Why every baby around the world’s first word starts with the letter M

Love doesn’t need a whole word to get its message across.
Love doesn’t need a whole word to get its message across.
Image: Reuters/Andres Martinez Casares
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Why is it that babies the world over, each exposed to thousands of disparate languages from birth, reward their mothers with roughly the same first word starting with the letter “m”?

New research published this week in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences speaks to the reason. The study by an international team of physicists, linguists and computer scientists compared common sounds across nearly two-thirds of the world’s 6,000 spoken languages, and found similar sounds and meanings were used in widely disparate tongues. It suggests that we may have an inherent sense of language, beyond culture, which is primal or possibly biological.

These new findings challenge a basic assumption of traditional linguistics, namely that the sound of words and their meanings aren’t related. Instead, the research suggests that common sounds exist across languages for concepts inherent to human experience.

For example, the concept of the color red is more likely to have an “r” in it than words for other concepts. Similarly, the “m” sound in the word “mama,” which holds across cultures and languages regardless of the formal words used for “mother,” is thought to derive from the way feeding babies shape their mouths while breastfeeding.

Using new technology developed to encompass a massive amount of language data, the researchers found that similarities arose especially in vocabulary describing bodies, property, and natural phenomena. About 100 basic words—such as nose and tongue, or small and full—used like sounds in unrelated languages. For example, the word for “nose” is likely across languages to have a “neh” or “oo” sound, while “tongue” is likely to have an “l” in many languages (like “langue” in French or “lashon” in Hebrew).

Certain sounds were also consistently avoided for some concepts, particularly in pronouns. Words for “I” (i.e. myself) are thus unlikely to include the sounds u, p, b, t, s, r and l. Meanwhile, “you” rarely includes u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r and l. The example in English, “you” is an exception, which is why the average multilingual who is exposed to a handful of languages might not notice these patterns in everyday speech.

Morten H. Christiansen, professor of psychology and director of Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, told Cornell the findings indicate a connection between language and the human condition. The common sounds are used for concepts that children learn early in life, though the study’s authors aren’t yet sure what more to make of the results. In the very least, it’s a reminder that we are all more alike than we think.