Oh, mama

Image: Anela R/ Adobe stock images.

The current story we are writing is set in the southern hemisphere. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just turned out that way as the novel progressed. That’s fine by me. I know all about living south of the equator and as a result it’s easier to write some of the world-building components.

Today I was writing about the weather, and one of the characters says to another, “That wind is straight from the south. I think it’ll snow.”

That’s going to jar some of our northern-hemisphere readers out of the story. After all, for those of you who live north of the equator, I expect that a south wind is a hot wind, much like our north wind is here. If we haven’t done our world-building well enough some readers will say, “This author has no idea,” and become a little less involved in the story.

No matter how hard an author tries, things the reader is unfamiliar with always have the potential to drag a reader out of the story.

One of these, for me, is the word ‘mom’.

Here in Australia our general form of address is Mum and Dad, so when I come across Mom there’s always this jarring moment where reality intrudes and takes me out of the book and plonks me right back into twenty-first century North America. I’m sure, likewise, Americans (and some Canadians) have a similar reaction to ‘mum’.

That’s why, in our stories, unless we’re trying for a particularly Australian tone (here’s looking at you, Danny and Gibbo) we’ll often try for different terms for parents. In this current book it’s Ma and Da, but you have to be careful with what you use. Ma and Da give the book what I’d call an almost peasant feel. Which works in this case because the story has a rural setting, but Ma and Pa aren’t exactly elegant, are they. What do rich people call their parents? Mother and Father? Mama and Papa? The problem is that naming parents is something everyone (or almost everyone) does. As a result it comes with a lot of preconceived stereotypes. Calling someone ‘mother’ conveys a different relationship that calling them Mom or Mum. A more formal one, and probably one from a family with more money. Mama (or Maman) and Papa are exotic and slightly foreign, and so on. At least, to this reader they are.

6 replies on “Oh, mama”

It always fascinates me those maps they do of regional word preferences like soda vs pop. I googled and found one of the articles I had read on it I grew up in Southern IL, moved to Maine, then to Canada with stops in the deep south along the way so linguistics that just change regionally are so interesting to me because I bumped up against them as a teenager often.

Ah, language variations. Right now I’m travelling and we’d just arrived in New South Wales, from Victoria. We’re on the coast, it’s still freezing cold and the wind is biting. We want something hot but not too much because it’s only two hours to lunch. So we decide on a potato cake (Victorian terminology for a battered slice of potato). At the pier kiosk we then have to order potato scallops. I’m always worried I’ll get it wrong and they’ll give us actual scallops instead. (Sherylyn’s allergic to a lot of seafood.)

I was born in NZ to European parents who I called Mummy and Daddy until they died. My father called his Dutch mother, at her request, by her first name. My mother, on the other hand, called her Hungarian mother Anya (a very formal term for Mother). Interestingly, while I refer to myself as Mummy, my adult daughter (an American) calls me and her father, Mum and Dad. I’ve no idea where she picked up that Mum.

I look forward to reading your next book, Karen, wherever it might be set!

The constant use of “mom” (especially in headlines, defaulting to short) grates on me. I (and few in my family) have ever used that. Mothers are “mama.” I never called my father “daddy” either. He chose, before I was born, to be “pappy” because that’s what his father called his. (My father said “mother” and “father.”) This is an interesting old-fashioned/new-fangled example: my grandfather was the oldest of nine children, born 1886. He and his older siblings called their parents “mammy” and “pappy.” For the younger ones, that was embarrassingly old-fashioned and they called them “mama” and “papa.”

As for the wind, around here it comes from the west, cold or warm. Any other directions are temporary.

I refer to my parents as my mum and my father, but when I speak to them it’s Mor (danish for mum) and daddy. Could not imagine saying mom and dad! Strangely, my niece and nephew, both born in Denmark, call their mums Mama, as does my very much younger Swiss sister.

I’m interested, I don’t think I’d ever do it but how would you feel if someone like us–from a different country–used a word like Mor? Do you think we’d even be able to get it righ?

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