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Why, in so many languages, do words for 'mother' start with M? In Mandarin Chinese, the word is "ma"; in Hindi, it's "maa." Vietnamese say "me," and Malaysians "emak." In Swahili, it's "mama." This is not coincidence, linguists say. The words all reflect the first sounds that human babies make. "Ah," "ee," and "oo" are the first forms of speech from a baby, regardless of what language his or her parents speak. These vowel sounds are soon combined with labial (Latin for "lip") consonants B, D, M, and P. Hence: "bah," "dah," "mah," and "pah." Similar words in other languages may have different family connotations, however. In the Republic of Georgia, the word for "father" is "mama." A mother, meanwhile, is "deda."

Source: 'Letter Perfect,' by David Sacks (Broadway Books, 2003).

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