October 31, 2008

Farang stuff

Any white foreigner who spends even a few days in Thailand will learn at least one Thai word: ฝรั่ง farang. It's being used by Thais to refer to them whether they're aware of it or not.

Farang is one of the first words that will stand out from the jumble of Thai constantly spoken on all sides. People are likely to be saying things like, "Come take this farang's order, my English is terrible," or "Help! I can't make head nor tail of what the farang wants." If you're in a place where foreigners don't frequent, you're likely to hear it randomly shouted at your very presence, by staring children and adults alike.

For the most part, it's used harmlessly. Some people take it as an insult, but I don't. If somebody uses it like it's my name, I might let them know. Thais generally mean no harm by the word, even if they tend to overuse it.

The etymology behind the word farang is relatively clear, but some persistent folk etymologies muddy the waters. I don't want to get too much into tracing the history of the word right now, though.

The short version: farang doesn't come from the Thai word ฝรั่งเศษ /farangseet/ "France", since its use predates their arrival in Thailand; nor does it come from the fact that white people have skin like the inside of a guava. Likely cognates of farang are found in many languages and many countries, stretching from the Middle East out to Oceania. It was almost certainly spread by Persian traders across mainland Asia many centuries ago. Such Persian traders arrived in Siam by the 16th century, bringing along with their wares the word farangi, meaning Westerner or white man, from Arabic faranji, and ultimately referring to the Germanic tribe the Franks, dating from the crusades, perhaps as early as the turn of the first millennium, A.D.

Yes, that really is the short version.

The so-called farangs have shared their appellation with many things in Thai. The guava, known as ฝรั่ง farang in Thai, is native to the Americas and was most likely introduced to Southeast Asia by the Portuguese. In the early 19th century, John Crawfurd wrote of a fruit the Thais called "banana of the Franks (Kloa-Farang)", or กล้วยฝรั่ง /kluai farang/. (Note: Crawfurd states that the guava is called "malako" and the papaya "kloa farang", but I believe he must have simply reversed the two.) So the fruit gets its name from the foreigners who introduced it, and not the other way around.

It's not just guavas, though. Many things introduced by westerners are called "X farang", which is to say, "the farang version of X".

Common ones include:
  • มันฝรั่ง /man farang/ = potato (มัน /man/ is a general word for tubers, thus potatoes are "farang tubers").
  • หมากฝรั่ง /maak farang/ = chewing gum (หมาก /maak/ is betel, thus gum is "farang betel").
  • หน่อไม้ฝรั่ง /nɔɔ maai farang/ = asparagus (หน่อยไม้ /nɔɔ maai/ are bamboo shoots, thus asparagus is "farang bamboo shoots").
  • ผักชีฝรั่ง /phak chii farang/ = parsley (ผักชี /phak chii/ is cilantro/coriander, thus parsely is "farang cilantro").
For some other things, the "farang" version has come to largely replace the traditional version:
  • น้ำอบฝรั่ง /nam op farang/ = western style perfume, alcohol-based; now called น้ำหอม /nam hɔɔm/ "fragrant liquid", which is more widely used today than traditional น้ำอบ /nam op/.
  • ดีเกลือฝรั่ง /dii klɨa farang/ = epsom salts, though simply ดีเกลือ /dii klɨa/ is now widely used to refer to them.

In cases like these, the original word tends to be replaced with a retronym by adding ไทย "Thai"; that is, it must be renamed to differentiate it. (Like how before digital clocks, there was no such thing as an "analog clock"-- it was just called a clock.) So today there is น้ำอบไทย /nam op thai/ and ดีเกลือไทย /dii klɨa thai/ due to the popularity of their western counterparts.

In addition to asparagus and potatoes, there are several more plant species not native to Southeast Asia that are known as the "farang" version of some other common plant.

These include: แคฝรั่ง, ตะขบฝรั่ง, ผักบุ้งฝรั่ง, ประทัดฝรั่ง, แพงพวยฝรั่ง, มะกอกฝรั่งม, หางนกยูงฝรั่ง, and อังกาบฝรั่ง. You can search for *ฝรั่ง in RID for more details.

October 24, 2008

Loanwords 5: Chameleon English and loanword spelling

Thai, in general, manages to maintain the original orthography of words it borrows from other languages. But a lot fall through the cracks, too, or get changed over the years. For instance, เดิน "walk" is from the Khmer word ដើរ /daə/, and up until the mid-20th century was spelled เดิร in Thai, reflecting the Khmer spelling.

So while most English words are recognizably foreign based on their spelling--everything from คอมพิวเตอร์ to อพาร์ตเมนต์ to เมล์ (in รถเมล์), plenty are less obvious. Which means many Thais may use the words with no idea of their foreign origin. Which is perfectly okay, if you ask me.

To name a few:
  • เลน /leen/, from English 'lane', as the painted divisions of a road.
  • หรีด /riit/ in พวงหรีด, from English 'wreath'; Thais use them exclusively at funerals.
  • ทีม /thiim/, from English 'team'.
  • โน้ต /noot/, also written โน๊ต, from English 'note'.
  • แป๊บ /paep/, from English 'pipe', as in a drainage pipe.
  • เทอม /thoem/, from English 'term', meaning a school term.
  • ยีน /yiin/, from both English 'gene' and 'jean', meaning both the biological unit and denim fabric.
  • โหวต /woot/, from English 'vote'.
  • บาย /baai/ or บ๊ายบาย /baai baai/, from English '(good)bye, bye-bye'.
Note that sometimes there are other clues that these are loanwords, like the presence of certain tones/tone markers (e.g. โน้ต/โน๊ต and แป๊ป), or atypical spellings (e.g. เทอม).

I've been thinking about this because some linguists in Thailand, and some members of Thailand's Royal Institute, want to have more phonetic spellings of loanwords from English, including heavier use of diacritics. As it stands, many English words break normal tone rules. For one, the word pronounced [เก๊ต] is most commonly written เก็ท, which normally would be read with a low tone. Thus, if respelled, it would be written เก๊ต (as many do spell it, but a minority).

Part of the issue here is pronounceability, where these language experts are concerned that spoken Thai will stray from written Thai (despite there already being hundreds if not thousands of opaque and difficult pronunciations for Pali, Sanskrit, and Khmer loanwords); but the other motive is to clearly mark them as English loanwords. Which is really just giving them the Hester Prynne treatment. If words look too Thai, people will think they're Thai, and they may edge out more worthy native words, is how the logic goes.

I'm not in favor of such artificial language tampering. You might say I believe in the linguistic "free market"--the public will decide how it wants to pronounce and spell things. This way, convention is born of common usage. But many countries, like Thailand, put a lot of effort into language planning initiatives. Much language planning, such as creating a standard vocabulary for academic or technical fields, is very useful, as long as the public actually uses the words created.

As of yet, whether such a re-spelling initiative is a good idea or not is still debated by the academics, so little has happened yet. And how successful such an initiative would be remains to be seen.

Make no mistake, though, English is well-entrenched in Thai, and I'm of the opinion that trying to make English words second-class citizens through spelling or other means is a losing battle.

October 22, 2008

รถไฟฟ้า: sky train or electric train?

The phrase รถไฟฟ้า is an interesting linguistic specimen. Prior to the opening of Bangkok's first subway line, รถไฟฟ้า referred exclusively to the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System), commonly referred to in English as the Skytrain.

If you dissect รถไฟฟ้า, you can separate it as รถไฟ rot fai (train) + ฟ้า faa (sky). Skytrain, right? Maybe not.

Another way to divide up the phrase is รถ rot (vehicle) + ไฟฟ้า fai faa (electricity). Electric vehicle.

The common name for the subway is รถไฟใต้ดิน rot fai (train) + tai din (underground). Which seems like a nice semantic pair with รถไฟฟ้า. You have the sky train and the underground train.

The official name of the subway, however, is รถไฟฟ้ามหานคร rot fai faa mahaa nakhon (abbreviated รฟม.). This leaves us only one option for interpretation: metropolitan electric train. Its official English name is the Mass Rapid Transit (abbreviated MRT).

Is it possible that รถไฟฟ้า means both "sky train" and "electric train" at once? Sure, why not. Both are logical interpretations. Sometimes you'll hear the Skytrain called รถไฟลอยฟ้า rot fai loi faa (elevated/floating train), to be more specific. Before there was no need to distinguish. You could just say รถไฟฟ้า and be understood. As a result, it seems to me that I hear more and more Thais now just call it BTS บีทีเอส.

Technically speaking, an electric train should be รถไฟ rot fai + ไฟฟ้า fai faa, but I think รถไฟไฟฟ้า rot fai fai faa is understandably awkward.

If you ask native Thais whether รถไฟฟ้า means "electric train" or "sky train", you'll likely get different answers depending on who you ask. With the opening of the subway, I'd guess more people accept it to mean "electric train".

Back in January 2002, this question was posted on the BTS discussion board:
...พอดีมีคำถามที่สงสัยมาตั้งแต่รถไฟฟ้าเพิ่งจะก่อสร้างแล้วว่า "รถไฟฟ้า" หมายความว่า "รถไฟ" ที่วิ่งแบบลอยฟ้า หรือว่า รถที่วิ่งได้ด้วย "ไฟฟ้า" ครับ เอ... หรือหมายถึงทั้งสองอย่าง แต่จะเรียกรถไฟฟ้าลอยฟ้า หรือ รถไฟไฟฟ้า มันจะเรียกยากและยาวไป เลยเหลือแค่ "รถไฟฟ้า"

"I've been wondering this since construction on the skytrain had barely started--does rot fai faa mean a train that's elevated or a vehicle that runs by electricity? Or does it mean both, but calling it rot fai faa loi faa (elevated electric vehicle) or rot fai fai faa (electric train) is too difficult and too long, so it's shortened to rot fai faa?
See, it's not just me who thinks about this stuff.

October 20, 2008

A colorful Thai name

I ran across this Thai name yesterday: ยุรณัฐ /yu-ra-nat/. Sounds like "You're a nut", even (nay, especially) when pronounced properly. I don't mean to make fun, but it's probably best if this person sticks to their nickname if they โกอินเตอร์ (travel abroad), as the Thais say.

October 18, 2008

19th century "heart words" from Dr. Bradley

From the 1873 Dictionary of the Siamese Language of Dan Beach Bradley (known to Thais as หมอบรัดเลย์), here are "heart words" (compounds with the word ใจ) that have fallen out of use in Thai.

Remember, ใจ- at the beginning of a compound usually indicates a personality trait (as in ใจดี or ใจแคบ), while -ใจ at the end of a compound is usually a temporary emotional state (as in ดีใจ or เสียใจ). These are all the first kind:
  • ใจเกียจ = lazy (คืออาการใจคร้าน, ไม่อยากทำการงานทั้งปวงนั้น, เหมือนอย่างคนขี้เกียจเปนต้น.)
  • ใจโกรธ = angry (เปนชื่อใจที่โทโส บังเกิดแล้วมักทำความชั่วต่าง ๆ นั้น, เหมือนอย่างคนไม่มีเมตา.)
  • ใจโง่ = ignorant (คือใจไม่รู้, เหมือนคนไม่เข้าใจ, ไม่รู้จักสิ่งใดเลย.)
  • ใจช้า = lackadaisical (คือใจไม่เร็ว, ใจเฉื่อย, เหมือนคนจะทำการงานสิ่งใดค่อยทำช้า ๆ.
  • ใจใหญ่ = ambitious (คือใจโต, ใจไม่เล็กนอ้ย, เหมือนคนทำการทั้งปวงก็คิดทำการใหญ่เปนต้น.)
  • ใจดื้อ = stubborn (คือใจไม่ง่าย, ใจสอนยาก, ใจแขงดึงไปนั้น)
  • ใจดุ = fierce, vicious (คือใจไม่ดี ร้ายกาษหยาบช้า, เหมือนอย่างเสือ, ฤๅขะโมยเปนต้น.)
  • ใจปอง = determined (คือใจคิดหมายไว้, คิดอยากได้, คิดอยากทำ, เหมือนคนนึกว่า, ทำไมหนอจะได้.)
  • ใจเลิศ = spotless, without sin or guile (คือใจดีที่สุด, ใจไม่มีบาปติด, ใจไม่เจือดว้ยของชั่ว, เหมือนใจท่านผู้ประเสริฐนั้น.)
  • ใจสูง = haughty, impudent (คือใจไม่ต่ำ, ใจจองหองไม่รู้จักประมาณ, เหมือนคนจนอยากตั้งตัวเปนจ้าวนั้น.)
The definitions in parentheses are Bradley's original definitions, with spacing between words removed. Archaic spelling and other quirks are retained (such as tone mark placement over อ when it is a vowel, as in นอ้ย).

There are more where those came from. See pages 136-137 of Bradley. Note that it's easy to guess what most of these mean, it's just that they're not common collocates with ใจ anymore. Interesting how language just keeps on a-changin'.

If you happen to spot any of these compounds in a modern dictionary, leave a comment.

Titles in Thailand

What's in a title? That which we call a Ms. by any other title would smell as sweet.

Apologies to Shakespeare. I read an interesting Thai law the other day on the topic of titles for women.

As you may know, the basic titles for women in Thailand are นางสาว for a single woman (like Ms.), and นาง for a married woman (like Mrs.).

Only, that's not quite the case. A law issued on January 31 of this year states the following:
  • A woman aged fully 15 years or older, who has never been married, must use the title นางสาว (naang saao)
  • A married woman may use the title นาง (naang) or นางสาว (naang saao) according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.
  • A married woman whose marriage later comes to an end may use the title นาง (naang) or นางสาว (naang saao) according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.

There's an explanatory note at the end of the PDF linked above giving the logic behind this new law. The inability for a married woman to choose her title "ทำให้เกิดผลกระทบต่อหญิงดังกล่าวในการดำรงชีวิตประจำวัน อาทิ การประกอบอาชีพ การศึกษาของบุตร และการทำนิติกรรมต่าง ๆ ส่งผลให้การใช้คำนำหน้านามใน ลักษณะดังกล่าวของหญิงมีลักษณะเป็นการเลือกปฏิบัติโดยไม่เป็นธรรมต่อบุคคลเพราะเหตุแห่งความแตกต่างทางเพศ" (the former law "affected the daily lives of married and formerly married women, including their careers, the education of their children, and the carrying of various legal actions, which constitutes unjust sexual discrimination").

See, now that's interesting. As far as I know, the titles Mr., Ms. and Mrs. have no legal status in the United States (my บ้านเกิดเมืองนอน). I don't know when I've used the title Mr. for myself, except when doing things like applying for a visa to the Thai embassy. Funny how that is.

In Thailand, everyone has some kind of title.

Nowadays, all men (all commoners, anyway) are นาย (naai). Girls and boys under 15 are เด็กหญิง (dek ying) and เด็กชาย (dek chaai), respectively.

Royal titles are very complex, so I'm not going to get into them here. You can read about them, along with many obsolete historical titles, in this Wikipedia article.

Hereditary titles for descendants of royalty (not considered royal themselves) are still in use, too. These pass only through male lines. You'll see the titles หม่อมราชวงศ์ (mom ratchawong), who is the child of a หม่อมเจ้า (mom chao, the lowest tier of royalty), and หม่อมหลวง (mom luang), who is the child of a male หม่อมราชวงศ์ (mom ratchawong).

Children of a หม่อมหลวง (mom luang) receive no title, but can append ณ อยุธยา (Na Ayuthaya, meaning 'of Ayutthaya') to their name, indicating their royal lineage.

Honorific titles for woman of non-royal lineage are granted by His Majesty the King. They are ท่านผู้หญิง (than phuu ying, said to be equivalent to the British title Dame) and คุณหญิง (khun ying, said to be equivalent to the British title Lady). Honorific titles for non-royal men are no longer in use.

There is still a lot of prestige attached to any of the honorific or hereditary titles. But in modern Thai society, there are other titles which will also gain you much respect, and which are available to anyone: titles of education. In particular, ดร. (Doctor, for non-medical doctorate holders) and นพ./พญ. (naai phaet and phaet ying, for men and women medical doctors) hold a lot of cachet; but also professorial titles -- in descending order, ศ. (Professor), รศ. (Associate Professor), and ผศ. (Assistant Professor).

And let's not forget military and police titles. There are a large number of these, and they vary depending on the branch of the military (again, see Wikipedia).

It's not uncommon to stack up multiple titles, either. In an extreme case, you might see ผศ.ดร.พ.ต.ต. which unravels to Assistant Professor Doctor Police Major so-and-so. Quite the mouthful.

On the news, anchors always use a person's full title at least the first time they mention a person. When you have a prominent person with multiple titles, like Thaksin Shinawatra, they might say อดีตนายกรัฐมนตรี พันตำรวจโท ดอกเตอร์ ทักษิณ ชินวัตร "former prime minister Police Lieutenant General Doctor Thaksin Shinawatra". (Nevermind that he left the police force more than 20 years ago.)

All in all, titles are far more important in Thailand than they are in my homeland. In the U.S., some pompous ass might correct you with "that's Dr. so-and-so", because he wants you to know he has a degree. It's generally much less of a big deal, and (as in the case of the pompous ass) being overly showy with titles is tacky.

Back in Mother England they seem to be more important, though I have very little clue about the hierarchy involved in those. My mom says her side of the family has traced our genealogy back to Charlemagne. Probably me and 10 million other people. I don't think I'm going to inherit any titles any time soon.

Any readers have a title I should be aware of?

October 16, 2008

RID99 in retrospect: don't judge a book by its cover ... or thickness

Here's a blast from the past. A headline from Matichon Online, August 25, 2003 (click for the full article):

ร้อนๆ "พจนานุกรมราชบัณฑิต 2542" เพิ่มคำศัพท์ใหม่ 2 เท่าตัว

Hot of the presses: "Royal Institute Dictionary 1999" doubles number of entries

The dictionary is called the Royal Institute Dictionary 1999, despite being first published in 2003, because it was supposed to coincide with the king's sixth-cycle (72nd) birthday, but was years behind schedule.

Just one thing--the 1999 edition nowhere close to double the number of entries.

From the article:
ก่อนหน้านี้ ราชบัณฑิตยสถาน ถูกวิพากษ์วิจารณ์อย่างหนัก ถึงความเป็นพวกหัวโบราณ เก่าเก็บ คร่ำครึ ไม่ปรับปรุงแก้ไขเพิ่มเติมคำศัพท์ต่างๆ ในภาษาไทย ให้ทันกระแสโลก คนไทยจึงทนอยู่กับพจนานุกรมฯ พ.ศ.2525 ซึ่งมีการแก้ไขและพิมพ์ใหม่ถึง 6 ครั้ง โดยครั้งที่ 6 พิมพ์เมื่อปี 2539 จำนวน 60,000 เล่ม รวมพิมพ์ 6 ครั้งเป็นทั้งหมด 280,000 เล่ม แต่คำศัพท์ต่างๆ แทบไม่มีการเปลี่ยนแปลง

พจนานุกรม ฉบับราชบัณฑิตยสถาน พ.ศ.2542 กลายเป็นพระเอกขี่ม้าขาว มาช่วยแก้ภาพพจน์ของราชบัณฑิตฯ เพราะมีคำศัพท์ใหม่ๆ บัญญัติไว้อย่างทันยุคทันสมัย ถึงแม้ไม่ใช่ทั้งหมด แต่ยังมากกว่าฉบับที่แล้วๆ มา


พจนานุกรม ฉบับล่าสุดนี้ จะเห็นว่ามีรูปเล่มหนามากกว่าเดิมถึงสองเท่า เนื่องจากมีการบัญญัติศัพท์ใหม่ๆ เพิ่มคำนิยามใหม่ๆ มากขึ้นเกือบเท่าตัว ...

My translation:
Prior to now, the Royal Institute has been severely criticized for being old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, antiquated, failing to revise and expand the number of words in Thai at pace with the real world. The Thai people have put up with RID 1982, which has been revised and reprinted six times, most recently with a print run of 60,000 copies in 1996, bringing the total number of copies printed to 280,000. The lexical content remained virtually unchanged, however.

The Royal Institute Dictionary 1999 thus comes as the knight in shining armor to rescue the reputation of the Royal Institute, because there are many newly coined words that bring it up to date. It doesn't include every word, but it has more than past editions.


This latest edition of the dictionary is more than twice as thick as its predecessor, because there are nearly double the number of entries and definitions. ...

I don't think that RID99 really proved to be the savior they had hoped it would, and that this article so optimistically claimed. One of the comments on the Pantip thread this article is archived on is: น่าจะมีแบบ CD ROM นะ "there should be a CD-ROM version".

Indeed, there should have been. There still has never been, although a web version of RID99 was finally released in February 2008, four-and-a-half years after the paper edition came out. (A web version of RID82 was available prior to that.)

The new RID was too large to become widely used. It is more than 1,400 pages, but it's also a solid four inches thick. Twice as thick as RID82.

So how about all the new words that RID99 supposedly had? I've written about wordcounts in RID before. By my count, the net increase in headwords from RID82 to RID99 was a mere 922 words: 19,526 versus 20,448. That represents an increase of less than 5%.

RID made more gains in subheads, however. RID is organized such that a word like ใจ is a headword, and ใจดี is one of its subhead. All subheads come within the particular headword entry, and begin with that headword. RID99 contains 18,753 subheads, compared to 14,387 in 1982, representing a 30% increase.

The combined total of heads and subheads grows from 33,913 to 39,201 or just 15%. Unless RID was suddenly writing much longer definitions, something else had to account for the increased thickness in RID. The answer is simple: the paper is thick.

I believe that this fact has been more of a detriment to its widescale adoption as a standard reference than the Royal Institute would like.

Think about it: over the course of 21 years, 280,000 copies of RID82 were printed and sold. The first print run of RID99 was a massive 200,000 copies. More than ten times the print run of a typical commercial book.

Five years later, the first printing has still not sold out. If they had printed a modest first run, they could have fixed this problem by now. Unfortunately, they invested millions of baht in the huge first printing, and surely can't justify reprinting before they've completely sold their stock.

Among the other comments on the Pantip thread are several reference to how darn huge the book is. At least commenter said she had planned to pick up a copy, but changed plans upon seeing its massive girth: "ไม่รู้จะยัดไว้ตรงไหนของบ้านอ่ะ" ("I don't know where on earth I'd put it.")

Compare that with the Matichon Dictionary. Publishing empire Matichon debuted its own dictionary in November 2004, barely a year after RID99, containing far more new words, including much more slang and colloquialisms. And despite being 1100 pages, it's less than half the thickness of RID99. It's attractively printed on so-called 'bible paper'.

Matichon wasn't trying to make a quick buck with its dictionary. Their dictionary had its origin in 1997, the year of the big "bubble burst"--ฟองสบู่แตก. Writer ขรรค์ชัย บุนปาน started Matichon (มติชน) with พงษ์ศักดิ์ พยัฆวิเชียร in 1978, when both men were in their early 30s. It took time to build up their publishing empire, but by the late 1990s, things were going well. And so, ขรรค์ชัย decided he was finally going to scratch a longstanding itch: to create a dictionary of his own. It would come to rival that of the Royal Institute, which in 1997 was 15 years into revising its latest edition.

He put together a team, including his childhood friend and longtime collaborator, writer สุจิตต์ วงศ์เทศ, literary scholar and professor ล้อม เพ็งแก้ว, Thai language scholar สันต์ จิตภาษา (pen name ภาษิต จิตภาษา), and others. สุพจน์ แจ้งเร็ว, editor of ศิลปวัฒนธรรม (Art & Culture Magazine), and who I had a chance to talk with about the origins of the Matichon Dictionary in early 2005, was appointed editor of the project.

The first fruits of their labor was published in 2000, a slim dictionary with a few thousand entries, พจนานุกรมนอกราชบัณฑิตฯ "Dictionary of Words Not in RID".

Interestingly, Matichon began its work in the same way that RID has produced its dictionary for 75 years: by having all the experts sit together and discuss each word. They discovered, of course, that this is an impossibly slow way to work, so they modified their method. Something RID could learn from, frankly. In the end, the project cost Matichon ten million baht, according to media reports.

How does Matichon wordcount weigh against RID? According to Matichon, the total number of words in the dictionary is 39,515. (I counted slightly differently and came up with 40,502, because Matichon uses numbered senses under one entry where RID uses separate entries.)

My count puts Matichon with 1,301 more entries than RID99. Where RID is heavy on the literary vocabulary and archaisms, Matichon eschews many of these in favor of more modern colloquialisms and slang, including words like กิ๊ก, many of which were finally recognized by the Royal Institute in their supplementary volume, พจนานุกรมคำใหม่ เล่ม ๑ (Dictionary of New Words Vol. 1), published October 2007.

I wish there were more worthy rivals like Matichon for the venerable RID. Not because I want it to fail or be superceded, because I don't. I refer it to nearly every day (online, of course). But competition breeds innovation, and necessity brings about change. The greater the competition, the better Thai dictionaries will become. And it's folks like us--Joe the Dictionary User--who are the winners in that scenario.

Not all taxi drivers are created equal

Sometimes it seems like everyone fits into nicely defined categories. I talk to pretty much every taxi driver I ride with about the political situation in Thailand. If not politics, then the economy is usually my fallback topic.

Taxi drivers always have something interesting to say. And while I try not to generalize about people too much, their stance is usually variations on this theme: Thaksin made their lives better, even if he was a crook, and the PAD is making their lives worse, regardless of its motives.

This morning was out of the ordinary. The driver was quiet at first, perhaps thinking my Thai was limited to stating where I wanted to go, so I left him to eating his unripe mango, alternated with driving like he had a woman in labor in the backseat.

Then we nearly got into two accidents within the space of 30 seconds. A lady driving a minivan made a sudden lane change with us in her blindspot, and then just a few meters up the road a dingy truck did a U-turn across three lanes in front of a green light. So while my cabbie was cursing like a sailor at the other drivers, I decided to jump in and play the commiserator, which started our conversation.

Unlike most taxi drivers I've ridden with, this fellow was pro-PAD. He treated me to all the classic anti-Thaksin rumors: Thaksin hates the King and has been seen trampling His Majesty's picture, Thaksin is from the แม้ว (Hmong) hill tribe and grew up in the drug trade, etc. And the guy had heard you could find all the evidence for this "on the web". Yes, that bastion of trustworthiness, the web.

It was an interesting conversation, to say the least. At first I tried to provide counterpoints to his ideas, but as they got further and further from empirical reality, I decided to just go along for the ride. So I khrap-ed and mmm-ed the rest of the way.

Despite being my dad's age, he spoke like we grew up together in the same upcountry muban. I don't offend easily, which is good, because I heard more blue language in that 15-minute conversation than I've heard in six months. One choice soundbite: ทักษิณแม่งขี้โกงเหี้ย. Them's fightin' words.

I guess this is why I like talking to taxi drivers. There's less of the fake civility and polite talking-in-circles that happens in "normal" Thai society. I can ask a direct question and they tell me exactly what they think. Not the best strategy in every scenario, sure, but I think we could do with more of that in the world.

October 9, 2008

Thai 101 Giveaway: มหาอำนาจฟาสต์ฟู้ด Fast Food Nation

In the spirit of book-loving that envelops me during national book fairs, I'm offering my first ever giveaway. I have two copies of มหาอำนาจฟาสต์ฟู้ด that desperately want a new home (don't worry, I still have my own copy).

This is the full-length Thai translation of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, the 2001 New York Times bestseller about the fast food industry. The book is non-fiction, but it was, oddly enough, made into a drama by Richard Linklater in 2006. The movie was just okay.

This specimen is 415 pages, cover price 275 baht, published in 2003 by ดอกหญ้่า. These are remainder books, so they're not used, but they're a little scuffed from several years of shelves and boxes.

To claim your copy: leave a comment on this thread telling me a little about the Thai book you most recently bought.

I have one qualification: you must live in Thailand, since I'll be mailing you the book at my expense. Any province is fine. After you've commented, drop me an email with your mailing address:
That's it. Let the free books flow.

P.S. Even if you don't live in Thailand, or don't even want the book, feel free to tell me about your latest book purchase, Thai or otherwise. You can see mine in the widget on the right sidebar (I'm a bit behind on cataloging mine, though).

Book Expo Thailand 2008 starts on Saturday

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. Fill up your wallet and empty out your largest handbag. In less than 48 hours, Book Expo Thailand begins, the sister event of the National Book Week Fair held each April.

If the two events are sisters, then they're identical twins. Same venue, same booksellers, and most of them are even in the exact same spot.

At these semi-annual events, my budget puts on its stretchiest sweat pants, and I do my best to force feed it into a coma. Sure, it's compulsive, but it makes a bibliophile happy. Sure, I haven't read most of my acquisitions from last time, but that's not the point. Today I did my warm-up exercises on a table of 20-baht books (mostly crap) that was set up at Century Plaza today. I managed to snag a half dozen or so.

The fair is great. Booksellers clear out their stocks at often ridiculous prices, brand spanking new books are heavily discounted, and--my favorite part--all the big used booksellers are in one place. Granted, probably 98% of the books there are in Thai, but Asia Books and White Lotus Press will be there, among others, so it's a great place to get discount English books, too.

October 11-23, 2008. Queen Sirikit Convention Centre. 10:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. every day. Thirteen days of booky goodness.

I'll be there. How about you?

October 8, 2008

Back bumper wisdom

I saw this sticker a while back and promptly forgot about it, so when I spotted it again yesterday, I made a mental note to share it on the blog:

(Actually, this is a recreation. I couldn't find a decent image online, so I whipped this up in Photoshop. Feel free to do with it what you will.)

The sticker looks, of course, like traffic a sign. The joke is in the names: เมาคะนอง --> แจ้งมรณะ --> ยมโลก. "Wildly drunk" --> "death notice" --> "the underworld/hell". It's a cautionary tale of unfortunate probabilities.

Each name is a play on a well-known Bangkok location:
  • เมาคะนอง /mao khanɔɔŋ/ is a pun on ดาวคะนอง Dao Khanong;
  • แจ้งมรณะ /chɛ̂ɛŋ mɔranáʔ/ is a pun on แจ้งวัฒนะ Chaeng Watthana;
  • ยมโลก /yommalôok/ is a pun on ยมราช Yommarat.
Beats the heck out of the old standard (เมาไม่ขับ "don't drive drunk") in the creativity department!

October 4, 2008

Wanakam.com is dead... long live Wanakam.com!

Marcel Barang's excellent website Wanakam.com ("Wanakam World Classics in Thai"), home to more than 200 Thai translations of English and French literature, has been offline for some time now. For most of 2008, if I'm not mistaken. I haven't tried contacting Marcel to inquire as to the reason, so I don't know if it's coming back online.

Of course, nothing's every really dead online, what with the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Their most recent backup of Wanakam.com is from December 2007, well after the site stopped actively adding new content.

In June 2006, this announcement was posted:
The decision has been taken to discontinue wanakam.com as of today, 2 June 2006.
And then in July:
Life after death 
The decision has been taken to publish a series of wanakam.com books using material from this site over the next few months. The relevant translators will be contacted by and by. Rejoice and pass the word around!
More than two years later, nothing has come of this announcement, to my knowledge, so I doubt this is related to the disappearance of the site. But you never know. Anyhow, you can still enjoy these stories on the Internet Archive.

Another way to get at stories from Wanakam.com is via the new Just Read! feature on the SEAlang.net (right now all the available texts are in one unwieldy dropdown menu, so you have to scroll down to the section titled "Wanakam translations"). Just Read! is a pared down version of the experimental Reader's Helper tool.

With these tools, the Thai text has been manually aligned* sentence-by-sentence with the original English (stories from French are out), which makes it easier to keep your place, and lets you choose from a few different layout styles. Other useful features are pop-up romanization by hovering over a Thai word, and clicking a Thai word to automatically insert it into the search box. Clicking "search" will bring up a dictionary search in a new window. (See the Just Read! screencast for a walkthrough.)

Disclosure: I worked on preparing the texts for this tool. (I'm the sucker who did the alignment, among other things.)

If you find this useful, you can also try Just Write!, or the full set of features in the SEAlang Lab. These are experimental tools supported by the U.S. Dep't of Education. Bugs are many, so remember: the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

*Automatic alignment of Thai and English parallel texts (aka bitexts) just isn't good enough yet. A colleague of mine is currently writing his Master's thesis on this topic, though, trying to improve accuracy.