August 28, 2008

Etymologist 16: On the origin of สวัสดี sawatdi

You've seen it spelled sawatdi, sawatdee, sawasdee, and probably half a dozen other variations. To Thais, it's all just สวัสดี.

This modern greeting dates back to the mid-1930s. It is adapted from the Sanskrit สวสฺติ svasti, meaning 'blessing' or 'well-being'. It shares a root with swastika, from Sanskrit svastik 'auspicious thing', the name of the Hindu symbol co-opted by you-know-who right around the time sawatdi was catching on in Thailand.

Credited with its invention as a greeting is
พระยาอุปกิตศิลปสาร Phraya Uppakit Silpasan (1879-1941, born นิ่ม กาญจนาชีวะ), who was a Thai language expert and professor at Chulalongkorn University in the 1930s. He also served on the dictionary committee of the Royal Institute.

As the story goes, Phraya Uppakit coined the greeting in the mid-1930s, as a replacement for a series of expressions coined by the Royal Institute that many felt were too foreign.

Indeed, the expressions sawatdi was meant to replace were translated directly from English: อรุณสวัสดิ์  /arun
sawàt/ 'good morning', ทิวาสวัิสดิ์ /thíwaa sawàt/ 'good afternoon', สายัณห์สวัสดิ์ /sǎayan sawàt/ 'good evening', and ราตรีสวัสดิ์ /raatrii sawàt/ 'good night'. You'll still see อรุณสวัสดิ์ and ราตรีสวัสดิ์ as translations of 'good morning' and 'good night' in film subtitles and translated books, but the other two are virtually obsolete.

One reason the term feels "more Thai" than these other terms, which all involve the same Sanskrit word สวัสดิ์, is that its final syllable is ดี /dii/, which although etymologically unrelated to the Thai word for 'good', definitely creates a semantic connection in the mind. Using Google you can find instances of wordplay that illustrates this connection, where people swap out ดี, creating jocular expressions like
สวัสไม่ดี สวัสร้าย สวัสเลว and สวัสแย่.

It is also interesting to note that the popular Thai greetings in wide use prior to these invented expressions are still in wide use today: greetings like ไปไหน 'where are you going?' or ไปไหนมา 'where are you coming from?' or กินข้าวหรือยัง 'have you eaten yet?'.

What this says to me is that for as widespread as สวัสดี sawatdi is used today, it's still an unnatural expression on some level, mostly limited to formal contexts and social ritual. (Thai people even prefer to answer the phone
not with สวัสดี sawatdi but rather ฮัลโหล, from English 'hello?', which has recently resulted in the National Cultural Commission urging people to stick to the prescribed telephone greeting.)

According to Chula University legend, Phraya Uppakit introduced สวัสดี sawatdi to his students, and it quickly became popular throughout campus and spread from there. However, the widespread adoption of สวัสดี sawatdi probably did not happen quite so organically. It had a little help from Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram.

In 1943, eight months after simplifying the Thai script, Phibunsongkhram made สวัสดี the "official" Thai language greeting.

The following statement was issued by the กรมโฆษณาการ (Propaganda Department, now known as กรมประชาสัมพันธ์, Public Relations Department) on January 22, 1943 (original spelling retained):
"ด้วยพนะท่านนายกรัถมนตรี ได้พิจารนาเห็นว่า เพื่อเปนการส่งเสริมเกียรติแก่ตนและแก่ชาติ ให้สมกับที่เราได้รับความยกย่องว่า คนไทยเปนอารยะชน คำพูดจึงเปนสิ่งหนึ่งที่สแดงภูมิของจิตใจว่าสูงต่ำเพียงใด ฉะนั้นจึงมีคำสั่งให้กำชับ บันดาข้าราชการทุกคนกล่าวคำ "สวัสดี" ต่อกันไนโอกาสที่พบกันครั้งแรกของวัน เพื่อเป็นการผูกไมตรีต่อกัน และฝึกนิสัยไห้กล่าวแต่คำที่เปนมงคล ว่าอะไรว่าตามกัน กับขอไห้ข้าราชการช่วยแนะนำ แก่ผู้ที่อยู่ไนครอบครัวของตนไห้รู้จักกล่าวคำ "สวัสดี" เช่นเดียวกันด้วย"
My translation:
"His Excellency the Prime Minister has considered the matter and is of the opinion that in order to enhance the honor of ourselves and of the nation; in a manner fitting that the Thais be praised as a civilized people; and as speech reflects the status of one's mind; therefore, the order has been given to emphatically urge all public servants to utter the phrase sawatdi to one another when meeting for the first time of the day. Doing so will befriend one another, and instill the habit of speaking only auspicious words. In addition, public servants are requested to assist in advising those in their households to also use the phrase sawatdi."
It stands to reason, based on this directive, that sawatdi had not caught on in general use, or else there would be no need to effectively mandate its use, nor would there be any need to instruct public servants to tell their families to use it, either.

If anyone has further evidence on precisely when สวัสดี sawatdi began to be widely used, or on whether it was widely used before 1943, I would love to see it.


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  2. In a German context I would expect, in a telephone call, as the very first word neither sawatdi nor hello but the family name of the other person at the end. As this GOOD/EDUCATED stile decreases considerably I would argue that "Hi(gh), Tach (guten Tag/sawatdi in slang), Hallo" is a question of national interest. As German nationalism, however, caused already WW II (WW I may be considered as another issue) I would recommend to accept also Tach, Hallo, or even HI --- although I do not like one of the suggestions too much (but must be accepted to avoid WW III).

    Thanks to god, or the US troops, German telephone calls in the morning do not start any longer by "Heil Hitler" by decrete.