Mother Mama Mommy Mom
In Finland, children usually call their parents äiti and isä, which mean mother and father. There are also more informal names for parents, like Isi (Daddy) and Mutsi (Ma – or something like Ma). But even the littlest Finnish toddlers usually call their mothers “Mother” – in real life and in literature that I’m translating. Of course an American two-year-old would never call her mother “Mother”, and if she did, we would wonder if there wasn’t something very strange about that family.
So when I translate a passage where a six-year-old girl says, “Isä, tuleeko sota tänne?”, I can’t write “Father, is the war going to come here?”, unless I want to create a Victorian mood, or hint that the children in this family speak with a strange, almost eerie formality.
So I have to decide what version of father would be most natural in this context. Since this is a contemporary middle-class family, the kids would probably call their father Dad or Daddy. This is where personal history comes in. I never called my father Daddy, always just Dad (it goes without saying that I never called him Father, not even in jest). On the other hand, many small children do call their father Daddy, and using the word Daddy might help the reader understand that the person speaking is quite young.
The problem is that since I never used the words Mommy and Daddy, even as a little child, the words feel unnatural to me, overly sweet, childish instead of childlike. In our family we called my mother Mama when we were very young, then switched to Mom around age five or six. I knew kids that called their mothers Mommy, but in my family we used it only in phrases like Run and tell your Mommy, you big baby. And of course Daddy has all kinds of unpleasant slang connotations, as in the phrase sugar daddy.
There are versions with a regional feel, like Ma and Pa, or Pop, or Papa. They can work sometimes, but only if you want a countrified or slangy effect.
Thinking about all this, though, makes me wonder if my family’s naming habits are rarer than I realize. Perhaps in American English, calling your mother Mama at any age past the toddler stage is more countrified than I realize.
What did you call your parents growing up? Did the names you used for your parents change as you were growing up? And where were you?