May 25, 2007

Keeping track of time ตอนที่ ๓

This is the third (and final, I believe) post in a miniseries on the origins behind the names of the days and months in thai. This go-round we'll delve into the mythology behind the colors traditionally associated with the days of the week.

Here's the rundown:
Sunday = red
Monday = yellow
Tuesday = pink
Wednesday = green
Thursday = orange
Friday = blue
Saturday = purple/black

Your color is the color associated with the day of the week you were born on (if you're not sure you can find here). I was born on Sunday, so my lucky color is red.

You may know that the king's color is yellow, because he was born on a Monday--everyone who has been here has seen the flags, and especially all the yellow shirts people wear. This is to honor the king, and while you'll see people wearing these yellow shirts every day, you'll see the most on Monday. As it happens, the crown prince was also born on a Monday, so yellow will be associated with the monarchy for a long while yet. Princess Sirindhorn was born on Saturday, so her flag is purple, and she is frequently seen wearing purple at public engagements.

(The future heir-apparent, the 2-year-old son of the prince, was born on a Friday, as was his grandmother Queen Sirikit, hence his color is blue. Blue has been associated with the monarchy since Rama VI, also born on Friday. The Thai flag was changed in 1917 from all red and white stripes to the current design with a blue stripe in the middle, to honor Rama VI. Every Thai schoolchild these days is taught that the colors of the Thai flag--red, white, blue--refer to nation, religion, and king, respectively.)

On to the legends, which all go back to the creation mythology of Hinduism. (
In Hindu mythology, the "Trimurti" is the trinity of deities who embody the three cosmic functions: creation, maintenance, and destruction. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the maintainer, and Shiva is the destroyer.)

Sunday: According to legend, Shiva destroyed six lion-like creatures, called Rajasiha (Thai ราชสีห์), and wrapped the dust of their remains in a red cloth, dipped the cloth in ambrosia --the elixir of immortality--and created the sun. Wearing red on Sunday is believed to bring good fortune to the wearer.

Monday: In Monday's legend, Shiva took fifteen celestial maidens and pulverized them, took the dust and wrapped it in a yellow cloth, sprinkled it with ambrosia, and placed it in the sky as the moon. If you wear yellow on Monday, happiness and joy will come your way.

Tuesday: Tuesday, which I previously mentioned means, basically, "Mars day," Shiva took eight buffaloes, reduced them to dust, wrapped it in a pink cloth and sprinkled ambrosia, creating the god Mars. You will have good luck if you wear pink on Tuesday.

Wednesday: In this legend, Shiva pulverized seventeen elephants and wrapped their dust in a green cloth, dipping it in ambrosia and creating the god Mercury. Wear green on Wednesday to receive good health.

Thursday: Legend has it that on Thursday, Shiva turned nineteen hermits (ฤๅษี) into dust and wrapped it in an orange cloth, and, by sprinkling ambrosia on the cloth, created the god Jupiter. Wearing orange on Thursday is good luck.

Friday is the god Venus' day, who was created when a blue cloth containing the dust of twenty-one pulverized cows was dipped in ambrosia by Shiva. Good fortune awaits those who wear blue on Friday.

Last, but not least, is the legend of Saturday. Ten tigers were turned to dust by Shiva, wrapped in a black cloth and dipped in ambrosia. The god Saturn was created. Since then, black has become associated with death and misfortune, so Saturday's color has been changed to purple. Wear purple on Saturday for good luck, according to Thai tradition.

So what else do the colors mean in day-to-day life? Not unlike birthstones in some western cultures, your day of the week and its color are associated with you throughout your life.
There are also Thai spirit houses--small shrines placed outside of homes or other buildings--where oblations are regularly made, some folks will tie scarves around the base for the birthday colors of the heads of the household. And each weekday also has a specific posture of the Buddha associated with it (e.g. meditating, walking, etc.), so at Thai sacred sites you'll often find a row of seven smaller Buddha images in each day's posture. People can then make merit for the image of their birthday (ทำบุญประจำวันเกิด), either by donating money or pouring out sacred oil, or some other form of worship.

What's your color? Do you actually like to wear that color? :)

A couple of sources: id90
, thai-blogs

May 3, 2007

Elaborate expressions, etc. Part 1: Introduction

Let's talk about elaborate expressions. This is a term invented by Mary Haas. And this is in fact where I first ran across the term, in the preface of Haas' Thai-English Student's Dictionary. For anyone who has this dictionary and hasn't ever read the preface, it is excellent. Jim Matisoff (the granddaddy of Tibeto-Burman linguistics) calls it "the best capsule account of Thai morphology anyone has produced." And I tend to agree.

What are elaborate expressions? As Haas defines them, they are those four-syllable phrases which exist to increase the euphony of an existing shorter phrase. That is, to make something sound nicer. This linguistic phenomenon is very common all over South and Southeast Asia.

Understanding these expressions is absolutely critical to being fluent in a Southeast Asia language like Thai, and dictionaries across the board sorely underrepresent them. Often if we didn't recognize the euphonic purpose of many of these, we might overanalyze a sentence and misunderstand it. Or, more likely, we'll puzzle over a dictionary looking up each syllable in the expression, when frequently a word is a nonce included purely for rhyme, and is semantically irrelevant, or else only vaguely connected. Take one of Haas' example from her dictionary preface:


This phrase means "many varieties of meat." But not necessarily just those explicitly listed. It gives pork, duck, and chicken--but also เห็ด, mushroom. What gives? In this case, it's included purely for rhyming euphony. (If we are to stretch for a semantic connection, we could say it is also an edible item.) This sort of thing is
why it's important to know how these sorts of idioms work.

I "collect" elaborate expressions. That is, I try to jot them down when I come across them in speech or writing, and I'm compiling them in a spreadsheet at the moment.

I'm using a wider definition of the term "elaborate expression" than Haas did, by not constraining it to any specific syllable count or inner structure. And in a series of coming posts, I'm going to tackle several types commonly used in Thai, as well as any other similar topics I find interesting, such as reduplication.

Stay tuned.

May 1, 2007

Spelling and speed reading

Most everyone has probably seen that email people like to forward around that says as long as the first and last letters of a word are in the right place, the order of the letters in between doesn't matter. Usually looks like this:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.
Richard Barrow on the forums wondered if this sort of thing be applied to Thai. So I thought about it and wrote this:

I think this sort of experiment is more difficult to apply to Thai, because the spaces between words in English all you to tell at a glance (without having to process the content of the word) what the first and last letters of a word are.

Also, the strong presence of monosyllabic words or morphemes means you often don't have much option for mixing up the letters, even if you were to insert artificial spaces.

Perhaps with multisyllable words you could pull off a similar experiment in Thai, but these words have so many implicit vowels that I wonder how well it would work. I can see ปะรามณ being recognized for ประมาณ fairly easily (or even ปมาระณ), but words like ศตวรรษ seem like they would be more difficult--ศรวรตษ looks pretty nonsensical. Then again, context is essential to the experiment.

The next step is to ask, how does one speed read in Thai? Is it the same as in English? I think ultimately it's probably similar, processing words as a larger units for quicker comprehension, but Thai sort of forces you to make the leap quickly, where the spaces between English words are mollycoddling. The concept of "word" in any language is nebulous (which deserves its own post another time), and one word in English obviously doesn't always map to one Thai word. In fact, discounting neologisms coined to match English counterparts, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case a minority of the time. Going back again to Thai's high degree of monosyllabism, and the strong tendency to employ compounds of all varieties, I think Thai "speed reading" requires recognizing and processing written text in chunks larger than English "words."

I am not a particularly slow reader, but I'm not ready to start recording Thai books on tape, either. How do I practice reading quickly? For one thing, I try to test myself when I'm riding in the car. Glance at a passing sign for a split second and see if I can sort out what it said. Short signs like ขายยา are a cinch, but there are plenty of challenging signs everywhere. Good practice. Movie subtitles, of course, are good practice, too. I saw Spider-man 3 today, and really enjoyed reading the Thai. It's also a crash course in translation theory, since movie subtitles make for good case studies in loose translation.

But one of the best ways I've found to improve my reading fluency is to read aloud. I read Thai books to my wife for leisure. My method is to read ahead a few words, using the same basic technique as with the road signs. Be reading aloud the phrase your eyes passed over about half a second earlier, to let your mind work out the word/phrase boundaries ahead of time. This allows me to continue to read fluidly. Of course, it's difficult. I make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes just have to laugh at myself for how much I manage to mangle some sentences. New vocabulary can trip you up, but once you start to get this technique down, it is definitely a useful skill to be able to read unfamiliar words and expressions accurately and without stumbling, even if you don't know their meaning. It feels good when I can do that in long stretches, so I usually just power through words I don't know, trying to figure out their meaning from context, and making a mental note to ask about this word or that at the end of the sentence/paragraph. But often, the meaning of a word I might have stopped to ask about mid-sentence is made perfectly clear within that paragraph. I try to imagine it like a performance--even if I don't know the meaning, my audience (i.e. my wife) does, and I shouldn't interrupt the show until I've come to a more natural stopping point.

For example, right now we're (slowly) reading the novel ฟ้าจรดทราย by โสภาค สุวรรณ, because we have tickets to see the musical adapted from it that opens later this month. While I'm not crazy about the book, this will help my comprehension at the play, naturally.

This technique is the same technique I use for reading aloud in English. I had a brief stint as a DJ at a rock radio station, and one of my favorite things to do was to read the live on-air advertisements. In the studio we had a binder full of typed-up ads, and the schedule said to read ad X at X o'clock. I especially remember one ad for a local ice cream parlor, which entailed reading a list of their more bizarre flavors on the air (it changed periodically). It was a lot of fun. So by all means, you can practice in your native language, too.