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).

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