November 4, 2022

“Mama”—A Word Any Baby in the World Would Understand

The word “mother” is a universal language in itself. The Korean “umma” becomes “amma” in India (Tamil), while in Nepal, it transforms into “ama.” The most common term for mother is “mama,” a universal cry for babies everywhere—from China, Japan, and the Philippines in the south; Russia in the north; Spain in the West; and Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda in Africa. There are only slight differences in pronunciation depending on the region, such as “mamma” in Italy and Germany, “maman” in French, “mamo” in Polish, “mẹ” in Vietnamese, and “mom” in English. The notable exception is classic Arabic, where mom sounds like “ommi.”


At this point, one cannot help but be reasonably suspicious of such a situation. How could all mothers on the planet teach their babies the same words? Or perhaps, the opposite is true or, at least, more reasonable. The first babbling sound all babies make in the world at birth is roughly the same as “Am~,” which is a combination of the vowel “ah” and the consonant “m.” As babies make such utterances, mothers shout in excitement.

“Oh, he’s calling [me] ‘Mom’ now.”

When babies start to recognize that their mother is nearby, and their utterances call out to the mother, this starts a form of “coding.” In fact, the universal language that is more primal than mothering is the word “Mamma.” “Mamma” is very similar to the sound that comes out when a baby exhales while sucking. When you hold your breath while sucking, you hear a nasal sound like “um,” and when you exhale, you open your mouth and make a vowel like “ah.” By putting the two sounds together, you get “um-ah,” which eventually forms “mamma,” “mam,” and so on. Babies make these utterances all around the world, and all mothers guarding their babies recognize these utterances as a way for their little ones to call out to them. Had the faathers witnessed this moment first, “mamma” could have referred to “dad”… A shame our fore-“fathers” missed that chance.

If the word “mother” is a coded meaning of the sound made by a baby, “mother” can be said to be a deliberately learned word that has developed into a more standardized form of coded meaning. Naturally, as “mother” becomes part of another language, the scope of change widens. “Mother” in English, “madre” in Italian and Spanish, “muchin” in Chinese, and “haha” in Japanese begin to widen the range of such utterances.

*For reference, lexicology is the study of vocabulary specializing in its usage and evolution. Here, “lexicon” means vocabulary. Our company name, Lexcode, is a combination of “lexicon” and “code.” Vocabulary embodies the names of things and human thoughts in writing, while codes refer to all forms of communication, including vocabulary. This way, humans can understand each other and get along well when the so-called code is accurate.


Language and culture

Studying language reveals the interconnection between humans. Nationalism is the same in English as “patriotism,” and allegiance is “loyalty.” There is no English word that fits with all languages. Although the word “filial piety” is well known, it doesn’t feel like it corresponds perfectly with the Korean word “효도,” which, according to the Naver Dictionary, means “A state of respecting and taking care of one’s parents with all one’s heart.” It would be more accurate to say that it doesn’t connect—that is, the corresponding concept does not exist in that culture. For context, in the East, family relationships are essential. When the father’s uncle, mother, and aunt go to the mother’s side, they become uncles and aunts. Even among the same children, there are words to describe the relationship subdivided into brothers, sisters, and cousins.

However, in the West, many expressions focus on accurately describing objects rather than human relationships. In Korea, expressions of size that do not come to mind, other than “big” and “giant,” are “grand,” “large,” “huge,” “jumbo,” “colossal,” “gigantic,” “massive,” “immense,” “sizable,” “vast,” “tremendous,” and so on. Different expressions exist in English with different nuances depending on the situation. More specifically, when referring to large volumes, one can say “bulky”; if the capacity is large, it is “capacious”; if there are many people, it is “crowded”; and if the space is large, it is “spacious.” An infinite number of expressions are unfolded beyond the scope of one’s vocabulary, limited only by their culture.

As another example, let’s look at the various ways to refer to “road.” Starting from a general way, you may use words like “road” or “lane,” and so on; you may traverse a “trail” or “pathway” around the forest; you may drive up a car in an “alleyway”; you can walk around a “court” or “parkway” between buildings; and you can walk down a “street” where you may encounter cars, other people going about, and various shops. There are numerous roads, such as an “avenue” that runs through buildings, a “boulevard” that is more spacious than an avenue, a “highway” that travels long distances, a “freeway” where tolls need not be paid, and a “subway” that goes underground. In addition, the exterior space of an apartment, which we often call a “veranda,” actually refers to a “balcony,” and the rooftop yard can be said to correspond to a “veranda.” Naturally, the word derived from the double-story Western-style house does not exist in Oriental buildings, as the people from that culture mainly lived in single-story houses.

As such, some concepts highly depend on the culture, but once we become familiar with their contexts, there are an infinite number of surprisingly identical terms. Everyone’s favorite bread is “pão” in Portuguese, which was introduced to Korea through Japan at the end of the Korean War. In French, it is called “pang,” while in Italian, it is called “pane.” Although Korean and Japanese claim to be independent language families, the two countries’ languages resemble each other enough that they can be mistaken for dialects, and the same rings true with Chinese. It would be more surprising if people who lived in the same area for thousands of years spoke completely different languages.

Meanwhile, there are countless words of Arabic origin, starting with “coffee,” “chemistry,” “alcohol,” “candy,” “cotton,” “guitar,” “hazard,” “garbage,” “jar,” “admiral,” “lemon,” “massage,” and so on. Even the word “magazine” is a borrowed term from Arabic.


Putting aside our differences

Despite this connection found among languages, time and again, we find ourselves facing problems born from our differences. The world is currently experiencing even greater division because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadly speaking, the United States and China are locking horns, while in Asia, Korea, China, and Japan remain not on the best terms. Even Korea and China were in a war of nerves over what BTS said in 2020 about the Korean War, while Korea and Japan are in an intense conflict over the Peace Girl statue in Germany. Moreover, even within the same country, conflicts on ideology, religion, gender, and age arise because although they speak the same or a similar language, a lack of understanding remains possible.

The Homo sapiens began their lives by learning the word “mama,” no matter where they were born on Earth. At the concept development stage, the definition of filial piety, who constitutes a distant cousin, how big a “big thing” is, and how one calls a road can be different for each person, depending on where they are, but we all drink “coffee” and read “magazines.” Barriers exist in our “concepts,” but in the end, we are all “connected.”

This connection, conceptualized starting when we were babies, is what Lexcode explores when we consider language as an opportunity and not a barrier.


Ham Chul Young, CEO of Lexcode
[email protected]

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