June 2, 2007

Etymologist 1: คำกร่อน

In a new (and hopefully regular) feature, I'll examine the origins behind Thai words and phrases. I've decided to call it Etymologist.

For this first outing, let's talk about what are called คำกร่อน, literally "eroded words." That is, words in which certain syllables are shortened or lost over the course of time.

There are a number of terms in linguistics to describe different types of "sound loss":
  • elision (or aphaeresis), which means the loss of unstressed sounds
  • syncope, the loss of final sounds
  • apocope, the loss of medial sounds (sounds between other sounds)
The one Thai term covers all of these different terms. Sometimes these คำกร่้อน in Thai are still of obvious origin, such as the typical shortening of มหาวิทยาลัย (university) to มหา-ลัย. The motivation behind this sort of shortening is clear: economy of speech. Why utter six syllables when you can get away with three? It's comparable to "university" abbreviated as "uni" in some dialects of English.

But the คำกร่อน that I want to write about today are ones whose origins have been sufficiently obscured by the passage of time so as to lose their transparency. Thai is natively monosyllabic, so the majority of polysyllabic words are borrowings from other languages. But another source of words with two or more syllables is this process of sound change, where syllables lose their independent meaning and get combined into longer units. Consider a couple of examples:
  • ตะวัน = sun
  • สะไภ้ = female in-law
These words are indeed native Thai words, but most speakers couldn't explain what each syllable means.

In fact, ตะวัน comes from ตาวัน, meaning "eye of the day," presumably because the sun is like the eye in the center of the sky. Previously, I mistakenly hypothesized to myself that วัน (day) was an abbreviation from ตะัวัน. My very own folk etymology! Now I know better.

As for สะไภ้, it is an example of reduction of an unstressed syllable. สาว became สะ, and so สาวไภ้ is now สะไภ้. Looking at สะไภ้ in SEAlang's Proto-Tai'o'Matic, it appears ไภ้ by itself used to mean "daughter-in-law," and สาว has since been tacked on and reduced to simply สะ. In the earliest Thai-English dictionary I have, a handwritten volume from the 1830s or 1840s (my copy is digital), the word is already in its shortened form, สะไภ้, so this particular คำกร่อน had probably already been around quite a while even at that point.

Another example is found in the names of many Thai fruits and vegetables: มะ, as in มะม่วง, มะพร้าว, มะขาม, มะนาว, มะเขือ, etc. This syllable is reduced from หมาก, which at one point meant "fruit." Nowadays, the unmarked form หมาก refers specifically to the betel nut, but the more proper term หมากพลู is still around. (The little area where Bangkok's immigration office is located is known as สวนพลู, which means "betel garden"). Fairly recently, however, หมาก in the meaning "fruit/vegetable" was reduced to มะ, and became a bound morpheme. In Isan and Laos, it is still a free morpheme, and while properly still spelled/pronounced หมาก, the common colloquial form is หมัก or บัก. Take the Isan term for ส้มตำ (papaya salad), ตำหมักฮุง. Here, หมักฮุง is the Lao word for มะละกอ. Historically, the Thai word for papaya would have been หมากละกอ, just as the formerly complete forms of other fruits would have been หมากพร้าว, หมากม่วง, etc. The mid-19th century dictionary I mentioned often contains both versions of these words, although it appears that at that point the มะ forms were already more common.

If anyone can think of some more คำกร่อน, please post them. I'll come back to this topic again in a few days and see if I can't come up with a few more myself.

1 comment:

  1. Mmm, really good post -- I'd like to see more of this. :)