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Small children call their mother 'mama' not only in English but in lots of languages. Wikipedia lists thirty examples, but there are those who say that 'mama' is universal.


A prevailing theory is that, when babies have still not acquired language, they tend to work their mouths and tongues, creating sounds without meaning. The easiest sounds to produce include /m/ and /a/.


But it's adults, not babies, who assign the meaning of 'mother' to the sound maa maa. When the baby says 'maa maa' the mother reacts, and reaction is the basis of language.


One interesting case is that of Japanese. Japanese kids do call their mothers "mama", but this is regarded as a loan word from the West. (In contrast to the theorized origins of 'mama' in baby babble, the Japanese word 'o-kaa-san' is actually difficult for some small children to pronounce: they'll say 'o-kaa-shan' instead.)


But the word 'mamma', pronounced essentially the same, is a native bit of Japanese baby-talk that means not mother but food.


It happens that in Japan, when babies produce the meaningless sounds 'maa maa', mothers react not as if their name has been called, but as if food has been requested. Thus, babies learn that 'mamma' means food.


In this way, the Japanese language has assigned a meaning to 'mama' that differs from the meaning found in much of the rest of the world.