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.


  1. Nice post. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the articles in this series; I'd been vaguely aware of the existence of elaborate expressions, but in a very subconscious way. It's good to have a name for it.

  2. Nice blog Rikker. I'll be looking forward to read more about your insights into Thai language.

  3. Thanks for reading. I promise I'll finally post part 2 soon... :)