In today’s state-of-the-art nursery, no different from a frigid cave thousands of years ago, a new born is helpless except for its ability to cry. It does that when it’s hungry or cold or wet, and loving care is provided. Soon, and long before it can talk, it learns that crying gets attention even if it doesn’t need anything in particular. And with the attention, there are sounds; soothing, reassuring sounds. Sooner or later the baby tries to make those sounds too, and the first attempt is, uh; the easiest sound for the human voice to make. An infant can just open its mouth and make a noise. Not the wail of vocal chords tense with anxiety, but a relaxed uhh like the sounds it’s learned to expect and enjoy.
And so it goes. Eventually the baby will begin the sound with its mouth closed or close the mouth while making it, or with the tongue at the roof of the mouth. Eureka! (A combination of sounds it may learn to make much later) One hears muh or uhm or nuh! That accomplishment is so pleasing, it must be repeated, and soon there’s muhmuhmuh or nuhnuhnuh. I believe that the first word uttered in any language, in any culture, in any time, was mama or nana.
Now! And this is important. If aunt or big sister or grandmother or dad were usually there to hear it, then that first pronouncement might be our word for aunt or big sister or grandmother or dad. But the one who is there and frequently alone, to nourish and comfort, is the one who gets the name. The baby isn’t even aware of what it’s done, but it’s pleased with the reaction.
As languages evolved, more formal terms were applied: mère, Mutter, madre, moder, mor, muter but they haven’t strayed far from that first utterance. Familiar forms are even closer: mom, mum, mommy, mammy, mamma, Mutti, mami, mamá. In two widely different cultures, Persian and French, it’s maman. In Korean, it’s uhmuh, in Hebrew, eemah. In the Phillipines, where the native language is Tagalog, the word is nanay. I haven’t examined every language on earth, but I have questioned natives of every continent. I’ve never been given anything but a close variation.
For months, while changing diapers, strolling in the garden, crooning lullabies, holding bottles and bathing, I repeated endlessly: da da da da. My child would just return a toothless smile. When she finally put two syllables together for me, it was “muh muh.” Her mother was overjoyed!
I’ve heard proud fathers say that the first word their child learned was – , and then deliver some tongue twister that’s even hard to spell. I just smile. Maybe it was the first word the child learned, but I bet it wasn’t the first word the child said.
In hospital emergency rooms and critical care units, from death-beds at home or hospice, at accident scenes and on battlefields, it’s often the last word too.
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