October 24, 2008

Loanwords 5: Chameleon English and loanword spelling

Thai, in general, manages to maintain the original orthography of words it borrows from other languages. But a lot fall through the cracks, too, or get changed over the years. For instance, เดิน "walk" is from the Khmer word ដើរ /daə/, and up until the mid-20th century was spelled เดิร in Thai, reflecting the Khmer spelling.

So while most English words are recognizably foreign based on their spelling--everything from คอมพิวเตอร์ to อพาร์ตเมนต์ to เมล์ (in รถเมล์), plenty are less obvious. Which means many Thais may use the words with no idea of their foreign origin. Which is perfectly okay, if you ask me.

To name a few:
  • เลน /leen/, from English 'lane', as the painted divisions of a road.
  • หรีด /riit/ in พวงหรีด, from English 'wreath'; Thais use them exclusively at funerals.
  • ทีม /thiim/, from English 'team'.
  • โน้ต /noot/, also written โน๊ต, from English 'note'.
  • แป๊บ /paep/, from English 'pipe', as in a drainage pipe.
  • เทอม /thoem/, from English 'term', meaning a school term.
  • ยีน /yiin/, from both English 'gene' and 'jean', meaning both the biological unit and denim fabric.
  • โหวต /woot/, from English 'vote'.
  • บาย /baai/ or บ๊ายบาย /baai baai/, from English '(good)bye, bye-bye'.
Note that sometimes there are other clues that these are loanwords, like the presence of certain tones/tone markers (e.g. โน้ต/โน๊ต and แป๊ป), or atypical spellings (e.g. เทอม).

I've been thinking about this because some linguists in Thailand, and some members of Thailand's Royal Institute, want to have more phonetic spellings of loanwords from English, including heavier use of diacritics. As it stands, many English words break normal tone rules. For one, the word pronounced [เก๊ต] is most commonly written เก็ท, which normally would be read with a low tone. Thus, if respelled, it would be written เก๊ต (as many do spell it, but a minority).

Part of the issue here is pronounceability, where these language experts are concerned that spoken Thai will stray from written Thai (despite there already being hundreds if not thousands of opaque and difficult pronunciations for Pali, Sanskrit, and Khmer loanwords); but the other motive is to clearly mark them as English loanwords. Which is really just giving them the Hester Prynne treatment. If words look too Thai, people will think they're Thai, and they may edge out more worthy native words, is how the logic goes.

I'm not in favor of such artificial language tampering. You might say I believe in the linguistic "free market"--the public will decide how it wants to pronounce and spell things. This way, convention is born of common usage. But many countries, like Thailand, put a lot of effort into language planning initiatives. Much language planning, such as creating a standard vocabulary for academic or technical fields, is very useful, as long as the public actually uses the words created.

As of yet, whether such a re-spelling initiative is a good idea or not is still debated by the academics, so little has happened yet. And how successful such an initiative would be remains to be seen.

Make no mistake, though, English is well-entrenched in Thai, and I'm of the opinion that trying to make English words second-class citizens through spelling or other means is a losing battle.


  1. Yes I always thought it great that after one has mastered the pronunciation of Thai vowels and consonants and learnt all the tone rules that one did not necessarily have to first hear a word spoken in order to pronounce it correctly. The system had a consistency unlike other languages especially English.

    I understand how เมล์ may have come from the English 'mail' or even 'male' but how does 'รถเมล์' as used in your example?

  2. My understanding of the origin of รถเมล์ is that early public transportation delivered mail, perhaps to post office branches along their routes.

    Before there were รถเมล์, there were also เรือเมล์, meaning เรือประจำทาง, which of course still exist, they're just not called เรือเมล์ anymore.

    The connection is drawn by the Royal Institute in their dictionary. See the following entries:

    เมล์ ๑ น. เรียกยานพาหนะประจำทางที่ออกตามกำหนดเวลา เช่น รถเมล์ เรือเมล์. (อ. mail).

    เมล์ ๒ น. ของที่ส่งทางไปรษณีย์; เรียกถุงที่ใส่หนังสือส่งทางไปรษณีย์ว่า ถุงเมล์. (อ. mail).

    รถเมล์ น. ยานพาหนะประจำทางที่ออกตามกำหนดเวลา.

    เรือเมล์ (โบ) น. เรือรับส่งผู้โดยสารประจำทาง.

    (Here, โบ is short for โบราณ, meaning "archaic" or "obsolete".)