Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Mothers and Fathers in European and Semitic Languages

Paul Ogden, one of the editors of the Good Word series, responded to my etymology of the word amorous and we engaged in an e-conversation I thought might interest the readers of this blog. Here it is.

Interesting etymology. Something similar happened in Hebrew and some of the other Semitic languages. The Hebrew word for mother is emm, the Aramaic word is immah, and the Arabic word is umm.

The liturgical word amen, which at its core means “confirmation, support”, is derived from the words for “mother”. Another derivation from amen is oman, Hebrew for “artist”, from the days when artists made faithful representations of what they saw. A slew of additional Hebrew words that mean loyalty, trust, reliability and so forth are in turn derived from amen.

I replied:

Fascinating. Mother and father started out the same way. Ma and pa are usually the first two “words” settled on by an infant in referring to its parents. So to these utterances were added the suffix marking members of a family: ma-ter and pa-ter. Compare brother and sister, which started out with the same suffix and—voila—the words for “mother” (mater) and “father” (pater).

Paul replied:

But there’s more:

Av is Hebrew for father. Abba is Aramaic for father. Ab is Arabic for father. I know that P and B are considered pretty much the same in historical linguistics, so we’re not too far here from papa, pappas, and the like. [The only difference between [p] and [b] is that we vibrate our vocal cords when pronouncing the latter. –RB] The noun abbot, referring to the Christian religious authority, comes from Aramaic abba.

The word abu that you sometimes see as an element in Arab male names means “father of”, e.g., Mohammed Abbas is sometimes referred to as Abu Mazen, meaning he has a son, probably his firstborn, named Mazen.

2 Responses to “Mothers and Fathers in European and Semitic Languages”

  1. Dan White Says:

    The linguistic explanation of the word ‘amen’ here needs expansion. And linking amen to mother is not incorrect but is like pointing at a pine branch on the ground and telling someone that’s a pine tree: it’s only a small part of the full picture

    The root of interest is a-m-n (אמן; within a word: אמנ) examples of places it is used and its meaning:
    +” believing” Genesis 15:6 & Exodus 4:31 והאמן
    + “being trustworthy” Numbers 12:7 נאמן
    + “caring/nursing” Numbers 11:12 האומן
    + “rearing/bringing up” Isaiah 60:4 תאמנה

    Also note the words:
    + faith אמונה ‘amun-ah’
    + trust אמון ‘ehm-oon’

    While it is evident that these concepts are ideally related to mothering, the three letter response: אמן at the end of a prayer or blessing is know to be an acronym for the phrase “אל מלך נאמן” = ‘God our faithful/dependable/true King!’

    Amen is something like American Marines going HUA!

  2. T Gibson Says:

    I am interested in discovering a language (probably Semitic) in which the words for father and mother are likie the Arabic “‘ab”and “‘um”, but which precedes these with a “y” sound, making “yab” and “yum”. Is there another language, or a dialectical variation of Arabic, or another, perhaps non-Semitic, language which tended to add this sound to Arabic words?

    If anyone has an idea about this, they could contact me directly at as well as here.

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