June 29, 2007

On libraries

There is an amazing little library hidden in Bangkok that I had the pleasure of visiting fro the first time yesterday. It's the David Thomas Library, and it belongs to the local SIL office.

If you're not familiar with SIL, they're a faith-based (i.e. Christian) organization which has a number of arms. They're probably most well known for their Bible translating and their work with linguistics, particularly minority languages. Their Ethnologue is quite a feat--a catalogue of the world's 6,900 living languages (by their count). It is not without its shortcomings, and its language classifications and divisions are frequently challenged by linguists, but it's well worth a look.

SIL stands for Summer Institute of Linguistics, which is what they were back when it was started in 1934. Now, though, they're everywhere, and it's not just from June to September.

The David Thomas Library is attached to the SIL's Mainland Southeast Asia Office on
Phahonyothin (พหลโยธิน) Soi 8, about 200 meters in on the left. According to its website, It houses some 10,000 books, articles and journals, all in one little room. It's a veritable treasure trove of hard-to-find books, and even more impressive is the amount of unpublished material they've collected, from full manuscripts to handouts from conference talks. You literally can't find some of this stuff anywhere.

The library is named after David Thomas, a giant in Mon-Khmer linguistics who passed away in 2006. During the several hours I spent at the library yesterday, I saw his name inside the front cover of more than a few volumes, so I imagine his personal library is the heart of the collection.

Anyone can use and read the David Thomas Library for free. And they let professors, researchers and students of local universities borrow books. Pretty cool.

It would be very cool to have a library named after me some day. In the meantime, you can check out my personal library on Librarything. These are all books I own, although right now they're spread out between two continents (and there are several dozen Thai books that I haven't added yet).

Or look at a particular subset of my library using tags. Allow me to suggest Thai (all books in Thai), Thai language (books about the language itself), translated English > Thai, translated Thai > English, Southeast Asia, or dictionaries.

The Rikker Dockum Library also accepts book donations. :P

June 27, 2007

Thai and Google

The internet is suddenly a richer place for the study of Thai. I'm not certain when this change took place, but it definitely happened within this calendar year.

What's the big change, you ask?

Google now automatically segments Thai text when it searches. That is to say, if you're searching for the word ความ, Google will now find it within a phrase like, say, ไม่มีความหมาย. Maybe this seems like a little thing, but it's not. This is huge.

This literally opens up the entire presence of the Thai language on the internet to studying. It's amazing to think how limited Google searches were under the old system.

What was searching on Google like before?

Well, the word or phrase you were searching had to be bounded on both sides by either a space or some kind of punctuation--something to tell the search engine where the word breaks were. There was a workaround--segmenting the text yourself using the tag <wbr> between each word in the HTML,
if you were determined to make your website more easily searchable. But what a pain.

Now you can actually get actual useful stats on the frequency of words and phrases in the magical interwebs.

I don't use any other search engine besides Google regularly, but I went ahead and bounced around to some others, and Yahoo! also does segmenting. Don't know when that happened. But MSN and Ask.com don't. The numbers speak for themselves. Take การ and ใจ, two extremely high-frequency words in Thai:

Google: 103,000,000 hits
Yahoo: 30,600,000 hits
MSN: 118,288 hits
Ask.com: 19,200 hits

21,100,000 hits
Yahoo: 5,880,000 hits
MSN: 130,138 hits
Ask.com: 2,010 hits

Pretty striking, no?

June 24, 2007

Etymologist 3: มุขตลก vs. มุกตลก

There has been a spelling debate going on in Thai for some 4 years now. It's over the proper spelling of the word pronounced [มุก-ตะ-หลก]. See how I avoided using either of the spellings there? That's right, I went phonetic. Fancy. The two spellings in question are มุขตลก and มุกตลก. If you're not familiar, it's a noun phrase meaning a joke or gag. Something, usually spoken, intended to make folks laugh.

First, let's make it clear that prior to 2003, มุขตลก seems to have been the largely unchallenged popular spelling. It appears that the cause of all the subsequent fuss is Thailand's
Royal Institute. The word first appears in the Royal Institute Dictionary in the 1999 edition, published in 2003*. It gives the spelling is given as มุำกตลก. And if it were any other dictionary, the debate may never have taken place. But as the government's official dictionary of Thai, there was a clash between the commonly accepted spelling and the etymologically correct spelling selected by the Institutes committee of experts.

Part of the reason this has taken so long to resolve is due to the methodology of the Royal Institute in compiling its dictionary. They work on each new revision of the dictionary at a snail's pace. Actually, probably slower. For more than 70 years now, the Royal Institute has been using the committee method, where a group of 10-20 experts with busy lives and other jobs and commitments get together a few hours a week to crank through a few words. They've published editions of the RID in 1950, 1982, and 2003.**

The meeting during which the RID dictionary committee decided มุกตลก should be spelled with the letter ก. ไก่ instead of ข. ไข่ happened in 1985. Math time: 2003 - 1985 = 18. It was published 18 years later, and the committee had changed significantly in that time, so that basically all of the people who were on the committee at that point were no longer on it by the time it was ready for publication.

So let's talk etymology. The case for
มุขตลก with ข. ไข่ is that มุข in this case means หน้า (face), which traces back to Sanskrit mukha meaning the face, mouth, or front. And so the story goes, that in former times, a comedian could make many humorous faces, and so "(funny) face" came to mean "gag/joke."

While a convenient explanation, this smacks of folk etymology to me. I have yet to see any evidence that it developed from this meaning. In the earliest clear uses of มุก/มุข, it's already being used in the sense of a joke or gag. These occurrences date back around 100 years. The textual evidence shows both spellings--มุข and มุก, but this isn't surprising because it appears to have been a colloquial term and shows up in written form only in plays. The compound word มุกตลก/มุขตลก doesn't appear until more recently, and between the time that this compound became common and RID 1999 was published, มุขตลก became the commonly accepted form. So, in fact, the confusion over มุข or มุก predates the compound.

The Royal Institute gives another etymology. They maintain that it has nothing to do with mouths or faces, and that it's a native Thai word--which means the ข in final position isn't etymologically correct, since that would indicate Indic origin. Their claim is that it comes from โม้กิ๊ก, โม้ meaning to fib or (this is still a common word), and กิ๊ก being onomatopoeic for the sound of laughter***. So this would have been a verb meaning to fib or play a trick on for the purpose of comedy. The RID etymology theory goes that as a colloquialism, it was not frequently written down and
went through a rapid sound change to become มุกกิ๊ก, which was shortened to มุก, and switched parts of speech to be used as a noun.

A lot of people still consider RID in error, and many probably don't know but just follow the majority, but there are also plenty of folks willing to follow RID. Googling the phrase เล่นมุก returns 22,000 hits, and เล่นมุข returns 60,000. So both appear to be alive and healthy.

The Matichon dictionary parts ways with RID on this one, giving only the spelling มุขตลก--probably because of common usage, since they claim to be a descriptive dictionary.

So this leads us to ask: does it matter if the spelling is etymologically accurate? It's possible the RID will include มุขตลก in its next edition, since they're not entirely immune to public opinion. Sometimes popularity wins out over etymology. (For example, the word อัตโนมัติ "automatic" etymologically should be อัตโนวัติ, to have the correct meaning from its Indic roots, but its English counterpart is phonologically similar enough that the public got used to the ม version, which is now accepted as correct everywhere.)

Personally, I think the RID origin account is more reliable, since there is textual evidence to show the development from โม้กิ๊ก to มุก, and since they are used in the same meaning. But on this matter, I'm sort of ambivalent about what I'll actually use myself. As it happens, I'm not writing a dissertation on joke theory or anything like that, so I can describe both sides of the argument, then sit back and let them duke it out on their own.

It's all just a joke to many folks, anyway.

* It is called RID 1999 to associate it with an auspicious year--the king celebrated his six-cycle, or 72nd, birthday that year. The previous edition is RID 1982, the 200th anniversary of Bangkok's traditional founding date.
** Now, I know it took more than half a century to complete the Oxford English Dictionary, but that was worked on by thousands of volunteers, a significant dedicated staff, and was actually a respectable piece of lexicography. For the number of years between volumes, the book is basically inexcusable. It is good in some aspects, better than almost everything else available (although it could learn a few things from Matichon), and certainly better than nothing, but it is to dictionaries what the FBI's insanely expensive computer system is to computer systems. Very poor cost-benefit ratio.
This is my own analysis of โม้กิ๊ก, so if I'm wrong, please correct me. There are a number of ways to convey the sound of laughter, but using ก as both initial and coda is common. หัวเราะกิ๊ก gets 524 Google hits, หัวเราะกั๊ก gets 35, and หัวเราะก๊าก gets more than 14,000. I can't chop of the หัวเราะ, unfortunately, because independently they have many possible meanings which would render a Google search meaningless.

Breaking news: New online version of RID

It's been at least a few weeks since I used the Royal Institute online version of the Royal Institute Dictionary (RID). Well they pulled a fast one on me, because there's suddenly a new version of the dictionary.

The previous version was an electronic copy of RID 1982, which was created in 1996 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the king's reign. It was distributed on CD in limited numbers--I think 1200 discs were made. But after the web version went live, anyone could search the dictionary.

Well, the page has been redesigned, and despite still looking like it belongs in 1996, it purports to be the 1999 RID. If that's true, that would mean there are around 5000 more words, in addition to the spellings changes and other differences between RID 1982 and RID 1999.

Let me repeat, though. It's still as ugly as ever. And after seeing the search results page, I dare even say it's fugly.

Let's talk about the good and bad.

The good:
  • It's got basic but decent wildcard searching. Picking a random word, สนิท, I searched it as is and got just the one definition in return. Searching สนิท* returns สนิท, สนิทปาก and สนิทสนม. And *สนิท returns ญาิติสนิท, but doesn't return สนิท. (Mid-word wildcards also work, but in this case * stands for 0 to infinite letters--กร*บ returns everything from กรบ to กรอบ to กรมการนอกทำเนียบ.)
  • It's got full text search. This is an excellent addition. Have you ever wondered how many times the word กะเทย appears in RID? Have at it! (The answer is 5 times, including its own entry.) We know from its entry that the lychee is in the sapindaceae family, but how many other relatives of the same family are in RID? Search the Latin name and see! (The answer is 12: ขี้หนอน, คอแลน, คัน, โคกกระออม, คงคาเดือด, เงาะ, ชำมะเลียง, ต่อไส้, ตะคร้อ, ประคำดีควาย, มะหวด, ลำไย. See, you just learned that ลิ้นจี่, เงาะ and ลำไย are all related fruits!) One major drawback--it only gives you the top 5 most relevant results from each letter of the alphabet.
  • It's got browsing like a real dictionary. This feature is a bit hidden. Click on one of the letters of the alphabet on the main page, and that takes you to a search page for that specific letter of the alphabet. Then scroll down and it has a link to read words within that letter of the alphabet. It has them divided up into chunks of about 100 entries. They've even done something the physical dictionary doesn't (for space reasons, I'm sure): put each sub-entry on its own new line within the main entry. So that's pretty cool. It also makes it extremely easy to save the entire contents of the dictionary to your hard drive. I've got my Sunday afternoon activity planned now. :)
  • It runs in Firefox! Hallelujah! Praise be! The old RID online dictionary was literally the *only* reason I ever opened Internet Explorer anymore.
The bad:
  • No more pronunciation search. This was a handy feature of the previous version, whereby you could select to search specifically within the pronunciations and it would give you all the words that contained that word or syllable. So, if you searched ทัด you would get ทัด, and ทัศน์, for example. There's no easy workaround for this feature. Here's to hoping they add it back in soon.
  • The aesthetics. Bad design--very 1990s. And on the full-text search results, it's actually doing 40-some separate searches within each letter of the alphabet. They show a results heading for each letter (without stating that), which means if you only get one hit in the whole text of the dictionary, you're getting 40-some empty results headings. Bad design, and it is easily remedied. We'll see if it is, though.
  • No configurability. It needs a more robust set of searching tools, and ways to narrow searches based on parts of speech or other variables. This is especially important if we're only allowed the top 5 results in full-text search.
  • The character encoding doesn't always detect correctly. Not sure why sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but I find myself periodically having to manually set the encoding to Thai in Firefox.
Obviously we can't expect too much in the way of internet goodies from an institution whose membership has the same age, on average, as the institution itself. (It was founded in 1933, kiddies--do your homework before reading! :P) But they're employing a few whippersnappers on their staff. I'm very optimistic about this new online version of the dictionary, and hope to see more development soon. Riiiiight.

[Update: Added links to the Royal Institute's website and the new dictionary. Somehow it slipped my mind to add those before. Someday I'll get the hang of this fancy internet thing yet...]

June 22, 2007

Usage Shmusage 1: Movies & gifts

It's interesting how different languages and cultures classify and distinguish things in different ways. Sometimes its hard as a language learner to get away from our own instilled intuitions about things. That is, to accept words in another language for their full breadth of meaning (or lack of breadth).

Take the word หนัง, for instance. In Thai, this is the word for "movie," but my wife also uses it to refer to narrative TV shows (as opposed to news, game shows, talk shows, etc). In English, something like Seinfeld isn't a movie. The very way we use it requires it to be non-serial. It's a movie. If it gets a sequel, that's two movies. While 100 episodes of Mork and Mindy is still one TV show. For me, a TV show is
anything that we watch on the tube that isn't also a movie. So, The Joy of Painting is a TV show, but the world television premiere of Schindler's List isn't. That's still a movie. We even have the word "TV movie" to refer to a non-serial narrative program of typical film length that is produced specifically for television. It used to bug me that my wife used หนัง to refer to both, and I even weakly tried on a couple of occasions to correct her when she'd call Friends or what have you หนัง. Silly of me, really. I guess a part of me wants to have a 1-to-1 correspondence for Thai words and English words as much as possible, for simplicity's sake. But that's a futile wish, of course. You've got to accept the language on its own terms or you're just kicking against the pricks.

On the other hand, English has its share of words which it differentiate less finely than Thai does. Take "gift." We use the words "gift" (or "present") fairly interchangeably, in the sense of something you give to someone for free. Thai, on the other hand, has two basic words that vary depending on the type of gift:
  • ของขวัญ is a gift for a special occasion. A birthday, wedding, baby shower, Christmas, what have you. It means something like "a good spirits thing."

  • ของฝาก, on the other hand, is a gift given after a trip or vacation. The literal meaning is "an entrusted thing."
So when I give my niece a gift for her birthday, it's ของขวัญวันเกิด. But when my wife and I travel to the States, anything we bring her back is ของฝาก. Like when parents go on a trip together and leave the kids at home, the kids are wont to ask, "did you bring us presents?" That's ของฝาก.

Hmm... if they came back from vacation on the kid's birthday and gave him the gift, I wonder which it would be. Both?

But it's more complicated than that (of course, so is English, but this blog is primarily about Thai). The dictionary also gives the more general term ของให้, but I can't say I've really heard it used. Now, given the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, I'll probably hear it 10 times in the next week.

In the context of religious usage, Christians in Thailand use yet another word for "gifts" from God. That would be ของประทาน, which just means "a thing given." This phrase uses the royal word ประทาน instead of ให้ to designate that the gift comes from deity. And if we give God a gift (think gold, frankincense and myrrh), it's ของถวาย. This also holds for things given to a king or a monk.

And don't forget ของชำร่วย. This is a very specialized kind of gift, most commonly given to guests at a wedding. In this sense it means "keepsake" or "souvenir" (the more general term for this being ของที่ระลึก). At my Thai wedding reception, our keepsake gift for our guests was a potted ต้นโฮย่า
, a kind of spineless succulent with heart-shaped leaves (spineless in the sense of no cactus-like spines).

Last but not least, the term ของกำนัล is another one I recognize but haven't heard much. My understanding is that it means a gift in the sense of a "complimentary gift," like maybe a little model airplane if you fly on a certain airline. But that could also be ของที่ระลึก or ของแถม. Anybody want to help me out on this one?

I think I'm going to give myself a gift right now... a break from thinking about all the Thai words for "gift" anymore.

June 21, 2007

Loanwords 1: English

Anyone who has spent time in Thailand knows that Thai, like many other languages, has a generous helping of English words mixed into the vernacular. Now, English also figures significantly into the technical and academic vocabulary of Thai, where frequently a nativized* version of an English term catches on more than (or in the absence of) a native equivalent. Everything from internet to ultrasound.

Like many other nations (notably France), Thailand has a governmental body charged with regulating the standard language. Thailand's is the Royal Institute (which was modeled after its French counterpart). One of their jobs is to come up with Thai equivalents for English jargon. Yet even this prescribed vocabulary is subject to the court of public approval.

But loanwords are wont to take on a life of their own. Once ensconced, they are subject to change, shortening, compounding--the whole gamut--just like any other word in the language.

Here are some English loanwoards in Thai that I find interesting. (When the pronunciation is not transparent from the spelling, I've given a phonetic rendering in square brackets):

  • เก็ท [เก๊ด] = to get, to understand, to comprehend. As commonly happens, the borrowing language has taken just one meaning of a highly polysemous word and adopted it. So the phrase ไม่เก็ท corresponds to the English, "(I) don't get (it)."
  • เวอร์ [เว่อ] = to be over the top, extreme, pushing the boundaries of believability or propriety. Shortened from โอเวอร์ "over," this word comes from "over the top." For example: เขาชอบเล่าเรื่องเวอร์มาก ฟังแล้วไม่น่าจะจริง "He always tells over-the-top stories. They probably aren't true."
  • โอ = (1) overtime work; (2) okay, acceptable. Sense (1) is from โอที "OT" (which is also used). I've most often heard it as part of the phrase ทำโอ, but not exclusively. Sense (2) comes from "okay," but this snippet specifically means "acceptable, tolerable, not terrible." As in, สอบเป็นไงบ้าง "How did the exam go?" ก็โอ "It went okay."
Now, I could list English loanwords all day--but are there any that you find interesting, or wonder how they've come to mean what they do in Thai? I'll come back to loanwords periodically, and I appreciate any suggestions or questions.

* In linguistics, nativization means the phonological process of adapting a foreign word to the native language's sound system. In English, for example, the nativized pronunciation of the French word croissant is crew-saunt (although there are those who persist with a pseudo-authentic pronunciation); or, take foyer, which has (at least) three competing pronunciations: foy-er, foy-ay, and fwa-yay. The first is firmly nativized (or Anglicized--the specific term for nativization into English); the second has a more foreign "flavor," but is still nativized, because of the first syllable pronunciation, and the fact that the stress is often put on the first syllable (FOY-ay), though I've also heard it pronounced foy-AY; the third is the closest to the original--it definitely sounds foreign (and might come off sounding pretentious to many native listeners).

June 16, 2007

Translation: โลกด้านที่หันหลังให้ดวงอาทิตย์

I had such fun with yesterday's book review that I'm going to post another translation today from the same book. This time I'm going to post the Thai text of the story, too, to give bilingual readers a glimpse into my translation style. My hope is that this will spark some discussion about my technique and word choice, as well as entertain.

The Big Tree
It was a big tree, many armspans around, in the middle of a clearing alongside the Bangkok-Bang Pa-In highway. He liked it immediately. He told his wife, "This is where we should retire. Build a house under the tree. It's so cool and pleasant."
"I can just picture it. We could build a glass house, so we could see always see the tree."
"Yeah, I like that idea."
They bought the lot from a farmer, without arguing over the price. The hired a contractor to help clean up the lot and build a fence.
On the day of the ownership transfer, the contractor called them.
"I've finished clearing the lot. It's really beautiful. Oh! And I went ahead and cut down that big overgrown tree for you, too."

มันเป็นต้นไม้ใหญ่ขนาดหลายคนโอบ ขึ้นกลางที่โล่งริมทางสายกรุงเทพฯ-บางปะอิน เขาชอบมันทันที เขาบอกภรรยาว่า "ที่นี่น่าจะเป็นที่ที่เราเกษียณ สร้างบ้านใต้ต้นไม้ ร่มรื่นมาก"
"ฉันเห็นภาพเลยค่ะ เราอาจจะสร้างบ้านกระจก จะได้มองเห็นต้นไม้ตลอดเวลา"
"ดี ผมชอบไอเดียนี้"
พวกเขาซื้อที่ดินผืนนั้นต่อมาจากชาวสวนโดยไม่เกี่ยงราคา เขาว่าจ้างผู้รับเหมาไปช่วยทำความสะอาดที่ดินและก่อสร้างรั้วโปร่ง
ในวันที่โอนที่ดินนั้น ผู้รับเหมาโทรศัพท์มาหาเขา
"ผมเคลียร์ที่ให้เรียบร้อยแล้วครับ พี่ สวยเชียว อ้อ! ผมถือโอกาสโค่นต้นไม้ใหญ่รกที่ต้นนั้นให้ด้วยแล้วครับ"

Win has a footnote stating that this is based on a true story, too. What luck. :)

June 15, 2007

Book review: โลกด้านที่หันหลังให้ดวงอาทิตย์

โลกด้านที่หันหลังให้ดวงอาทิตย์ (The Dark Side of the Earth), by วินทร์ เลียววาริณ (Win Lyovarin), is the third book in Win's life in a day series. It is preceded by หนึ่งวันเดียวกัน (translated into English as A Day in the Life) and วันแรกของวันที่เหลือ (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life).

These books are collections of "experimental short stories," so-called because they use a loose definition of the word "story." They are certainly short, rarely exceeding 2 pages per story, and sometimes containing only a few words at all. But the style is a mixture of verbal and visual storytelling, often with an emphasis on the latter. Win has a background in graphic design, and he employs his skills in this area to great effect. His experimental short stories are a unique brand of social criticism, which stand out for being both subtle and biting at the same time.

As the series name suggests, the life in a day books are windows into the thoughts and lives of ordinary people through their everyday experiences. Frequently funny, and just as often poignant, Win is great at putting a spin on things that forces the reader to stop and think--the intended message isn't always obvious.

One of my favorite stories in this third collection is ค่าครองชีพ (
Cost of Living), which shows a receipt from a supermarket on the left-hand page, and on the facing page, gives the internal dialogue of the shopper for each of the ten-or-so items on the list as she was deciding what to buy. She consistently opts for the smaller package or the cheaper brand, commenting on the need for frugality. The last item on the list is an anti-wrinkle cream that costs twice as much as the rest of the items combined, and to which the shopper's comment is ถูกจังเลย (What a bargain!). It cracked me up, and I immediately had my wife read that one. She didn't find it as amusing as I did, though. :)

This kind of commentary on society is necessary, in my mind. Sometimes Win's stories are a critique of consumerism in general, and the "short cut culture"--the desire to make it big, get rich quick, find your fortune--that is fast encompassing the globe. But I think the more general point is to suggest a new way to look at mundane, familiar things. This is one of the strong themes of this series--multifacetedness. No matter what we think we know, or know we think, there's always another side to things. And the title of the book suggests this--the title more literally translates as The Side of Earth that Faces Away From the Sun--thus, an uncovering of hidden things, things that we may want to keep hidden, but things that must inevitably come in the light and under scrutiny sooner or later. Any author who can present this sort of satire with such clever style is worth reading--and sharing--in my book.

In keeping with my last review, I will let the author's words speak for themselves through translation. Given the cruciality of the images to most stories, I'm somewhat limited in by format to which stories are easy to render effectively in English. But I've selected a story for which the illustration is a complement, rather than an integral part of the story. In บทเรียนจากลูกข่าง (Lesson From a Top), there is a picture of a top (the kind where you wrap a string around it and then pull the string to start the top spinning) laying on its side, with its string coiled by its side, one end snaking across to the right-hand page and encircling the brief text of the story:

I watched my eight-year old son playing with a top with his friends in the parking lot in front of the tenement.
I called for him to come. "You have to do your schoolwork."
"Can I play some more first?"
"Playing is not as important as studying..."
I looked at the top in his hand.
"We have to get an education. You have to learn that our lives are like a top. Education is the string. The top can't stand on its own without the string."
"But the top can't stand on its own for very long."
"So you have to continually learn new things."
"But in the end the top falls down anyway. Studying is a waste of time."
I raised my voice. "Stop playing this instant! Go home and do your homework! Go!"
I'll save my response to the story for the comments. Now who will have first crack?

June 11, 2007

Etymologist 2: คำกร่อน (ต่อ)

When I wrote the previous installment of Etymologist, I didn't look too hard for the first batch of คำกร่อน. In the last several days since I started looking, though, they've been jumping out at me. Coupled with some Googling, I have quite a few new words to share.

There are several unstressed, prefixed words that seem to be commonly reduced:

ตัว > ตะ

ตัวขาบ > ตะขาบ = centipede
ตัวเข้ > ตะเข้ = crocodile (จระเข้ is the formal term--I'm still not sure where จร- [จอ-ระ] comes from; the musical instrument จะเข้ is so called, I think, because it looks like a crocodile's back--this would appear to be a reduced form of จระเข้; and there's also ไอ้เข้, which I think is used more upcountry)
ตัวเข็บ > ตะเข็บ = a kind of small reptile (also called จะเข็บ, interestingly)

ต้น > ตะ
ต้นไคร้ > ตะไคร้ = lemon grass
ต้นเคียน > ตะเคียน = a tree in the dipterocarpaceae family
ต้นคร้อ > ตะคร้อ = soapberry, in the sapindaceae family; fruit traditionally used to make soap

ตา > ตะ
ตาวัน > ตะวัน = sun
ตาปู > ตะปู = nail

สาย > สะ
สายดือ > สะดือ = navel
สายเอว > สะเอว = waist (เอว alone is still common usage, of course)

อัน > อะ
อันไร > อะไร = what
อันหนึ่ง > อนึ่ง [อะ-หนึ่ง] = furthermore, for another thing

ฉัน > ฉะ
ฉันนั้น > ฉะนั้น = therefore, like that
ฉันนี้ > ฉะนี้ = like this, such as this
ฉันไหน > ไฉน [ฉะำ-ไหน] = how, why, for what reason

(We also already saw หมาก > มะ last time.)

Another source of คำกร่อน is reduplicated words (คำซ้ำ):
ริกริก > ระริก
ยิ้มยิ้ม > ยะยิ้ม
ฉับฉับ > ฉะฉับ
ฉาดฉาด > ฉะฉาด
ครืนครืน > คะครืน

Other คำกร่อน of interest:
พยาน ("witness") comes from ผู้ญาณ, meaning a person with knowledge.
จะ, the future tense/irrealis marker, is from จัก, which is still common in poetic usage.

I'm not quite done with คำกร่อน. In the next installment of Etymologist, I'll explore some pronouns and sentence particles of similar "eroded" origin.

June 7, 2007

Play Review: ฟ้าจรดทราย

Last night my wife and I went with a friend to see the premiere show at the new Ratchadalai Theatre in the Esplanade shopping center. The show was ฟ้าจรดทราย, a Thai-language musical based on the (rather hefty) novel of the same name by โสภาค สุวรรณ.

Almost two months ago, we had decided to read the novel as a couple. We didn't get very far because, frankly, I didn't think it was very good, which killed my motivation. When we read Thai books together, I usually do all the reading, out loud, so I can practice my language skills. In the 50 pages or so we managed to get through, I wasn't impressed. But as it turns out, the first 50 pages of the book barely figures into the condensed plot of the 3-hour musical. And while I still think the story is weak and unoriginal, I enjoyed the play.

The Ratchadalai Theatre (รัชดาลัยเธียเตอร์) is being touted as Thailand's first "Broadway" class theater, which is a definite overstatement. We sat center toward the front of the balcony, and while I didn't get a clear view of the lower level, I'd estimate the seating capacity at upwards of 1000, which is quite a lot considering it's jammed into a shopping mall. The theater is not very wide, making it feel rather small and claustrophobic. The super-steep balcony adds to that effect. I've never seen a Broadway play, but from what I have seen of playhouses and theaters in the U.S., I'd rank the design higher than the decoration. The seats alternate in three garish shades of muppet-fur upholstery--purple, pink, and red. The carpet is a tasteful pattern of black and yellow, and the walls are dark wood, so the seats just plain clash. Very movie theater--not upscale at all.

*Spoiler alert* I'm going to recap the plot, as I figure many readers will not get a chance to see it (it's on hiatus after tonight, and closes after another run of shows in July). Consider yourself warned.

The story of ฟ้าจรดทราย is fairly basic. Michelle (มิเชล) is an orphaned ลูกครึ่ง of mixed French and Asian stock. Neither the book nor the play specify just what Asian country, but Michelle's mixed parentage causes her to be rejected by her father's wealthy French aristocratic family after her parents are killed. The book opens with Michelle graduating from high school and preparing to bid farewell to the French convent in which she was raised; the play opens a bit later on, with Michelle arriving in the town of Hilfarah, in the unnamed middle-eastern homeland of her best friend from school, Kashfiya (แคชฟียา). Kashfiya is an idealistic, westernized Muslim lass with grand plans to come open a girls' school in her country that will help cure it of its patriarchal restrictions on women. Michelle is hired to be a teacher at the planned school.

In the time frame of the play, the monkey wrench is thrown into the works immediately--a man comes between the best friends. Said man is Kashfiya's French boyfriend, Robert, a hormone-driven oaf with a penchant for public displays of affection and who has clearly never heard the phrase "no means no." Since her parents will never approve, she tells them that Robert is actually Michelle's boyfriend, and without much effort, Robert himself becomes convinced of this. Despite the fact that Michelle doesn't share his affection, when Kashfiya intercepts a love missive from Robert to her best friend, she flies into a musical rage and vows to take revenge. Kashfiya's parents have betrothed her to become a concubine of Hiflarah's rajah, King Ahmed, but she tricks Michelle into wearing the outfit which lets the royal guards know which woman to come carry away on their shoulders to join the ranks of the King's harem. This contrived bit of mistaken identity works in a musical of this sort, but I seriously wonder how it could have possibly worked in the novel, since the way it's portrayed on the stage, Michelle doesn't seem at all surprised or opposed to being carried off by strange men. Go figure.

Once in the palace, the mistake is quickly uncovered, but the rajah decides to keep Michelle anyway (he probably lost the receipt). She is distraught, and butts heads with the rajah's personal doctor, Sharif, an uber-loyal servant whose father's life was once saved by Ahmed. He sets her straight on her backwards and disrespectful Western ways, and she calls him uncivilized. Anyone who has read, say, Much Ado About Nothing, or Pride and Prejudice, can see from a mile away that Sharif and Michelle are destined to be together. After their talk, she is unwillingly brought to the rajah for her official night of harem initiation. But as Ahmed is disrobing her, the scheming Oman (who I think is the younger brother of the Ahmed--not sure on that detail) conveniently attacks the palace, sort of stab-kicking Ahmed behind a curtain, "killing" him. Sharif comes to Michelle's rescue, and they escape into the desert together.

While they travel in the desert, Michelle disguises herself as Sharif's deaf and dumb servant boy, and they continue to fight/flirt. One highlight of the play--judging by the audience's reaction--is when our heroes meet the obligatory comic relief in the form of a desert caravan, whose leader tries to matchmake for his amusingly overweight daughter, who does a belly dance and tries her best to live up to her father's hype. But before long, the two fugitives bond in the desert and share a night of implied passion.

As the story progresses, we are given twist after unsurprising twist. There's the close call, where Oman's assassins nearly unmask Michelle, but fall for the old "she's got leprosy" routine; eventually Sharif and Michelle are captured by another band of apparent bandits, who turn out to be Ahmed's personal bodyguards, because--shock--Ahmed didn't really die! We are soon given the obligatory final act falling-out, in which Sharif resumes his loyalty to Ahmed and insists Michelle must continue on as his master's concubine. But Ahmed figures things out and eventually gives them his blessing. Only one more obstacle: someone must volunteer to sneak back into the palace at Hilfarah to assassinate Oman, and unbeknownst to Michelle, Sharif is the man for the job. Ahmed breaks the news to her, but Michelle courageously tells her beloved to do his duty. In the final climactic sword fight, Oman is killed but Sharif is also "killed" by Oman's guards. And once again, no one who has read a book or seen a movie before is actually surprised that Sharif isn't really dead.

Like I said, the plot is very run-of-the-mill and predictable. There's also some pretty heavy-handed lessons to be learned. At one point, Sharif tells Michelle that it is the belief of the people of Hilfarah that a wish made on a shooting star will come true. Michelle's wish is that all nations and races will be able to get along and not judge one another based on their skin--I literally turned to my wife and made a gagging motion at this point. Very saccharine. There are also the only-slightly-more-subtle lessons that (1) Western ways are not our ways, exemplified by "kissing in public is bad"--the way the young Frenchman Robert is portrayed, you're sure he's buying roofies in bulk; and (2) loyalty to king and country comes above everything else. There's a nationalistic feel to the story, despite the fact that none of the characters are Thai. It's escapist allegory, which doesn't surprise me in the current climate, but it makes me wonder how the rest of the novel reads. Not quite enough to put it back on my reading list yet, though.

The title ฟ้าจรดทราย means "sky meets sand," which in part is a reference to the desert, where sand reaches out as far as the eye can see, all the way to the horizon. The other significance of this title is that in one song in the play, Sharif compares himself to sand and Michelle to the sky--although they appear to meet, no matter how far you travel towards the horizon, they never actually do--it's just an illusion.

For me, ฟ้าจรดทราย is redeemed somewhat by its production values. Some of the effects done with the scenery are quite good. That said, I don't understand why, if the final climactic battle scene between Sharif and Oman is a sword fight (followed by another sword battle between Oman's men and Ahmed's men), they would choose to use wooden swords, and not at least give us some sound effects. I realize it's a highly stylized musical play, so realism is neither possible nor expected, but it took me out of the story every time swords clashed with a "pok pok" sound like the ก๋วยเตี๋ยว carts that sell soi-to-soi. The singing is decent, but it's probably also the part that puts the clearest gap between this play and any professionally produced musical in the United States. It's just not world class. The harmonies sound good, but most of the solo performances sound, at best, university theater caliber. Any time someone tried to hit a high note, I cringed, and would pay money to hear Simon Cowell's commentary on those moments. One of the best singers is Kashfiya, who has a regretfully small part, played by รฐา โพธิ์งาม (also a singer in her "day job," known as ญาญ่า หญิง).

This review probably makes it sound otherwise, but overall, I did enjoy the play. But I enjoyed it probably in the same way I'd enjoy chick flicks if Scorsese and Coppola weren't an option. Enjoyable, but nothing to write home about, ฟ้าจรดทราย is nonetheless a step forward in opening up the cultural options in Bangkok, particularly to the natives. I'm not versed in the history of stage theater in Thailand, but I'm quite certain this is the most expensive play ever produced here. The amount of effort and expense that went into the scoring, the choreographing, the production--everything--is clearly immense. Let's hope that the success of this play (its run was recently extended significantly) will result in many new and interesting options for theater-going denizens of Bangkok in the future.

But if there's one clear sign that stage theater has finally "arrived" in Thailand, it's this: Andrew Lloyd Webber's it-just-won't-die musical Cats is scheduled at the Ratchadalai. I'd prefer that it were Phantom, but I have to admit that I'll be in line come November. I'm grateful to have anything to watch that isn't the prime-time soap operas.

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.