning house. The incident has left her shaken and the rest of us eternally grateful. In a terrifying moment, when everything could have gone wrong, she made all of the right choices. 

In recent months some of my Claremont friends have had to say goodbye to their moms, who were no doubt, equally as loving and giving as mine. At last week’s memorial service for Claremont mother-extraordinaire, Maralyn Tipping, I listened as her children shared stories of laughter, tears, compassion, soccer field-brawls and flying hamburgers…each containing nuggets of wisdom they had learned from their mother.

It occurred to me that the learning comes from really knowing our moms. From the minute we utter our first ‘mama’ we have the privilege of seeing our moms at their best and their worst. We get to learn from their advice, their examples, their love, and even their mistakes. As one author put it, “successful mothers are not the ones that have never struggled. They are the ones that never give up, despite the struggles.”

Thanks to all moms, and especially mine, for all of it…every funny, difficult, painful, blissful, embarrassing, flawed, perfect lesson.


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