July 29, 2007

Jokes! 3

Answer time again. Today's jokes are jokes with a twist. They ask you one thing, but the answer appears unrelated, unless you get the hidden meaning. In three of them, the answer is based on a double meaning of a word in the setup. In one (#3), it's a "non-joke"--that is, the punchline is an obvious answer. When compared with English jokes, these are pretty standard joke strategies, and #3 translates just fine into English, because there's no wordplay involved. Let's get right to it:

Q: นกแก้วกับนกขุนทองเกาะอยู่ที่ไหน
Parrots and myna birds--where do they perch?
เกาะอยู่กลางน้ำ มีน้ำล้อมรอบ
An island is in the middle of the sea; it has water all around it.
The double meaning here is เกาะ, which means (with respect to birds) "to perch," but also means "island." There's a bit of grammatical trickery going on. The alternate meaning of the joke is actually a non sequitur: Parrots and myna birds--where are islands located? So until you get this second meaning, the answer to the joke also appears to be a non sequitur.

Q: น้ำอะไรเอ่ยผู้ชายไม่ชอบ
What kind of water do men dislike?
A face like yours.
In this joke, น้ำ "water" is also a blanket term for any kind of liquid, so you could translate the setup as What kind of liquid do men dislike?, too. The key word in the punchline is น้ำหน้า, which is an elaborate alliterative term meaning the same thing as หน้า: face, but น้ำหน้า is only used derisively. Besides the meaning of water,
น้ำ has another (inferred) meaning of "essence", which is seen in words like น้ำหน้า and น้ำใจ. You could also simply argue that in น้ำหน้า, the word น้ำ is just an alliterative nonce. Either way, the twist of this joke is that the answer has nothing to do with liquid, like the setup leads you to believe it will. Rather, it's an insult directed at the listener. Be careful who you use this one on. :)

Q: ล้างจานยังไงมือไม่เปียก
How do you wash dishes so your hands don't get wet?
When you're done eating, leave them for Mom to wash.
The answer is obvious; but the joke is that it's not the most obvious answer. By presenting the question as a joke, the listener tries to think of a more clever answer than "wear gloves," which is the "real" answer to this question. For this joke, the fact that it's a non-joke is what makes it funny. Bait and switch.

Q: อะไรเอ่ยยิ่งใหญ่ยิ่งขนเยอะ
What is it--the larger it gets, the hairier it is?
A freight truck.
This joke is based on the double meaning of ขน, which means "hair" (more specifically animal hair or human body hair--though it also refers to a bird's feathers) and "to haul" or transport, like you do with a truck. So the alternate meaning of the setup is, "What is it--the larger it gets, the more it hauls?" Naturally, the larger the freight truck, the more it hauls.

Ready for more? Let's try five this time:

Q: ซุปอะไรมีสารอาหารครบทุกหมู่

Q: มีเงิน 20 บาท ให้น้องยี่สิบบาท จะเหลือเงินกี่บาท

Q: ขี่ช้างจับอะไร

Q: ยาอะไรใช้รักษาคนไม่ได้

Q: มีเงิน 15 บาท ไปซื้อขนมราคา 4.50 บาท จะได้เงินทอนเท่าไหร่

July 20, 2007

Etymologist 4: แม่มด

[Note: If you don't see the Khmer, you can get a free Khmer Unicode font here.]

The word มด in Thai, so far as most people know (including Thais), refers to the little insect with a sweet tooth that always ruins picnics. Or, to put it a bit more scientifically, insects of the family Formicidae. Ants!

And yet, there's this word มด that we find most commonly in the words แม่มด and พ่อมด, or "witch" and "wizard." They appear to literally mean "mother ant" and "father ant," but intuition leads us to reject this as a viable interpretation.

Aj. Chamnong Thongprasert (จำนงค์ ทองประเสริฐ), in an installment of his newspaper column ภาษาไทยไขขาน (Thai Unlocked) from the mid-80s (available on the Royal Institute website), discusses one possible origin.

The late Banchob Bandhumedha (บรรจบ พันธุเมธา) told him that Khmer has the word
មត់ /mʊət/ (which would be transcribed in Thai as มต). Here's where I think things get a bit fishy. It's unclear from the article whether Dr. Banchob suggests the rest of the interpretation, or whether Aj. Chamnong extrapolates it himself, but I think it's the latter. The article suggests that Khmer មត់ (and by extension Thai มด) come from Pali มต, meaning "dead," more commonly see in Thai as มตะ. This makes sense, Aj. Chamnong goes on, because witches and wizards are sometimes also called หมอผี in Thai, and a ผี is a dead person (or a ghost).

One of my problems with Aj. Chamnong's theory is that he's making a leap between แม่มด and หมอผี on semantic grounds, instead of etymological grounds. We can translate หมอผี as "witch doctor," meaning a person who heals diseases by manipulating spirits. Nowadays, with the advent of modern medicine, it's often used to mean an exorcist, someone who casts out spirits, the logic being that in both cases the person has the power to control the spirits inhabiting a human. But if แม่มด means แม่มตะ, then the grammar seems off. In แม่+X constructions, X is usually a verb indicating what the female person does (e.g. แม่ค้า, a woman who sells, hence a female shopkeeper) or a noun indicating the person's domain (e.g. แม่บ้าน or แม่ครัว). มตะ just means dead, or to die, so in this case it means what, a female dead person? I'm not buying it.

So for me, Aj. Chamnong's explanation doesn't satisfactorily explain why the phrase is แม่มด and not something more like, say, หมอมด. I did some more looking around. It turns out that Khmer also has the phrase មេមត
/mee mʊət/, which corresponds exactly to แม่มด, which he doesn't mention (or doesn't know). Looking on SEAlang's Khmer dictionary, it gives this definition of មត់ /mʊət/:
"to act in concert, to have a secret understanding; to inform in advance."

This would seem to discredit the theory of มด being related to Pali, because this word is apparently unrelated to death and dying.

SEAlang's definition for
មេមត់ /mee mʊət/:
"medium, one who can contact the spirit world; witch"

Now, I have to make the disclaimer that I don't know Khmer, but this would appear to be a good source for the Thai phrase. It would mean someone with secret understanding, who knows things ahead of time, i.e. can commune with spirits. Note that medium is a different thing than a หมอผี, too, who heals by controlling the spirits.

I think the case is good that มด comes from Khmer, because it is rarely seen outside the fixed phrases แม่มด and พ่อมด. One exception is มดหมอ, an elaborate version of หมอ. But มดหมอ doesn't mean witch doctor, it just means doctor. As is common with such elaborate nouns, we see มด and หมอ used as an "elaborate pair" in phrases like หามดหาหมอ "see the doctor," which is just an elaborate version of หาหมอ. But outside of this association with witches and doctors, มด is meaningless in Thai, but not so for Khmer. Loanwords tend to have narrower meanings than their source language, which appears to be the case here. There are several other phrases in the SEAlang Khmer dictionary with

But whether it is a native Khmer word or not, someone else with more knowledge on that subject will have to help me out on. Given Aj. Chamnong's explanation, though, I find the connection to Pali misguided. I welcome further evidence or discussion.

Jokes! 2

Time for answers to jokes from the last post. I've included translation and explanation. Even though the joke doesn't work in translation, it can help us learners to understand how the humor works:

Q: มีคนไทยอยู่สองร้อยคน คนไหนเป็นคนอีสาน
There are two hundred Thai people. Which one is from the Northeast?
A: คนร้อยเอ็ด
The person from Roi-Et./The 101st person.
Comments: The province Roi-Et in Northeastern Thailand (aka Isaan) literally can be translated as "One hundred and one." I'm not sure how the province got its name, so I don't know if that's a correct translation or not, though. I've always wondered. This is also the province that Thais from Isaan jokingly refer to as L.A. (which is a play on the initials of Roi-Et when pronounced colloquially as ล้อยเอ็ด, hence ล.อ., Thailand's L.A.)

Q: มีแก้วสิบใบเต็มไปด้วยน้ำ แก้วใบไหนมีน้ำน้อยที่สุด
There are ten glasses filled with water. Which glass has the least water?
A: แก้วใบที่หก
The sixth glass./The spilled glass.
Comments: This is a pretty straightforward play on the word หก, which has two meanings in Thai: six and spill.

Q: เดือนแรกมีบ้าน เดือนที่สองมีรถ เดือนที่สามมีอะไร
The first month you have a house. The second month you have a car. What do you have the third month?
A: มีนาคม
Comments: This one's a bit more complicated. It's a play on the fact that the first syllable of the word "March" in Thai is the same as the word "have" มีั. It sets the listener up to expect มี+noun, but the joke is that March is the third month.

Q: มีสิบคนยืนบนหน้าผา คนที่เท่าไรตกหน้าผาตาย
Ten people are standing on a cliff. Which person fell off the cliff?
A: คนที่เก้า
The ninth person./The person who took a step forward.
Comments: This joke is best told aloud, since it involves two homonyms that are not homographs. Say what? Two words that sound alike but are written differently, ala their/there in English. The word for "nine" is เก้า, the word meaning "take a step" is ก้าว, but they are both pronounced with a long vowel. So it's also a play on the dual meaning of ที่. In this case, ที่เก้า means "ninth," while ที่ก้าว means "who took a step forward." In the first case it's a noun marking the ordinal numbers (ที่หนึ่ง 1st ที่สอง 2nd, etc.); in the second case it's a relative pronoun following the noun and preceding the verb. (This is also the case with the spilled glass joke.)

A few new ones:

Q: นกแก้วกับนกขุนทองเกาะอยู่ที่ไหน

Q: น้ำอะไรเอ่ยผู้ชายไม่ชอบ

Q: ล้างจานยังไงมือไม่เปียก

Q: อะไรเอ่ยยิ่งใหญ่ยิ่งขนเยอะ

Have fun. :)

July 5, 2007


From Mary Haas' Thai Reader (1954), three 50-year-old jokes that actually translate into English (so I translated them). Whether they're actually funny or not, you can decide.

Sawai: “Suang, how old is your younger sister?”
Suang: “She is seven years old.”
Sawai: “But why did she tell me she was only four years old?”
Suang: “Because she learned to count at age three!”

Teacher: “What color is the sea?”
Student: “Black.”
Teacher: “Why do you think it's black?”
Student: “Because there are so many squid!”

Teacher: “Who can tell me what a fisherman's net is made of?”
Student: “It’s made of many, many small holes tied together with rope!”

And here are a few well-known jokes that don't translate:

#4: มีคนไทยอยู่สองร้อยคน คนไหนเป็นคนอีสาน

#5: มีแก้วสิบใบเต็มไปด้วยน้ำ แก้วใบไหนมีน้ำน้อยที่สุด

#6: เดือนแรกมีบ้าน เดือนที่สองมีรถ เดือนที่สามมีอะไร

#7: มีสิบคนยืนบนหน้าผา คนที่เท่าไรตกหน้าผาตาย

I'll post the answers next time, along with a new batch of jokes. If you have a Thai joke, post it in the comments. :)

Improve Your Accent: How to speak English like a Thai (2)

Something occurred to me after posting the last blog entry. It's important to know when to use "English English" and when to use "Thai English."

Personally, I tend to err on the side of wanting to sound too much like a Thai. But that's not always the best strategy. Particularly in educated company, knowing when to bust out your native accent is a useful skill.

In general, though, my comments on this topic relate to those English words which have become part of the greater Thai lexicon.

But say you were talking with someone about Bill Clinton. You have several options: using the extreme Thai pronuncation [บิน คินตั้น], or the slightly more authentic but still Thai-sounding [บิว คลินตั้น], or you can just say it like you would in English. Know your audience, and their background with respect to English. Make sure they'll understand what you're saying.

Also know what effect you want to have. If you want solidarity, mimic the pronunciation of the person you're conversing with. If you want to be exemplary or corrective, model the "proper" pronunciation. If you're not sure, hover somewhere in between.

Context is key.

Improve Your Accent: How to speak English like a Thai (1)

It occurred to me today that, ironically, sometimes the English words in Thai trip me up the most.

A recent example from my life: เบนซ์ Benz, meaning a Mercedes-Benz automobile. I know this isn't technically an English loan, but I'm counting it because we use it in English. I've been pronouncing this [เบ็น] for a long time now, and my wife has corrected me before (it's pronounced [เบ๊น]). But I don't use this word particularly often, so when I found myself saying it the other day, I overthought it and mixed myself up. Is it [เบ๊น], but I've pronouncing it [เบ็น], or vice versa? Somehow I ended up saying [เบ็น] again.

The problem is, there are some de facto rules (complete with exceptions) about how to pronounce English words in Thai. Thai people inherently know them as part of the phonology of the colloquial language, though they usually can't explain the rules to you.

So I'm going to try to infer them.

But in this post, let's first talk about why it's easy to pronounce English loans differently from Thais. (I'm saying "differently" and not "wrong," because heck, I'm a native speaker. But loanwords have to be pronounced with the proper nativized phonology or else your audience might not เก็ท.)

Things that can trip up your accent when using English loanwords:

(1) Unfamiliarity with the limits of Thai phonology. You have to know, say, that Thai doesn't end syllables in fricatives to know that a Thai will pronounce ชีส "cheese" as [ชี้ด]. And if they do use a fricative, it's going to be one found within the phonology elsewhere, namely /s/, and not /z/ like it is in English. The "proper" word for cheese is เนยแข็ง, but at places like Pizza Hut, the loanword is more common (e.g. ขอบชีส, Thai for "(cheese) stuffed crust").

(2) Unfamiliarity with the exceptions to the limits of Thai phonology. Thai is allowed to break its own rules. New phonemes are sneaking into syllable final positions, due to the influence of loanwords. So more and more people are pronouncing แก๊ซ with the final fricative instead of [แก๊ด], for example. And there's the Amway-esque Thai company Giffarine,กิฟฟารีน, which I recall always hearing pronounced [กิฟฟา-], not [กิบฟา-]. The moral is, go with the flow. Don't insist on an overly strict nativized pronunciation.

(3) Not knowing what tone to use. We'll talk about this more in the next post.

(4) Official Thai spelling of English loans prefers not to use tone marks. And often no ไม้ไต่คู้ ( -็). If you read Thai, this is a problem, because the spelling can be misleading. This seems to be a modern spelling trend for official spellings. Mary Haas' 1962 dictionary gives "apple" as แอ๊ปเปิ้ล, with a tone mark on both syllables, but the prescribed spelling today is แอปเปิล, for both the fruit and Steve Jobs' company. On the internet, though, แอปเปิ้ล is more common (452,000 hits vs. 152,000 for แอปเปิล), and เปิ้ล is a common Thai nickname derived from it, spelled with the tone mark. Hence, also เบนซ์ and not เบ็นซ์ or เบ๊นซ์ (but both are common misspellings).

Next time we'll look at some of the "rules" and how apply them.