Cunning Linguistics in Thai
I’m tired of having people glance over at me and say
“blah blah blah farang blah blah blah.”
I have a shameful confession to make. Well, I probably have many, but for the sake of this article I’ll stick to one: Though I’ve been regularly coming to Thailand as a tourist for over a decade and a couple years ago decided to make it my home, I still can barely speak the language.
Fortunately, I’m not alone. Most of the foreigners I know here still can barely ask where the bathroom is without resorting to a childish mime. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the accommodating kindness of the Thais. If some half-naked nutter showed up in France demanding things loudly in Thai they’d take off their berets and slap him silly with a baguette. Learning French in France can mean life or death, while learning Thai in Thailand seems often to be just a fanciful and
fruitless amusement. And many Thais would like to keep it that way — often I have forced a Thai to lose face by inadvertently knowing he or she was insulting me. Often.
But this has gone on long enough. I’m tired of having people glance over at me and say “blah blah blah farang blah blah blah.” I’d like to know whether I should be grateful or ashamed or run for my life. I’d like to be able to hold forth on philosophy and world politics with friends who are prohibited for reasons of decorum from calling me an idiot. And I’d desperately like to know what emcees at public events are going on and on about interminably, ad infinitum, et cetera, na khrap. Most of all, I just want what little self-respect I once had back. After all, I’m not one of those
fanny-packed pink tourists who thinks that Thais smile because they’re always so goddamn happy. I’m an expat, and I know better. Or, at least, I should.
So I’m embarking on a system to learn Thai as fast as I can. And I’m going to share my discoveries with you here. I’m going to focus on the absolutely necessary and practical.
Who really needs to know where the bookstore is anyway? Or how many siblings one has? The average Thai reads less than one book a year (six lines, actually) and everyone in a six-mile radius is their ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Better we should know the important things, like
how to politely invite someone to a drag show or how to get a refund on a fake Rolex that doesn’t work.
Anyone who has been around very people will know that despite the that most native speakers of any language enjoy a 3000-word vocabulary, they only ever use a small fraction of them.
Most conversations consist of people talking about what they like, and what they don’t like, and by what margin of error you’re allowed to disagree with them before they’ll dump their beer on your head.
After looking up the subject on the internet I discovered that two-thirds of what we say every day is composed of only 100 different words (get drunk and this number plummets). Always a big fan of efficiency, I decided to concentrate on this modest list and see how far it would take me. This was going to be easier than I thought!
Right away I was surprised to discover that the most commonly-spoken word in English is ‘the’. Since there’s no ‘the’ in Thai, I happily scratched that off the list. Perhaps a great deal of the list could be scratched off, inching me closer to my goal without requiring any actual work, other than the actual scratching.
Luckily for students of Thai, the language enjoys a notoriously simple grammar. It enjoys no tenses, no genders, no conjugations, no plurals and sometimes it seems, precious little sense at all. It’s a wonder to me that with all the inherent ambiguity in the syntax that anyone ever understands what anyone is saying.
But Thais are masters of inferring context. Which is why they are so good at figuring out what sweating middle-aged Englishwomen mean when they scream “Where’s the bloody public convenience?” at the top of their lungs.
So armed with a Thai dictionary and a pen I eliminated any words from the list that seemed superfluous. For instance, those in tenses like ‘was’ and ‘will’, or conjugations like ‘are’. Afterwards I was left with 87 words. Not one to cut corners, I was determined to furrow my brow, put my mind to it, and shave more off the list. Surely I didn’t need possessives like ‘my’ and ‘his’. In Thai you just stick someone’s name after an object and possession is inferred — especially when that name appears after ‘a few kilos of heroin’ under a photograph in the local paper. So I tossed out five more. Since there is no actual ‘no’in Thai, only ‘not-yes’ (mai chai), that saved me one more. And since most sellers in Thailand insist on showing you the price on their calculator regardless of how well you speak their language, I got rid of any numbers, obviating an additional two. That left me with 79 beautiful bon mots with which would win me entry into the inner cockles of Unseen (and so far largely unheard) Thailand.
Right away I realised that things might turn a little tricky. Many of the words on the list had multiple meanings, like ‘like’, ‘can’, ‘look’, ‘by’, and ‘come’. Soon my list was rocketing towards 100 once more. And some of the meanings needed to be indicated through tricks of grammar rather than discrete words. Oh well. You win some, you lose some. No one said this was going to be easy. Oh wait, oops, I did say that.
“Luckily for students of Thai, the language enjoys a notoriously simple grammar. It enjoys no tenses, no genders, no conjugations, no plurals and sometimes it seems, precious little sense at all.”
Nevertheless, this was far better than going to some private school and paying thousands of baht to be yelled at by some pint-sized drill sergeant and having to do homework and study for tests. (I’ve still got a backlog of nightmares to get through from university fifteen years ago.) I had to do this on my own, not just for the sake of my sanity and pocketbook but because if I didn’t, this article would totally suck.
So I made flash cards and memorised the roughly ninety words. It took a few days to stuff them into the weathered cracks of my cerebral ganglia, but on the whole it was not more trying or painful than eatinga couple Thai chillies or sitting through a few episodes of American Idol. And I was a better man for it. Though far from fluent,
I could now approximate saying things heretofore only imagined. For instance: “What is your number?” “Where are you going?” and “You and me are like oil and water.” It might not have been much, but it sure was a start. I planned to tackle the second hundred most popular words soon, after which I’d be able to say “Where are you going with that gun in your hand” and “This is not my beautiful house.” This, I knew, would facilitate my musical career in a Thai rock cover band. Learning the third hundred most popular words would allow me to say “Let’s get together and feel all right” and “I’d like to work but the man is keeping me down.” See where all this was going? The more you can say, the easier it is to become an utter degenerate.
I’m not being flip. This isn’t an altogether fanciful idea. Many linguistic theorists contend that the reason language came about in the first place was so that we could manipulate each other, weasel our way out of responsibilities, have a laugh at another’s expense, and trick good- looking mates into the sack. Religion is pretty much in agreement on this as well. Remember the serpent in the Garden of Eden? He was the first creature in the Bible who actually started a conversation, and look what happened after that. No wonder so many monks take vows of silence. Perhaps the only way to speak no evil is not to speak at all. That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure played a mean pinball. I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something.
Anyway, this is all fine and good if you don’t like evil in its spoken form. But I’m rather fond of it. By which I mean: irony, black humour, gossip, heavy-metal lyrics, and of course dirty jokes. This, in my opinion, is how the universal truth of the human condition is transmitted, and not just in the West. Just witness the Thai fascination with the word kee (English: poo). Many of their favoured expressions, from lazy (kee kiet) to stingy (kee niew) [sticky poo] to utterly drunk (kee mao) incorporate this zesty epithet. Consequently, as soon as I become fluent enough in Thai, I plan to share my huge repository of maledictions with my friends here in their native language. I’m convinced that they’d really enjoy a good off-colour gag, told well.
Speaking of which, does anyone know the Thai phrase for “Pull my finger”? It doesn’t seem to be on any of my lists.