March 5, 2008

Thai palindromes

Jason sent me a link to an interesting blog post on Thai palindromes.
As you may recall from grade school, a palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same forwards and backwards. To put it another way, it is a symmetrical word or phrase. Very easy ones include mom and dad, things get a little trickier with
racecar, snack cans, or Dr. Awkward. Longer palindromes can be a lot of fun. Some of the famous ones include what might have been the first words of the first man: Madam, I'm Adam; or a potential title for a book about Teddy Roosevelt: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.

With its non-linear orthographic complexities, Thai isn't well-suited for this type of wordplay, at least not as we define it in English. There are some palindromic Thai words, like กนก 'gold', And it's possible to make things up that are readable, but don't make much sense as a phrase: e.g. บริการรากริบ. I did come up with one very simple one I'm pleased with. For those who dislike snoring,
กรน: นรก. But the majority of Thai words are just nigh impossible to force into this mold, particularly words with complex vowels and การันต์ silent letters.

So it's no surprise that the Thai palindromes aren't really palindromes. They're sentences (verses, really) that use the same syllables twice, the second time in reverse order from the first. Like this:


True palindromes are a type of orthographic wordplay, since they tend to have totally different word boundaries in the second half, and thus different meanings. These Thai 'palindromes' are restricted to different senses of the same syllables in the two halves. Notice that the example above tries to get around that fact by using ทุกข์ 'suffering' in one half, and ทุก 'every' in the other.

Here's another chunk:


They are very much in the style of traditional Thai poetry, with heavy alliteration and internal rhyme. I'm severely underpracticed with Thai poetry, so I find them a bit opaque, but I do think this is an interesting use of language.

I did a little digging around Wikipedia, and found a type of figure of speech that seems related to this Thai usage, perhaps more closely than palindrome: it's called antimetabole. For example:

Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.'

Of course, antimetabole only requires that certain words be repeated in reverse order. So the Thai palindromes share features of both English palindromes and English antimetabole, but neither rhetorical device is a perfect fit.

As another blogger linked from the page above calls them, they're พาลินโดรมแบบไทย ๆ 'Thai-style palindromes'. So we'll leave it at that. Pretty cool.

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