I noticed that the Sumerian words for mother and father, ama and abba respectively, are very similar to the Hebrew words for mother and father, being ema and abba respectively. Given that Sumerian is not in the Afro-Asiatic language family, let alone the Semitic one, are the words for father and mother unrelated in each language, or are they Semitic loanwords into Sumerian (or vice versa)?

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    You will also notice that the words for mother and father are the same in very many other languages :)
    – Keelan
    Commented May 21, 2020 at 16:48
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    @Keelan you do have a good point
    – iat
    Commented May 21, 2020 at 16:56
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    A relevant question and answer re apparent similarities between 'mother' and 'father' terms: linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/869/363 Commented May 21, 2020 at 22:21
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    it's also worth pointing out that the Hebrew words for mother and father are not ema and abba, but em and av respectively. I believe you are confusing them with the Syriac Aramaic emma and Jewish Aramaic abba I also edited the question to fix the incorrect use of "respectively" (the Hebrew and Sumerian words for father had been given first despite being described as the translations for mother and father respectively)
    – Tristan
    Commented May 22, 2020 at 9:30

1 Answer 1


First off, it's worth noting that the main contact between Semitic and Sumerian involved Akkadian, not Hebrew, and the Akkadian words are a bit different—"mother" is ummu, and "father" is abu. And there was another Sumerian word for "father", ad(a); ab(a) probably originally meant "elder" (it's sometimes translated into Akkadian as šību, "elder" or "witness"). This makes the loan hypothesis a bit less likely.

But even so, this is a very striking coincidence. Compare also Navajo amá, Mandarin māma, Swahili mama, English mama, all meaning "mother". Why do all these words look so similar across the world? Surely they can't all be loanwords or cognates?

The main hypothesis is that it comes from baby-talk, the first sounds infants are able to make as they learn to speak. /m/ is generally the first consonant they figure out, and /a/ is the first vowel, so it makes sense that babies' first words would be along the lines of /ama/ or /mama/. The same goes for words like /papa/, /baba/, /tata/, or /dada/, which use sounds that get figured out fairly soon after. So the vast majority of the world's languages have words for "mother" and "father" that follow this pattern.

(It's also worth noting that many languages use the nasal sound for "mother" and the oral sound for "father", but this isn't a universal—you can also find many languages which have them reversed! The most famous example I can think of is Georgian mama "father" vs deda "mother".)

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    Also Japanese haha ‘mother’, which is from Old Japanese papa, though ‘father’ is chichi (from titi), so they have two plosives and no nasals. (And haha is unusual in that it’s clearly a baby-talk word, but it’s been allowed to at least semi-regularly follow the sound shift /p/ > /h/. Most baby-talk words and onomatopoeia resist sound change.) Commented May 21, 2020 at 21:25
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    @JanusBahsJacquet it's not that unusual. "Mother" and "father" both probably originate as baby talk *meh2 "ma" and *peh2 "pa" plus the common familial suffix *-ter-s and both evolved regularly (including the p of the onomatopoeic section > f in Germanic and > Ø in Celtic). Onomatopoeias should be expected to evolve regularly, they're just prone to replacement (either from a new onomatopoeia, or another term) if they deviate too far from their source
    – Tristan
    Commented May 22, 2020 at 15:33
  • @Tristan They probably arose that way in PIE, yes, but they were not onomatopoetic anymore when the later sound changes occurred; they were lexemic by then. There is no Germanic *fafa meaning ‘father’, nor is there a Celtic *a-a. Whether or not onomatopoeia change and are then replaced or just don’t change at all is probably not possible to answer; the fact that they frequently contain sounds which don’t exist as phonemes in the language might indicate the latter, but no more. At any rate, haha is unusual in having changed and deviated quite far without being analogically replaced. Commented May 22, 2020 at 16:10
  • @Tristan I forgot to mention: *ph2tér is likely not ‘pa’ plus familial suffix at all, but rather the origin (along with *dhugh2tér and possibly *bhréh2ter as well) of the suffix -(h2)ter becoming a familial suffix from being just a regular agent noun. That would make *ph2tér lexemic from the get-go, though there is little doubt that *māter is a baby word with a familial suffix. Commented May 23, 2020 at 7:16
  • @JanusBahsJacquet. The big problem with this is that the people who say that historic /a/ comes from *h² also believe that historic /ā/ comes from *eh², so there is no place for *māter- in the hypothetical proto-language.
    – fdb
    Commented May 23, 2020 at 15:27

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