Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Animal Idioms

Thailand, to this day, is primarily an agrarian society and, as you might expect, many of the common idioms relate to animals. Some are quite fun. For example:

“A frog in a coconut shell”

refers to someone who is aloof and ignorant, like a frog living in a coconut shell.

“A rabbit aiming for the moon”

Don’t aim for the impossible; keep your feet on the ground.

“Riding an elephant to catch a grasshopper”

To make heavy work of something. This idiom can also mean use the right tool for the job.

“To catch a fish in each hand”

Don’t multitask.

“To catch a tiger with bare hands”

Don’t start something unprepared.

“To buy a buffalo in a swamp”

To buy a pig in a poke.

“To flee from the tiger, to stumble upon the crocodile”

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

“black sheep”

This almost certainly comes from English – there aren’t many sheep in Thailand, it’s too hot for them and their woolly jumpers.

“The chicken gets a gem”

A person who doesn’t know the value of what they have.

Some can be rather politically incorrect:

ไก่งามเพราะขน คนงามเพราะแต่ง
“Chickens are beautiful because of their feathers. Women are beautiful because of their clothes and make-up.”

“If you love your cow, tie it up; if you love your children, beat them.”

And some are scatological:

“Nobody lifts a dog’s tail when it’s pooing.”

Don’t praise yourself.

เห็นช้างขี้ ขี้ตามช้าง
“See an elephant poop and poop the same way”

Keeping up with the Joneses


Language is Changing, Innit?

Language change is inevitable. In English we’ve dropped malison (a curse), though kept benison (a blessing). We’ve lost wrine (a deep line in the face), but kept the diminutive form wrinkle. Wofare has gone, too (it means sorrow), but we’ve kept welfare. The change seems capricious, with little logic.

Language change is inescapable. It’s neither a good thing, nor a bad thing, though some try to cling to some past ideal of what language should be like. The French go further than most in this respect; its General Commission of Terminology and Neology has tried to eliminate le weekend, le shopping, le air bag, le cash flow and le stress, but with little success. In England some decry the rise of “Estuary English”, but that’s just the way some people talk, and others want to talk. (Yes, Jamie Oliver, I’m thinking of you.)

Language change is surprisingly fast. Latin mutated into both Spanish and Italian in perhaps as few as 50 generations. And the changes are decidedly odd. For example, the Latin scola (school) became école in French and escuela in Spanish. Actually, the changes weren’t in a single step. For French:

scola → iskola → eskola → escole (Old French) → école (Modern French)

Here we have the introduction of a leading vowel, then a change in that vowel, then the loss of “s” where it occurs before another consonant.

In Spanish the sequence runs:

scola → iskola → escuela

Sometimes sounds even get switched around, so the Latin parabola became the Spanish palabra (meaning word). And Old English brid became bird and hros horse.

Perhaps one of the most astounding changes in English was The Great Vowel Shift as we moved from Middle English to Modern English when long vowels started to be pronounced higher in the mouth and (in some cases) further forward. Thus /o:/ became /u:/, /a:/ became /e:/ and /e:/ became /i:/ . At the same time certain long vowels became diphthongs. (For clarification, a diphthong is not an undergarment worn by the sartorially challenged at the beach.) Thus /i:/ became /ai/ and /u:/ became /aʊ/. So, whilst we used to live in a hoose (as the Scots still do), we now live in a house; and whereas we used to milk a cuu, now we milk a cow. Even the number of digits we have on each hand has changed, from feef to five.

Thai underwent a similarly dramatic change: The Great Tone Shift. Tones are incredibly important in Thai; maa can mean come, horse or dog according to the tone with which it’s pronounced. Similarly yaa can mean grass, medicine or don’t. Every word has its correct tone. However, dramatic changes occurred in which words that were originally pronounced with a low-tone are now pronounced with either a low-tone or falling-tone; words that were pronounced with a mid-tone are pronounced with a high tone or a falling tone &c. Unfortunately, the changes occurred shortly after King Ramkhamhaeng devised the Thai script, which accounts in part for the complicated written mess that is the Thai language; originally the two tone marks each corresponded to a single tone, as did the absence of a tone mark. (Subsequently two further tone marks were introduced to accommodate certain foreign words.)

Such a dramatic shift in the language sounds like a recipe for total confusion. I don’t want to go to a restaurant and order dog meat, yet receive horse. Nor do I want to go to the pharmacy and be given grass to cure my malady. Yet Thais can whisper to each other and be understood with no difficulty at all, even though the physiology of whispering makes it impossible to produce tones. Perhaps the tones aren’t that important after all.

Thai continues to evolve. At the moment perhaps the majority of Thai speakers uses /r/ and /l/ interchangeably (very similar to the way that in most Spanish dialects /b/ (or /β/) and /v/ have merged, so many Spanish speakers Barcelona and Valencia start with the same sound). It is axiomatic in historical linguistics that once two sounds have merged they can never “unmerge”. Whether the merger will run to completion in Thai is unclear to me. There appears to be little social stigma attached to merging the sounds. (In other languages undergoing a similar merger there has been a small “upper caste” which has preserved the sound distinction, and the merger has not been completed, and has often been reversed.) However, Thai is obsessive about maintaining the original spellings of foreign words in its script, so the need to be able to write might just preserve the /r/ /l/ distinction.

A second change is the dropping of consonant clusters. Thai has no consonant clusters at the ends of syllables, so a word such as statistics becomes sa-thi-ti (สถิติ) in Thai. And there are few Thais who could get their tongue around a word such as crisps. Consonant clusters at the beginning of words tend to have an unstressed /a/ inserted. So, sport becomes sa-port in Thai, for example. However, the language does have a limited range of initial consonant clusters- but these clusters are fast disappearing. Thus plaa (fish) is most often pronounced paa, and the polite particle used by men, formally pronounced khrap is most often reduced to khap.

So, like, y’know, language changes. People just talk so vat uvver people cn understan vem. Wasssamatter wiv vat?


Don’t Give Me A Vowel, Carol

Should the British TV gameshow “Countdown” ever make it to Thailand there’d be no need for the contestants to ask Vorderman for a vowel; there are plenty of Thai words which eschew even a single vowel. That’s because there’s an implied vowel where none is written. Usually this is an “oh” (/o/), but sometimes an “ah” (/a/) or even an “aw” (as in “paw” or “saw”) (/ɔː/).

Also, two consecutive r’s (รร) can be pronounced as “ah” (/a/) or “an” (/an/) according to context.

This leads to such peculiarities as the female name รรรรร (rrrrr), which is pronounced ran-rawn. (An “r” at the end of a syllable is pronounced “n” – most Thai consonants have different pronunciations according to their position in a syllable.)

According to Thai tradition, girls born on a Monday are given a name bereft of vowels. A previous Thai teacher of mine was called วรรณพร (wrrnphr), pronounced “wan-na-pawn”. I was therefore pretty sure, even without asking, that she was born on a Monday.


It was a Dark and Stormy Night

Noam Chomsky postulated that language development was parameterised – that there were certain switches in our brain that could be turned on or off when, as babies, we developed language skills. One such switch is verb order. In English most unmarked sentences are SVO – subject, verb, object. For example:

John (subject) likes (verb) chocolate (object).

In other languages, such as Japanese and German, SOV is the norm. (In fact, about three quarters of languages use the SOV ordering.)

Less common is VSO, which is used in formal Arabic and in certain forms of Welsh. For example, “Lloyd spoke Welsh” is:

Siaradodd (verb “to be”, past tense) Lloyd (subject) y Gymraeg (object)

And even rarer is OVS, though it is used in Hixkaryana and Klingon (the former language is spoken only by a few hundred tribes people in a village on the banks of a tributary to the Amazon in Brazil; the later by a multitude of nerds and geeks with more time than sense).

Another switch is the need for a sentence to have a subject. In English a subject is obligatory – even if it’s completely meaningless:

“It’s raining”

To what, exactly, does it refer?

In many other languages the need for a subject is discretionary where the subject is either apparent from the context, or simply non-existent.

I was therefore a little surprised, after a little digging, to find that the existential it is so prominent in the first lines of novels. For example:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
– Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, 1984

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
– Paul Auster, City of Glass

It was like so, but wasn’t.
– Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

It was the day my grandmother exploded.
– Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road

It was a pleasure to burn.
– Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

It was love at first sight.
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
– William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

and, of course, the classic:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
– Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

And finally, what I consider the most arresting first line of a novel ever:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers