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.

1 comment:

  1. This usage category of posts is also really quite good. You know, after a year or so you'll have enough material for a book. :)