In nearly every language, we find shortened nicknames for parents, siblings, or other family members. And almost universally, we find that children often refer to their mothers as “mama,” “mamma,” or “momma,” but which one is correct?
There is no difference in meaning between “momma” and “mama.” “Mama” is the most common English spelling, but this varies locally based on personal preference, culture, and dialect – making either form acceptable. These shortened names for “mother” are phonetically similar and reflect the start of language acquisition as babies begin to string sounds together.
The word “mama” conveys the same meaning in 10 of the most spoken languages universally. Read on to learn more about variations in spelling and sound for names representing “Mother.”
The Etymology of “Mama” and “Momma”
When we refer to a word’s etymology, we are looking at its origin and history and how it has developed and even changed over time (source).
Origin of Mama, Mamma, and Momma
The word “momma,” spelled with an “o,” is an American English version or variant of “mamma” or “mama.” Its origin seems to be rooted in the southern states and first appeared somewhere around 1810.
The words “mamma” and “mama” represent the duplication of the initial “ma” sound that is universal in reference to the formal name of “mother.”
We find this parallel in some of the most spoken Indo-European languages throughout the world. These two shortened versions of the word mother, mama and mamma, date much earlier than that of “momma.”
“Mamma,” spelled with two “m’s,” is the older form in English, dating to at least the 1570s, while linguists link mama, spelled with one “m,” to the early 1700s.
From the Mouths of Babes
In many ways, the natural sound of “ma” is one of the easiest to produce by babbling babies learning how to speak their first words.
When parents react to a sound in a way the baby receives positively, such as the sound of “ma,” a baby will surely repeat that sound to achieve a similar positive reaction from his or her parents.
Thus, as young toddlers begin to learn more words and sounds, the repetition of the initial “ma” sound, both in “mama” — spelled with either one or two “m’s” — and “momma” is quite common.
And contrary to what we may assume, for babies, the endearing term likely does not actually mean “mother” at all, but rather a sound repeated to mean “food.”
Interestingly, however, the words mama and papa, the latter being the patriarchal shortened variant of “father,” are not cognates.
Cognates are words with a common origin, and they often appear in a common language or languages (source). Cognates are also very frequently used words understood across multiple different languages.
While it seems counterintuitive given the similar pattern, linguists consider “mama” and “papa” as “false cognates” because, despite the similar sound and meaning, their etymologies differ (source).
“Papa” is an affectionate, shortened name for “father,” similar to that of “mama.”
But “Papa” is the French word for “father,” derived from Latin, and its first use by common English folk has been traced back to the end of the 18th century, later than that of its maternal counterpart. The native English term was “daddy” (source).
Mama – A Universally Shared Meaning
According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), the word “mama” is defined simply as “mother” (source).
While there are instances where the term is used as slang to refer to an attractive woman or even a female passenger, its basic definition across multiple cultures and languages is the same — a term of endearment for mother.
Earlier, we said that the term “mama” is a shared one and common among the most spoken languages in the world. Still, even in reference to non-Indo-European languages, we also find very similar sounds corresponding to the word “mother.”
Some examples are slight variations of “mama,” including “ama” in Navajo or “eomma” in Korean.
A Lesson in Phonics: Slight Variations in “Mama” and “Momma”
Thus far, we’ve focused primarily on the sound of both “mama” and “momma” rather than the spelling. Here, we’ll look more closely at how we reflect sounds in spelling.
Regardless of your language of origin, as we learn to read, we begin to make connections between how we view the sounds of words and how we represent those sounds by letters (source).
This is the basis for phonics instruction — making connections between sounds and letters and identifying patterns in both spelling and syllables.
Breaking Down the Syllables
A syllable is essentially a unit of sound or pronunciation that creates the basis for meaning in language (source).
Every syllable must contain at least one vowel, but it can have more than one vowel as well as more than one consonant. However, the rule for syllables comes down to sound — a syllable can make only one sound.
In this way, as we join syllables together, we create words.
If we break down “mama” into syllables, we find that we have two distinct sounds/syllables repeated — “ma” and “ma,” one consonant followed by two vowels.
Similarly, for “momma,” there are two syllables/sounds — “mom” and “ma.” The sounds these two words make are nearly identical, with a slight difference in the first syllable.
We can pronounce the word “momma” with more of a shortened “u” sound in the first syllable, [MUH – MA]. Others will pronounce momma with a similar sound to that of mama, with a stronger shortened “a” sound, [MAH – MA].
British vs. American Pronunciation
The only time you’ll hear a strong variance in pronunciation is when comparing British English with American English.
In terms of British English, you will more often hear and see the term “mum,” with a stronger emphasis on the “u” sound (though still short), rather than “mom” or “mama.”
When pronouncing syllables, there is one basic rule to follow: If at least one consonant follows a single vowel in a syllable, that vowel will result in a short sound, such as the sound we hear in each of the three spellings “mama,” “mamma,” or “momma.”
There are quite a few other rules for phonics, but this basic one helps us understand why there are so many spelling variations for the word “mama.”
But this is one reason why determining the correct spelling for some English words is a challenge. Some sounds are so similar that identifying the correct letter can be somewhat subjective.
Additionally, as with most rules, there are exceptions, making a precise answer even more difficult.
Nonetheless, languages are ever-evolving. As we become more comfortable with the cultural context and particular regional nuances, it’s much easier to identify the most commonly preferred spellings for many of these more idiosyncratic words.
Spelling Variations within the Alphabetic Writing System
The American English alphabetic writing system operates on the idea that letters reflect sounds in a linear sequence.
We are able to quite literally “sound out” a word, with the exception of some more complicated sounds such as those represented by digraphs — letter combinations like “th” or “gh,” for example.
These are often considered sight words as children learn to read because rather than “sounding out” a word, they must memorize these phonetic sounds and patterns.
When we look at “mama,” then, it’s simple enough to identify the letter combination to recreate the sound represented by the meaning of the word.
What’s challenging is that we can represent those sounds in multiple ways, with a variation in the letters “a” and “o,” as well as whether or not we double the “m” in mama to create “mamma.”
A great deal of that variation comes down to the cultural norms that exist for consistency in spelling. That “consistency,” as it is related to writing, is called orthography, or the conventional spelling system of a language.
The variance that we find is a result of the fact that consistency in spelling takes time to develop.
And with words like “mamma,” “mama,” and “momma,” there is not a perfect equivalence between a single sound and a single letter.
People tend to write what they’ve seen before, rather than what may be a better, more specific match between sound and letter (source).
Which Is Correct?
So, what is the answer with regard to which spelling for “mama” is correct? While “mama” is the most common form, the truth is that they are all correct (source).
The pronunciation is slightly different, and you may find the spelling of “momma” appears more frequently in one section of the country versus another.
The variance also exists quite frequently, depending on whether in the US or another English-speaking country.
What about Capitalization?
Before we move on, it’s important to take note not only of spelling but when you should capitalize words like “mama” or “momma.” These words are nouns (people), and nouns only need to be capitalized when they are considered “proper.”
A proper noun is a noun that refers to a specific person, place, thing, or organization (source). For example, a particular city or state, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a proper noun. A person’s name is also considered a proper noun.
Therefore, in writing, if you are using the term “mama” or “momma” to refer to a specific mother, then it should be capitalized. If you are speaking in general terms, you do not need to capitalize the word.
The Many Ways to Say “Mother”
In many languages, there are multiple words for concepts that are important for a particular culture. And universally, the concept of mother is an important one. It may be one reason why there are a few different ways to identify a person as a mother.
Whether you choose to use “mama,” “mamma,” or “momma,” the similarities in both sound and even spelling across languages is striking.
Below you’ll see just a few examples of how to say “mother” in a few different languages. As you will notice, they are quite similar to English.
|Bosnian||“Majka” or “Mama”|
|Dutch||“Moeder” or “Mam”|
|French||“Mere” or “Maman”|
|Italian||“Madre” or “Mamma”|
|Russian||“Mama” or “Matushka”|
|Spanish||“Mama,” “Mzazi,” or “Mzaa”|
|Swedish||“Mamma” or “Mor”|
Quite a few of the languages listed above also use a variance of “mama,” with either one or two “m’s,” and “momma” (source).
Other Words Spanning Multiple Languages
Other words also sound the same — and have the same meaning — across multiple languages, which can prove quite helpful when traveling to a different country or learning a new language.
A few examples include the word “attention,” which is spelled and pronounced similarly in French and sounds very much the same in Spanish as it does in English.
Other examples include “excellent,” which carries the same meaning and sound in German, though, in German, it is spelled a bit differently, with a “z” instead of a “c.” A few other words that you’ll find sound and mean the same thing in quite a few different languages include “coffee,” “banana,” and even “taxi.”
Much of this comes down to a similar root language and cognates, which we learned about earlier, are words that have a similar origin.
If you are interested in learning about more words that have similar spellings, sometimes one correct and the other incorrect and other times simply a nuance in meaning, take a look at “Half or Halve” or “Ti versus Tu: What’s the Difference Between these Spanish Words.”
Spelling can be tricky, especially when it comes to words with multiple spellings, all of which are considered correct. But it can also prove immensely helpful in the end, especially when learning a new language.
When in doubt, ask a native speaker, of course, but, for the most part, trust your instincts and rely on what you’ve most commonly seen.
One helpful hint is to keep a copy of both the Oxford New Essential Dictionary and Dreyer’s English (a style guide) at your fingertips.
These tools will help you to navigate some spelling complexities and nuances in meanings for various words in English, including words like “mama” and “momma.”