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The words for "mother" and "father" in at least a few language families have a phonetic similarity which I find interesting. Compare the Latin and Greek words (μήτηρ/πατήρ mater/pater) with the (ancient) Hebrew words (אב/אם) with the Mandarin words (Mǔqīn/Fùqīn). The three sets of words all have a nasal consonant in a prominent position (the phoneme /m/) for the word mother. They also have a plosive or a fricative in a prominent position (the phonemes /p/, /b/, /f/, and /v/) for the word father. Is this just a coincidence, or could there possibly be a psychological (or even biological) reason why plosives/fricatives are linked to "father" and nasals are linked to "mother"?

I realize that the answer is most likely, "It's just a coincidence," or, "It's actually different in this other language family", but I thought it would do no harm to ask. The coincidental phonemic similarity between the three families is a little striking, after all.

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The basic explanation is based on a combination of infant anatomical development and parental expectation. Infants don't initially know how to control their velum, so everything is nasalized. Also, when breastfeeding a child has to lower the velum (to breath). This weights the probabilities in favor of the word for "mother" having a nasal. They initially can best control their lips and jaws (lips are vastly more important for breastfeeding that the tongue is, so naturally lip-control is really important).

Random babbling from an infant is most likely to generate syllables like [ma] and then [ba], as compared to [na], [da]. Parental expectation comes in because the most likely parental response to a child randomly babbling something language-like is "They're referring to me!". The tendency to associate [ma] with mothers and [ba] with fathers is founded on the fact that infants have more frequent interactions with mothers than with fathers, and [ma] is the most likely candidate for a "first recurrent syllable".

The standard words in languages were conventionalized a really long time ago, hence "mother" and "father" don't particularly resemble "ma" and "ba", unless you know a bit more about Indo-European historical linguistics. Even epithets like "mama", "papa" (or "daddy") are conventionalized though subject to a more variation than the standard lexical items. See for example the relative uniformity of "mama" for mothers, but more variation for fathers, being "dada" or "baba" (or voicing variants tata, papa).

One of the most stable consonants in language is [m], so there is no common path whereby [ma] becomes something else. But [ba] easily changes to [pa], from which [fa].

So in summary, there are natural physical reasons for utter [ma] correlated with the presence of mother, and [ba] correlated with the presence of father; parents then interpret there phonations as referential, which encourages the conventionalization or [mama] as a word meaning "mother", because parents believe that the child its referring to them.

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    Another common argument for the primacy of bilabials in acquisition is that they are the only articulatory gesture that can be visually identified and imitated. Stops are acoustically especially salient and also easy to replicate so possibly easier to acquire than fricatives, approximates and the like. Hence /b, m, p/. – Florian Breit Aug 24 '17 at 19:11
  • The formal Japanese word for 'mother' is 'haha', originating via phonetic change from 'papa' in Old Japanese. 'Manma' in Japanese is a child's word for 'food'. So for Japanese parents, maybe food came first, then Mum? – Bathrobe Nov 27 '18 at 9:46

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