In Egypt, it’s the teacher that calls the students ‘Mom’

I was the only foreigner sitting in a classroom of Egyptian twenty-somethings, trying my best to sound just smart enough to let my classmates go on believing I was half Arab of some variety during a remedial Arabic grammar class. Suddenly, a distraction grabbed by attention:

فين المبتدا يا ماما؟ يا ماما!!؟

“Where’s the subject, mom? Mom!!?”

I looked around for some sort of reaction, like the giggles and pointing that always broke out in elementary school when one unfortunate student accidentally called the teacher ‘mom.’ No no, this situation was the reverse: it was our professor that had called the student ‘mom,’ and it was absolutely, 100% fine.

In Egypt, and other significant portions of the Arab world, I’ve been told, mothers and fathers often refer to their children in the second person as ‘mama’ (mom) and ‘baba’ (dad). When I asked a Lebanese friend about this, she couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer for herself, and said, “I guess it’s so they know what to call you–mom, or dad.” This speech pattern also makes its way into many interactions between adults. It’s hard to pin down an exact context in which this happens, but if I said, for example, that I’m feeling a bit down to a friend, they might respond in a coo-ey type voice with ليه يا بابا؟ – literally “Why, dad?” It’s also interesting to note that use of ‘mama’ vs. ‘baba’ doesn’t depend on the gender of the person speaking or being addressed and seems to be quite random–a rare phenomenon in such a gendered language as Arabic.

Does anyone have insight into why ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ are used this way in Arabic? Does this speech pattern appear in other languages?

14 comments

  1. Hey,
    I don’t know why “mama” and “baba” are used in Arabic, but in dome regions of Mexico (and some other places of Latin America) family members might use “papá”, “papito” or “papi” for boys and “mamá”, “mamita” or “mami” for girls, when speaking to a child; the child might be their son or daughter, nephew or niece, grandson or granddaughter, or even just the child of a close friend. It is not something everyone uses, but you can hear it in different cultural contexts, public and private spaces, and it might come to show love and affection or despair for their inhability to complete a simple task.
    Another example can be heard between two grown men, when the use of “papá!” emphazises the greatness of the other: “Tú eres el héroe de esta película, papá!” which can be translated as: “You are the hero of this movie, dad!”
    So, yes, it does happen in at least one other language.
    From México, Al-Baba 😛

    1. ‘Despair for their inability to complete a simple task’ is exactly how it’s often used in Egypt too. I feel like if this has managed to appear with similar usage in two languages, there must be more.

      Also, do you think that the gender of the person you’re talking to is taken into account when the speaker chooses between mama/papa in Spanish? That’s the one really strange thing about how mama/baba are used in the Arabic version.

  2. In Jordan, my experience was that the parent called their child what the child should be calling them, so a father would call sons AND daugthers “baba” (or more common in the Palestinian/Jordanian, “yaba”) while the mother would call sons and daughters “yama” (again, in the Levant “baba” and “mama” is more Lebanese/Syrian). But it seems to be a privilege extended to any adult who knows the kids well, so I could call my landlord’s kids “yaba” after I played with them a few times. So like you said there are several dynamics, usually where one person is in authority or taking the role of a parent (playing with child, taking care of child, friend comforting friend, teacher vs. student, etc). In fact, I’ve been known to call my students “yaba” in class!

    And ditto on the Spanish usage, though in my experience it is generally a Central American phenomenon, not a South American one (certainly not a Colombian one!).

    1. In Lebanon, if you were the neighbor, or even a stranger, you’d call the child 3ammu or 3ammittu if you are a woman. Here, too, the grandfather calls the grandchild židdu.

      1. Yeah this is the same all over the Levant I think – older men of any reasonably informal relationshippy-stripe are 3ammo, older women of the same age are probably khaalto (though 3ammto and khaalo for feminine and masculine instead are also heard). Even taxi drivers are 3ammo. Likewise, everybody calls all children they encounter 3ammo (or khaalto), and are called that in reverse. Weirdly enough, yaa 3amm is also used (as in Egyptian) to mean something like ‘man’ to someone your age.

        Incidentally, in Egypt this got me some strange looks. I got some consolation from a Syrian friend from a small village telling me about when he first went to university and called his professor 3ammo (thinking it was respectful) and got in trouble for it.

        I’ve recently heard in Syrian drama (though never in real life) maamto used not to teachers but to close older women. Possibly it is also used in schools, I’ll find out.

  3. Yeah, in Jordan it’s 100% about the gender of the person speaking, not the person being spoken to. Moms call their little boys “la, ya mama” just as the would to the girls. I have been called “mama” by older Syrian refugee women as well. It’s real life.

  4. Hi! This is extremely common in Georgian.

    For example the grandma calls her grandkids: Grandma,

    the maternal aunt calls her nieces and nephews: Maternal Aunt, and so on!!

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