'Ema' – queen bee or mother of waters – mother words in our mother tongue

The bee queen and companions.
The bee queen and companions. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second Sunday of May is Mother's Day in Estonia. It was first celebrated nationwide under the auspices of the Temperance Society of Women (Naiste Karskusliid) in 1923, exactly 100 years ago. In their column "Keeleminutid" ("Language Minutes"), Maria Tuulik and Kristina Koppel of the Estonian Language Institute (EKI) discuss the origins and associations of the word "ema" (mother).

"Ema" (mother) is one of the most indigenous words in Estonian. It is an ancient word that stems from Proto-Uralic. It is believed that the word originated phonetically from children's speech. The term has a large number of derivatives and conjunctions in modern Estonian.

While the connection to the root term is rather obvious in some derivations, such as "emadus" (motherhood), "emand" (queen), "emakas" (uterus) and "emalik" (maternal), we do not immediately see it in "emis" (sow). There are also many conjugations of "mother" ranging from common to poetic, such as "maaema" (Mother Earth), "veteema" (Mother of Waters) or "tuuleema" (Wind Mother).

When describing the animal kingdom, we also use the term "mother." For example, "kassipojad (kittens, literally: cat's sons) played with their mother's tail" or "mesilasema (queen bee, literally: bee-mother) is the largest bee in the hive." The Estonian term "kanaema" (mother hen) refers to an overprotective mother, akin to "helikopterema" (helicopter mother), whereas "rongaema" (raven mother) is a mother who does not care enough about her offspring.

If we look at the corpus of the Estonian language from 2021 and evaluate with which other words the term "mother" is most frequently paired, we find that the most common phrases are related to the mother's age and time spent as a mother: young, future, new and old mother. In the case of the father, the question of age is significantly less prevalent; for example, the phrase "young father" occurs nine times less frequently than "young mother."

The terms pertaining to the mother's body stand out among the nouns: mother's womb, belly, arms, breast and thigh. These relationships indicate the importance of the physical connection in defining the term. This is understandable considering that we are born with a mother and that physical connection to our mother is critical in the early stages of our development.

The most common positive evaluative adjectives are dear, good, kind and loving. The accompanying verbs reveal mother's function as a caregiver: mother teaches, nurtures, loves, worries and cares. With the word "father," the father's role as the family breadwinner comes to the fore: the father works, pays and buys.

ChatGPT reached a similar conclusion when asked to compare the mother's and father's contexts of use. The word "mother" is commonly linked with nurturing, affection and support, whereas the father is commonly connected with authority and discipline.

Of course, what's more important than determining which tasks are best suited to the mother or father is ensuring that the child's needs are met and that all family members are happy with their living arrangements. There are many types of families in Estonia, including working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, mothers with many children, mothers with a single child, mothers with a partner or single mothers. We wish you all a happy Mother's Day!


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Editor: Kaspar Viilup, Kristina Kersa

Source: "Keeleminutid"

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