October 28, 2007

Etymologist 11: ปฏิ- words and language modernization

Thai, like many languages, has been undergoing a conscientious process of modernization for several decades. This means there are people who intentionally coin new Thai words to correspond to words in English or other languages. The work is never really through, however, as new words are always coming up that need Thai equivalents. One option is to simply borrow the foreign word directly (such words are known as ทับศัพท์), but some view this as a corruption of the language. In Thailand, the many committees of the Royal Institute do most of this work. They give us words like โลกาภิวัตน์ for 'globalization', and คณิตกรณ์ for 'computer'. Sometimes they catch on (as with วัฒนธรรม 'culture' or นโยบาย 'policy'). Other times they fail miserably (คณิตกรณ์ 'computer' is a great example of failure--คอมพิวเตอร์, and its abbreviation คอม, are ubiquitous).

One possible strategy for simplifying this never-ending process is to create a set of tools in Thai to correspond to English. That is, to systematically use one Thai morpheme* to correspond to a given English morpheme. This sounds great in theory, but it's difficult in practice, because any given morpheme can have any number of meanings. Thus, this has only been done haphazardly in Thai.

Consider the example of ปฏิ-. It's a prefix borrowed from Indic, meaning (according to RID99) ตอบ, ทวน, กลับ. I
n several coinages, ปฏิ- corresponds to the prefix re- in English:

ปฏิรูป = reform
ปฏิวัติ = revolt
ปฏิกิริยา = reaction
ปฏิกรณ์ = reactor (e.g. nuclear)

These are calques (a.k.a. "loan translations") from English:
ปฏิ + รูป = re + form
ปฏิ + วัติ = re + volt (meaning 'turn back', related to revolve)
ปฏิ + กิริยา = re + action
ปฏิ + กรณ์ = re + actor/agent

Here are a few less common ones, which are looser calques:
ปฏิกรรมสงคราม = reparations
ปฏิสังขรณ์ = restore/renovate (a building)

There's also the common word ปฏิเสธ "reject", but it isn't a recent coinage, rather an existing word expanded to include the meaning "reject". It's a long-standing term for the "negative" mood in grammar (i.e. the opposite of "affirmative").

Beyond that, there are a number of relatively common Thai words with this prefix that don't correspond to re- words in English:

ปฏิทิน = calendar
ปฏิบัติ = to carry out, to put into practice
ปฏิญาณ = to vow, swear an oath

Given the success of neologisms like ปฏิรูป and ปฏิวัติ, you'd think it would be easy to expand ปฏิ for other re- words like recycle, renew, etc. The problem you run into is that re- has a related meaning which doesn't quite match ปฏิ-: "again". In fact, this is probably the primary meaning of re- in most English words its found in. So while ปฏิ- fits some words, it doesn't quite fit others.

But what can you expect? Systematically capturing the nuances of one language in another would require a pretty massive restructuring, for two languages as different as English and Thai. And for a language like Thai, language modernization has always been a tightrope walk across the fine line between keeping up with the pace of the world and sacrificing what Thais view as
the most significant aspect of their society and culture: their language.

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful language unit. For example, the word bicycles has three morphemes: bi-, cycle, and -s. This tells you it's a plurality of two-wheeled things.


  1. This is an interesting post. As you are aware, given its Pali/Sanksrit origin, ปฏิ is also used in other mainland Southeast Asian languages. I don’t have a Pali dictionary in front of me at the moment, but from recollection of its frequent usage in a variety of words and concepts that are central to Buddhist theology it suggests moving actively in relation to something/ against something. ปฏิบัติ is of course one of those original words (religious practice in accordance with the Vinaya, which is not passive but active, against the grain of everyday society), not something cooked up by a language committee in Bangkok, and so the ปฏิ is being used in that rather than any adopted sense. Exactly the same word is used for the same concept in Burmese, like other key Buddhist concepts. Burmese also uses ปฏิ as a prefix equivalent of re- or anti- in neologisms, but perhaps less frequently than Thai.

    The antonym of ปฏิ is อนุ, again originating in the theological and political language of ancient India. Hence you get อนุญาต, อนุมัติ, อนุสาวรีย์ (Bollywood has taken care of สาวรีย), อนุกรรมการ, อนุสัญญา, etc. What about ปฏิทิน and อนุทิน? Looks like a good topic for another post.

    Congratulations on the baby.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I'm only vaguely aware at best of the use of words like this in other Southeast Asian languages. My exposure is sufficient to know there's a lot of overlap, though. Thanks for pointing out this specific case.

    You reminded me that ปฏิ- corresponds to anti- as well, though the only one I know off the top of my head is ปฏิชีวนะ 'antibiotic'. A quick search through the Royal Institute's neologism database shows ปฏิบท 'anticlimax', ปฏิลักษณ์ 'anti-form', ปฏิศิลป์ 'anti-art', among others.

    I'll look more into the ปฏิ/อนุ pair, and see if I can't get another post out of it.

    And by the way, I enjoy your blog. Looking forward to your return. Cheers.

  3. Rikker -- good to see you are still hard at the blog. I'm now armed with a copy of U Htoke Sein's 1954 Pali-Myanmar Dictionary, which is a classic; the unrivaled and definitive publication in its category. Htoke Sein lists 15 pages of ปฏิ prefixed words, and 17 for อนุ, so any time that you're ready to dive into the comparative stuff again (on these or other words/forms originating in India) just let me know.

  4. I'm not familiar with U Htoke Sein's dictionary, but I'm ready to jump in whenever you are. :)