Monday, June 8, 2009

chicken + boat + snake + soldier + chalice/tray spells “Bangkok”

Not long ago I set off for a two week work-trip to northern Thailand, to the towns of Mae Sot and Mae Sai. Most of the towns up there have names that start with Mae. Mae means “Mother,” and the towns are all named Mother Someone because the hill tribes that live in them are traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal. The city of Mae Sot was Mama Sot’s town. Mama Sai ran Mae Sai, and so on. The Thai word for river is mae nam, mother [of] water.

Thai is a beautifully poetic and filial language – everyone is older brother/sister, and since given names are all a minimum of three syllables everyone gets ‘short names’ (nicknames). My boss’s nickname is Older Sister Small-and-Beautiful-Object (Pi Ling), the woman who runs Child Protection is Honey (NamPeung – Water Sweet – and just Honey, not Older Sister Honey because she’s younger than me), the guy who runs the project in Mama Sot’s town is Older Brother Handsome-Young-Man, which from what I hear is accurate – my colleagues are incorrigibly teasing, especially when it comes affairs of the heart.

There is currently a low-grade dispute going on around work about how my name is best Thai-ified. Key contenders are:
Paat-Trrra – an actual Thai name meaning beautiful young woman (they tell me), but to the Thai ear the vowel sound in the first syllable is just different enough from the one in my English name to prohibit an automatic switch,
Pet-taa – “diamond eyes,” which is a good meaning and pretty close phonetically with the Thai-accent version of my name, but which they don’t like for me because diamonds in Thai are hard and masculine as opposed to sparkly and feminine,
Pet – pronounced differently from above, meaning “spicy,”
Bpt-aaa – meaningless but phonetically cute – they use this especially when teasing.

I started studying Thai with the intention to stop once I’d mastered the basics. Many of my colleagues are shy about speaking English to me (and not all of them speak English). I figured I should learn at least enough Thai to make amusing pronunciation mistakes so that my colleagues would relax around me. For example, accidentally asking someone to pass me the soap to season my dinner, or talking about root vegetables while trying to express appreciation for the magnificence of Angkor Wat. It turns out, however, that Thai is actually a really fun language to learn. It has all the good stuff about Mandarin (simple grammar, no verb tenses) without the demoralising character-based writing system of 5000 characters. The Thai alphabet may have 43 consonants and 15 vowels, but at least it is phonetic.

It’s also extremely pretty, with all these little loops circles and spirals. To give you an idea, here’s my work address in Thai script:
๕๘๒/๑๘-๒๒ ซอยเอกมัย สุขุมวิท ๖๓ เขตวัฒนา กรุงเทพฯ ๑๐๑๑๐
Of course, handwriting rarely actually looks like this unless it’s nice calligraphy. Whatever it may sound like when spoken, any written language will come out in a scrawl if the author is in a hurry.

Many of the letters in the Thai alphabet represent virtually identical sounds. To alleviate the resultant confusion, the Thai’s have given each letter a special name, like Turtle, Small Cymbals, or Novice Monk. Or Hermit, Monkey, and Traditional Headdress. This is so when attempting to spell a Thai word, one person can say to another, “No, the sound is K/kh, but it’s the letter for K/kh that is called Buffalo, not the one which is called Egg.” The five tones of Thai give the language a gentler sound, and there are all these playful diphthongs. All of this is positively delightful . . . if you happen, like me, to be a really, really big language geek.


Anonymous said...

So that is say Bangkok in Thai

" ก รุ ง เ ท พ "

chicken + boat + snake + soldier + chalice/tray

Petra said...

well, there are some vowells in there too, but I'm not quite there yet... :)