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?