September 27, 2007


The blog is going to look rather sparse for a while. I was using an old Blogger template, and I have to recreate my old template in the "new" Blogger format. Switching allows me to more easily tweak the blog layout, though. Anyhow, don't jump ship in the meantime. Unless you like the minimalist blog look. It has a charm of its own, I suppose.

September 26, 2007

The first Thai expat fiction?

The Internet Archive is an amazing resource. I especially recommend its digitized books. When compared with projects like Google Books, the Internet Archive makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. In particular, their "Flip Book" feature (developed as part of their daughter site makes reading books online quite a joy. It recreates the book experience, complete with animated page turning (not as hokey as it sounds--I quite like it), and the ability to flip to a given page based on its position within the book. Add searching and the ability to download books in a surprising number of formats (text, HTML, DjVu, PDF, TIF, JPG), and you've got an impressive total package. Check it out to see just what I mean.

There are a number of interesting books in their catalog, but I'm posting about this one because of its possible historical significance: Eric Reid's Spears of deliverance : a tale of white men and brown women in Siam, published in 1920. It's a novel, and from flipping through it, it looks like typical expat fiction (although the subtitle would tend to give this away already). I'm not a fan of the genre, but this is the earliest example I've ever seen of expat fiction about Thailand. Can anyone provide earlier examples, or leads?

Both Google Books and the Internet Archive have a number of other accounts of historical Siam, if you're looking for non-fiction fare. Search "Siam" in either place for a start. Lately I've taken to downloading them offline as a personal archive, with the idea of creating a website to be able to read and search historical accounts of the country in a unified place. It remains to be seen whether Spears of deliverance and its ilk have actual historical value in this regard, though I'm inclined to cast the net more wide than narrow.

September 24, 2007

Why is it hard to learn Thai?

Learning another language is difficult. I often hear people classify Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, and others as "the hardest language" or "one of the hardest languages." But if you were a native speaker of, say, Lao, and attempted to learn Thai, it would be vastly easier than if you were a native English speaker. In my mind, it's not really about how inherently difficult a certain language is, but rather about how different the language you would like to learn is from the language(s) you already know. Relative similarity or difference in the phonology, morphology, and syntax of a language is what counts. Are they typologically similar? That is, do they share many features--word order, for example?

Thai and English have the same basic word order: what we call SVO (subject+verb+object). That means that where in English we say "I eat rice," Thais say ฉันกินข้าว. The subject, followed by the verb, followed by the object (when there is one). This is a huge leg up for English speakers! Sure, you have to remember to say อาหารอร่อย [food+delicious] instead of "delicious food", but if you're an American, where it seems like everyone is exposed to Spanish, you may already know that it shares this word order of noun+modifier with Thai, so it doesn't seem so strange.

Then compare Thai word order with Japanese, which has SOV word order: "I rice eat", or Tagalog, which has VSO word order: "eat I rice". See how you've already got a head start?

Apart from that, however, English and Thai diverge pretty quickly. They are both generally classified as analytic languages, meaning that words tend to stand alone and that word order is usually significant for conveying a given meaning, but English has synthetic features, like attaching /s/ for plurals, or other various prefixes and suffixes.

The phonology is also quite different in many ways, which I plan to tackle in the (long overdue) continuation of my Improve Your Accent series. And I probably needn't even mention tones. If you want to boggle the minds of unsuspecting English speakers, just bust out with a minimal quintet of the five tones: มา หม่า ม่า ม้า หมา (or the classic tongue twister about whether the new wood is burning: ไม้ใหม่ไหม้ไหม ไม่ไม้ใหม่ไม่ไหม้). The flip side of this is that English has crazy spelling, some verb conjugation, many sounds that are foreign to the Thai speaker, including many difficult consonant clusters, etc.

Mastering Thai requires a commitment to learn to speak in new ways. Moving your tongue in new ways, making sounds in different ways, internalizing new word orders, and stepping outside of the way you're used to thinking about the world. It's a difficult task that requires significant self-awareness and dedication. It's not for the faint of heart, but the rewards of knowledge for those who persevere are immense.

September 21, 2007

Etymologist 10: Mantra

After going on about mantras in my last post, I realized that the word mantra is a good candidate for the next installment of Etymologist. Heading over to etymonline, we see:
1808, "that part of the Vedas which contains hymns," from Skt. mantra-s "sacred message or text, charm, spell, counsel," lit. "instrument of thought," related to manyate "thinks." Sense of "special word used for meditation" is first recorded in Eng. 1956.
This corresponds to Thai มนต์ or มนตร์ (the former is from Pali and the latter from Sanskrit; มนต์ is the more common spelling overall, though in some compound expressions one or the other is conventionalized). RID99 tells us:
มนต์, มนตร์ น. คําศักดิ์สิทธิ์, คําสําหรับสวดเพื่อเป็นสิริมงคล เช่น สวดมนต์, คำเสกเป่าที่ถือว่าศักดิ์สิทธิ์ เช่น ร่ายมนตร์ เวทมนตร์. (ป. มนฺต; ส. มนฺตฺร).

"n. sacred words, words to pray for good fortune, ex. suatmon; incantation that is held as sacred, ex. raaymon, weetmon. (P. manฺta; S. manฺtฺra)" [My translation]
This is a straightforward correspondence, although English obviously borrowed the word from Sanskrit, while Thai has both Pali and Sanskrit forms. สวดมนต์ is a common term meaning to pray, in the sense "to recite a Pali prayer." We might translate น้ำมนต์ as "holy water", meaning water that a Buddhist priest has prayed over
(I'm not sure what term the Catholic church in Thailand actually uses--anyone?).

September 20, 2007

Descriptive vs. prescriptive

The blog separated by a common language looks at the differences between American English and British English. In a recent post, 'Lynneguist' offers some very good mantras that I wish more people would understand and subscribe to, for both English and Thai (though chanting them is not necessary):
  • 'Different' doesn't mean 'better' or 'worse'.
  • 'British' doesn't necessarily mean 'older' or 'original'.
  • 'Older' doesn't mean 'better' either!
  • Let's enjoy each other's dialects AND our own!
Let's examine how these apply to Thai.

First: 'Different' doesn't mean 'better' or 'worse'. Thailand is fiercely proud of its independence. Particularly, they are rightfully proud of the fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation never to be colonized or occupied by a Western nation (note the word Western--Japan occupied Thailand in WWII, and don't forget earlier history, when Thai เมือง (city-states) were เมืองขึ้น
(vassal states) of the Khmer empire*). As a result, they are defensive against the encroachment of foreign culture. This is problematic, because the modern "Thai" culture has been shaped and constructed and subsequently manipulated as a political tool in the last 60 years. The idea of "Thainess" (ความเป็นไทย) as a contrast with everything else is still strong, and still invoked regularly for innumerable causes. Minority languages and cultures that are not part of the "Thai" tradition may never receive full legitimacy. I'm reminded of the Mokken sea nomads in the Southern islands, who are native speakers of a Malayo-Polynesian language, and whose children are now being taught Thai in their island classrooms, complete with pictures of the king and queen at the front of the class, like every other classroom in the country. Nevermind that the ancestors of the Mokkens were in the region centuries (millennia?) before the ancestors of the Thais. I wonder if the irony of this is lost on everyone.

I, like Lynneguist, believe that different is not necessarily bad. Many people in Thailand are very good at manipulating popular sentiment by acting as alarmists. There is a neverending stream of newspaper articles about ภาษาเสื่อม, ภาษาวิบัติ, ภาษาสแลง, ภาษาวัยรุ่น and all the other examples of "corrupted language" out there. But change happens. It's natural. And youth slang doesn't mean the downfall of society. If it gains larger legitimacy, then it's no longer youth slang.

If there is influence from foreign languages, it doesn't mean Thai culture is in danger of extinction, nor the language. This ultra-nationalist bent has been going on for at least 60 years. Back then, it was the economically-dominant Chinese who were vilified. Field Marshal
Plaek Phibulsongkhram (จอมพล แปลก พิบูลสงคราม) was Prime Minister (and one of many military dictators in Thai history--post-coup government included) from 1938-1944 and 1948-1957 (he was overthrown once by one of his generals, but managed to came back into power, later to be ousted again and eventually die in exile in Japan). He was extremely Sinophobic. In the 1930s, the state created corporations to take over production of commodities like tobacco and petroleum from Chinese immigrants, and Chinese-owned businesses were subject to more control and taxes than Thai-owned businesses. This was part of a campaign to use only Thai-made products, because the Chinese hold on the market was too strong. He mandated that all Chinese schools must either switch to instruction in Thai or close. In a 1938 speech, one of his right hand men (in)famously compared the Chinese in Thailand to the Jews in Germany. In some ways, this is just a trend that has never died. In other ways, it's cyclical. Last time it was the Chinese. It has also previously been the Khmer and the Burmese. This time it's the generic ฝรั่ง, the Westerner.

Second: 'Thai' doesn't necessarily mean 'older' or 'original.' This may be a touchy spot. Much of the ราชาศัพท์ "royal speak" of Thai, used in reference to royalty/deity, is borrowed from Khmer, because Khmer was the court language (ภาษาราชการ) when the several Thai groups were vassal states of the Khmer empire. Therefore, Khmer words gained prestige and became associated with royalty. The language is a product of its environment, and its development includes centuries or millennia of contact with Khmer, Chinese and other civilizations and their languages. Sometimes a borrowing is very, very old! Old enough that it "feels" Thai, and is thus not considered a foreign borrowing anymore. When modern youngsters complain about the vast amounts of hard-to-remember and hard-to-understand Indic loanwoards from Pali and Sanskrit, they are told by their Thai teachers that Sanskrit words are Thai words now. We shouldn't look at them as loanwords, but just accept them as Thai.

Third: 'Older' doesn't mean 'better' either! The Thais should recognize this, because they reject older native words like กู and มึง (which everyone knows were used in the Sukhothai era), in favor of words that are often borrowed. This ties in with the second point. The history is complex, and contact and mutual influence has been going on for thousands of years.

Fourth: Let's enjoy each other's dialects AND our own! Contrary to popular belief or understanding, every speaker of a language speaks a dialect (ภาษาถิ่น). The idea of a "standard" language is a myth (English speakers don't understand this either). Standard language is an idealization that only exists in books. No one speaks Standard Thai natively. When most people say "Standard Thai", they usually mean either "textbook Thai" (the idealization) or "Bangkok Thai" (the closest realized form). But Bangkok Thai is a dialect
just as full of regionalisms as ภาษาอีสาน, ภาษาเหนือ and ภาษาใต้, and any other regional variety of the language. Bangkok is a ถิ่น, so Bangkok Thai is a ภาษาถิ่น. Simple as that. But because the majority of television and radio communication is done in Bangkok Thai, the idioms and regionalisms become more widely known, and thus are seen as part of the "standard" language.

I don't have a problem with using the phrase Standard Thai or Standard English, though. I would propose, however, that we use it to mean a given language, allowing for certain variation based on majority use. We can call "drinking fountain" standard English, but "bubbler" is probably regional English. Likewise, มะละกอ is Standard Thai, while หมากฮุ่ง/หมักฮุ่ง/บักฮุ่ง are examples of regional Thai (but may be "standard" parts of their respective dialects).

In linguistics, there is the concept of an idiolect. That is, the language that you (and you alone) speak. No two people have the same idiolect. I can't find a word in Thai for this, so I'm going to propose ภาษาประจำตัว or, as an Indic-derived alternative, สวภาษา [สะ-วะ-ภาษา], meaning ภาษาของตนเอง "one's own language". If you speak Thai, at any level, then you have a particular Thai ideolect. If we recognize that no two people really speak the same language, and that language is conventionalized (oral) symbols standing for concepts, then we begin to see how arbitrary it really is. And how quickly it can change. "Bad words" become acceptable, neutral words become "bad words," borrowed foreign words become "native", new words are coined, and other words fall out of use.

None of this is to say that anything goes. Of course there are certain word orders that are grammatical, and others that aren't.
Of course there are certain words that are inappropriate in one context, and appropriate in another. I'm not saying everything is correct (I find a lot of eggcorns just as annoying as the next guy). It's important that we have standards and conventions to ensure that we understand each another! But at the same time, we can appreciate the vast variety of language, without fooling ourselves into thinking that there is such a thing as a pure language. And this holds equally for Thai, English, and every language.

*Some Thai historians justify this by claiming the ขอม Khom, which is the term the Thais use to refer to the Khmer people of that area, weren't really the ancestors of the modern Khmers, but rather the ancestors of the Thais themselves. This is nationalistic nonsense. That Thais today still use the word Khom, a term of dubious origin, shows that they still don't want to admit that the Khom of yesteryear and the Khmer of today are related.

September 19, 2007

On Prabda Yoon

I'm in the mood for a non-linguistic post at the moment. I want to point those of you who haven't yet seen them to the blogs of Thai writer Prabda Yoon (ปราบดา หยุ่น): both English and Thai. Prabda's always got something interesting to say, whether he's translating Vonnegut into Thai (big kudos), or philosophizing on a self-portrait, he's worth reading.

Or maybe I have a soft spot for Prabda because his short story collection, ความน่าจะเป็น (Probability), was one of early books I read after I became brave enough in my study of Thai to begin to read Thai literature. He's plenty capable to translate his work into English himself, but I've often fancied the idea. Maybe I'll follow his lead with Vonnegut and translate one of his stories on my blog. Promises, promises.

September 18, 2007

Get to know your blogger

I've been tagged for an internet meme. A while ago, in fact, but I'm only now getting around to responding. I'm supposed to post eight "random" facts about myself. Scott Imig, whose blog Journey to Thai I've read and enjoyed for a while now, did the tagging.

So here are 8 facts about me:

1. I'm 24.
2. I'm married with a kid on the way.
3. I have a B.A. from Dartmouth College.
4. I've lived 3 of the past 5 years in Thailand.
5. Studying language is what I want to do for a living.
6. Thai is my language of expertise. I've been studying it since May 2002.
7. I'm mostly self-taught in Thai. I had a two-month crash course in Thai, before I ever set foot in Thailand.
8. I am fascinated by dictionaries and want to be the Noah Webster of Thailand. That is, I want my contribution to be a modern lexicographic work of significance. Looking back in ten, twenty, fifty years, I might chuckle at myself. With any luck, though, I'll smile with the satisfaction of completing what I set out (oh-so-naively) to do. Cue that song from the Muppet Movie, "life's like a movie, write your own ending..."

I'm going to decline to tag anyone else, because I don't like chain-letter-type things. But feel free to carry on the meme, if you please.

September 17, 2007

Language Scraps and a quote on Language Log

I'm still on the road. Or, still at home, depending on how you look at it. My wife and I were supposed to be back in Bangkok by now, but Uncle Sam is taking his sweet time processing some paperwork for her, so we're sitting on our hands at my folks' house in Washington state in the meantime. In theory that means I should have more time to post on this blog (and for a while I was doing really well), but 'tis not always so. Thank you to those who are still reading.

In other news, though, my friend Torben invited me to contribute on a new blog he's just started, Language Scraps. It's a collaborative blog, a scrapbook (or scrapblog, if you will) of all things linguistic, for general consumption. I plan to write about things that interest me in the non-Thai sphere of language. So feel free to read along there. There's a whole slew of contributors. It should be a grand old time.

And finally, I discovered today that I'm quoted (not by name) on perhaps the most widely-read linguistics blog out there: Language Log. In the post LibraryThing for Linguists from back in April, Arnold Zwicky mentions the group I started on LibraryThing, back in 2006 in those first days after Tim introduced the groups feature. Specifically, he quoted the description of the group I Survived the Great Vowel Shift (a little in-joke for anyone who's ever taken linguistics 101):

A group for linguists, armchair linguists, would-be linguists, budding linguists, linguists-in-training, linguistic anthropologists, and/or anybody interested in the scientific study of languages. If Noam Chomsky is your hero... you can join, too. :)
Yes, that's a dig at Noam Chomsky. But an intentionally ambiguous and vague one. Chomsky's linguistic work isn't my cup of tea, but I don't want to start a debate with Steven Pinker or anything.

September 12, 2007

Jokes! 5

Q: ลิฟท์จอดที่ชั้น 30 มีคนเข้าไปถึง 20 คน ลิฟท์ร้อง บี๊บ บี๊บ คนยังไม่ทันออกเลย สลิงก็ขาดเสียก่อน ปรากฏว่าไม่มีใครบาดเจ็บเลยสักคน ถามว่าเพราะอะไร?
An elevator stops at the 30th floor and 20 people get on. The elevator (is past the weight limit) and cries out *beep* *beep* but the people can't get off in time--the cable breaks first. Not one person was hurt. Why?
A: เพราะตายหมด
Because they all died.
This is sort of an unjoke, but there is a tiny modicum of wordplay involved. It depends on how you interpret บาดเจ็บ "hurt, injured." In the logic of the joke, if they're all dead, they're not injured. :P

Q: อะไรเอ่ย เวลาเรายืนมันห้อย เวลาเราเดินมันแกว่ง?
What is it? When you stand it hangs; when you walk it swings?
A: แขน
Your arm.
This is a major theme among the type of joke known as อะไรเอ่ย--jokes with intentional innuendo but an innocuous punchline. The อะไรเอ่ย style joke is as well known in Thai as the "knock-knock joke" in English. And we have plenty of these อะไรเอ่ย-style jokes in English, usually with the structure "What ...", as in, "What's black and white and re(a)d all over?" (A newspaper, a sunburned penguin, etc.) We just don't have a category name for them like we do for knock-knock jokes. And English also has plenty with innuendo, too (but good taste restrains me from retelling them here).

Q: ยายพายเรือไปทำบุญที่วัด ปรากฏว่าเรือรั่วและกำลังจะจม ยายต้องเสียสละทิ้งของ สองอย่างระหว่างปิ่นโตกับดอกไม้ ถามว่ายายจะเสียอะไรจึงจะไปถึงวัด แน่ๆ?

An old woman rows a boat to the temple to make merit. The boat has a leak and is about to capsize. The old woman has to decide between two things to throw overboard: a lunchbox* or a flower. What will the old woman sacrifice to make sure she gets to the temple?
A: เสียชีวิตสิ ถึงวัดแน่นอน
Her life. She'll get to the temple for sure!
The translation here works okay, although to sacrifice your life has a different connotation in English. Thai on the other hand has the common euphemism for die เสียชีวิต, to lose your life. The Thai word for sacrifice is เสียสละ, hence the joke.

Q: พระใช้อะไรตีระฆัง?
What does a monk use to ring the temple bell?

A: ใช้เณร
A novice.
This is a play on ใช้, which means to use, but also to have someone do something for you (it doesn't carry the same inherently negative connotation as English, like, "you used me.") To say ผมใช้เขาไปซื้อของที่ตลาด
is to say, roughly, "I sent him to buy things (for me) at the market." So in this case, what does a monk use to ring the temple bell? A novice--one of the young boy monks at the monastery. It's all about delegation.

And for next time, more jokes:

Q: กาอะไรพ่นไฟได้

Q: มะนาวอะไรมาจากนอกโลก

Q: หมูอะไรหมุนคอได้

Q: กำอะไรเอ่ยกินกับข้าวเหนียว

Q: อะไรเอ่ย ดำบวม

A small hint.. these all involve a new kind of wordplay I haven't discussed before: คำผวน. Even with that hint, though, these are all insanely difficult, if you ask me.

*I don't know of any common translation for ปิ่นโต. If you're not familiar, it's a set of small stackable food containers for segregating the different parts of your lunch, with a frame that wraps around and holds them together tightly, with a handle on top. The term "Chinese lunchbox" comes to mind, and I found a page on Amazon using that term, though I don't get the idea from Google that that's very common. Some places use "bento box," but bento also refers to a Japanese homepacked single-serving meal (see the Wikipedia entry). While I suspect both Thai and Japanese borrowed the word from Chinese, they're note quite the same concept anymore. Does anyone know of a name other than Chinese lunchbox? Sorry for the tangent...

Etymologist 9: Can't hold a candle to the moon

I found a really cool link while researching the sandalwood/ไม้จันทน์ connection.

First, I didn't know until just now that the Thai words จันทน์ "sandalwood" and จันทร์ "moon" were related. It turns out that both words (borrowed from Sanskrit) are from the PIE base *kand- meaning "to glow, to shine." The literal meaning of จันทน์ would be "(wood for) burning incense," referring to the common use of that variety of wood. จัทนร์ would mean "shining; glowing." It has come to mean "moon" because the moon shines.

Our modern word candle comes from the Old English candel, from Latin candela "a light, torch" in turn from candere "to shine." Which is cognate with Sanskrit candra-, and therefore related to Thai จันทร์. (Also from the same Latin root are our English words candor, candid, incandescent, and incendiary, among others.)

Etymologist 8: Sandalwood and ไม้จันทน์

Continuing in the vein of recent posts, on etymological links between English and Thai (through Sanskrit), today let's look at sandalwood.

First off, the name apparently has nothing to do with the footwear. The name sandal meaning open-toed shoe comes from Old French, which in turn is from the Latin, which comes from the Greek, and ultimately is probably a Persian word, says the Online Etymological Dictionary*.

The sandal in sandalwood comes into English via a similar path. It would have been a homophone with the footwear in Old French, but from different Latin and Greek roots. It came into Greek from either Persian or Turkish, but ultimately comes from the Sanskrit candana-m. Sandalwood in Thai is called ไม้จันทน์, which transcribed in the Mary Haas method (minus ไม้) is canthana. (Note that this is not the same spelling as จันทร์ "moon"--though I'll get into how these two words are related in a future post).

So that's the story of the connection between sandal(wood) and (ไม้)จันทน์.

I just noticed that this, the formal name for the English etymology resource found at, ironically has the initials OED--ironic because it's the poor man's Oxford English Dictionary. It's no substitute, but charges a hefty sum to subscribe.

September 11, 2007

Etymologist 7: Emerald/มรกต

Today I have another interesting connection between Thai and English to share. The Thai word for emerald, มรกต, is actually cognate with its English equivalent. First let's check out the RID99 definition of มรกต:
มรกต [มอระกด] น. ชื่อรัตนะอย่างหนึ่งในจำพวกนพรัตน์ มีสีเขียว.
"The name of a type of precious stone, one of the nine gems, green in color." (my translation) has this to say about the origin of emerald:
c.1300, from O.Fr. emeraude, from M.L. esmaraldus, from L. smaragdus, from Gk. smaragdos "green gem," from Sem. baraq "shine"... Skt. maragdam "emerald" is from the same source...
To sum up, we have English emerald coming from Greek smaragdos, related to the Sanskrit root maragdam. The Sanskrit has another form (or perhaps another transliteration, I'm not sure)--marakatam. The etymologies given in RID are woefully incomplete, so it's not surprising they don't acknowledge the Indic source of the word, but it's a pretty obvious connection between marakatam and มรกต. And thus between มรกต and emerald.

Introducing the Jones Thai-English Dictionary

I was intentionally a bit vague in the last post about what the nature of the "new Thai-English dictionary" I gave a presentation on at SEALS XVII last week. I was trying to pique your interest, you see.

Well, world, say hello to the Jones Thai-English Dictionary. I believe it to be the oldest Thai-English dictionary, perhaps dating from as early as the 1830s. So I was using "new" in the sense of "newly available for your perusal."

This online dictionary tool is still in an early stage, but it's an example of the type of tool I'd like to develop for other Thai dictionaries of the 19th Century (and beyond). When more of them are digitized, you can start to do really cool stuff (like easily comparing definitions in various dictionaries across the decades/centuries).

It's digitized from a manuscript of unknown provenance in the British Museum Library (donated in 1949 by one J. Hurst Hayes). I received a computer scan of the microfilmed manuscript, and I started digitizing it in 2006. Working on it as time allowed, I typed it in, first the headwords, and then the definitions. There are upwards of 10,000 entries. I typed everything exactly as it was written, so I also matched the archaic spelling with the modern spelling (though I'm not done yet--there's only around 50% coverage so far).

The dictionary is named for John Taylor Jones and his wife Eliza Grew Jones, because I believe they authored this dictionary. They were an American missionary couple who arrived in Siam in 1833. In the realm of Protestant missionaries to Siam, they were preceded by Carl Gutzlaff, who left in 1831 due to illness, but he had started work on a dictionary, and the Joneses are purported to have seen it to completion (this was before the advent of the Thai printing press). A dictionary is mentioned by the Joneses themselves in correspondence and diaries, and is also mentioned in the writings of contemporaries, but no copy is known to survive. For these and other reasons, my working theory is that this manuscript is a copy of the Jones dictionary.

Regardless of the origin of the manuscript, however, the point of this online tool is to enable more innovative and more effective research on the Thai language. The digitized text is linked to the original manuscript--click on any search result to see the corresponding page in DjVu format. You can see my annotations and comments, and you can go to the original document if you find anything curious about my transcription. Feel free to disagree. Please let me know where I've made errors.

You can expect this tool to become more sophisticated with time, but I hope that you'll agree that even in this relatively simple stage of development, it's at least a fascinating glimpse into Thailand's linguistic history, and at best a valuable tool for better understanding the Thai language, both then and now.

Etymologist 6: Bandana

I hear you asking, why is he writing a post on the origin of bandana on a blog about Thai? Well, I was recently enjoying a read through the Wikipedia page on Sanskrit loanwords in English, and found some interesting connections between English and Thai.

For those who weren't aware, Sanskrit and English are linguistic cousins. Very distant cousins, though, as part of the rather huge Indo-European language family (this means they descended from a common language--what we call "Proto-Indo-European" or PIE). And while Thai isn't part of the same family, it has an immense number of Indic (mostly Sanskrit and Pali) loanwords. Which makes for some interesting connection between English and Thai.

Which brings me to bandana. According to, bandana is attested in English from 1752, coming from Hindi bandhnu, a method of dyeing, from the Sanskrit badhnati "binds". The method was so-called because the cloth was tie-dyed. Go ahead, enjoy the flashback to the early 90s. Turns out the Indians were doing it three centuries earlier.

The word bandana is from the same PIE root as band in the sense "something that binds".

This is where the connection to Thai comes in. There are two cognates in Thai: พันธ- [พัน or พัน-ทะ]
, and พันธน- [พัน-ทะ-นะ]. Both are from the same Indic root. I'm not sure about the difference in the original language, but in Thai the former is usually a verb, meaning "tie, bind" (although it can be used as a noun to mean "obligation") and the latter is usually a nominalized form, "tying, binding; tying implement, binding implement". But really, they're basically the same word.

Looking into this causes me to wonder about the very similar word พัน. It's defined in RID99 as "to wrap around with a rope or something similar" (that's my quick, lazy translation). That sure sounds like to tie or bind, if you ask me. I looked it up in the Proto-Tai'o'Matic, which handily shows us what various scholars have written about the origins of native Thai words (as opposed to loanwords). Only one of the works, Jonsson91, claims a native origin for พัน:

Jonsson: [ *b- (A4) B16-31 ] PSW: *ban "to encircle"

I'd hardly call that conclusive, but I don't have any hard evidence to show that พัน comes from พันธ, so for now we'll put it in the "interesting correspondence that requires further investigation" category. It's the best I can do for now.

September 10, 2007

Thai loans in English

I recall participating in a discussion on the topic of loanwords. Specifically, musing on the vast number of English loans in Thai, and wondering if there could possibly be any Thai loans in English. My immediate reaction was that there wouldn't be, because native English speakers don't have sufficient exposure to the Thai language in any statistically significant way. Then someone suggested pad thai, I think it was. Which is a good point. Thai food is immensely popular in the U.S., at least, and we have two choices for how to deal with the abundance of varieties of Thai (or any foreign) cuisine: (1) give it a descriptive English name, or (2) use its native name.

On your average Chinese menu, for example, you'll see both "beef with broccoli" and "moo goo gai pan." We could call the latter "mushroom chicken," but we don't (or at least, most places I've been to don't).

We borrow the names for lots of foreign dishes: from French, we have filet mignon, and escargot; from Italian, everything from spaghetti to cacciatore; from Spanish, paella; from Arabic, couscous.

And from Thai, we have examples of both naming options in papaya salad (for ส้มตำ), a descriptive name, and mee krob (หมี่กรอบ) or pad thai (ผัดไทย), native names. Of course, there is variation from restaurant to restaurant, but many dishes are best known by their Thai names.

Borrowing words is a natural social and linguistic process. And learning new concepts from foreign cultures is a very common (and totally legit) reason to introduce loanwords into another language (although some countries feel that they have to come up with more native-sounding alternatives). Something like pad thai has no English name at first. Whether we will all end up calling it, say, Thai spaghetti (which I sometimes have done) or just adopt the native name (which already conveniently has the word thai in it anyway) is something that can't be predicted. Whatever sticks. And it appears, in several cases, that English has adopted a few words from Thai. Who'da thunk it.

September 5, 2007


Greetings from Ohio! I'm visiting family in the Buckeye State, which means I'm still on the road. The blog is long overdue for an update.

I presented at SEALS XVII this past Friday (see my abstract--PDF alert--for more info). SEALS XVII is the 17th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, if you didn't know. Let me say, it's an exciting time for Southeast Asian linguistics, or anyone interested in Southeast Asian languages.

SEALS publishes a conference proceedings, but the publication has frequently been behind schedule, sometimes by years--I think we may still be waiting on a couple of volumes. Recently, though, the task of publishing the SEALS proceedings has been taken over by Pacific Linguistics. And at this year's meeting, some changes were proposed.

The big change is that the SEALS proceedings be replaced by JSEALS (Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society), an annual peer-reviewed journal. Also, Pacific Linguistics will make the journal available online for free (as well as print-on-demand paper copies). The last couple years' proceedings published by PL are already free online, but it's an important note to make that even as a refereed journal it will remain free.

This kind of move goes somewhat against the conventional wisdom of academia, but it's an important move for a specialized subfield like Southeast Asian Linguistics. The more exposure you can get, the more valuable the journal becomes. This is because the more people read it, the more it can be cited, and the more of an impact factor the journal has. Limiting availability to sell back-issues is both a bad business model and a bad intellectual model. Specialized journals like those in Southeast Asian Linguistics are not about making money. More and more people are coming around to this idea, which is great.

As soon as I can, I'll post about the new online Thai-English dictionary I premiered to the world last Friday. I hope readers here will be interested, too.