Buses, Trains, Signs and Reading (24 Sept 2012)

24 September 2012; AT5 = 567 hours; total time = 1500 hours

I was on a bus the other day, looking at some of the signs posted above the seating. What’s interesting is that the signs on the buses are all in Thai, whereas signs on the trains (the MRT, the underground; and the BTS, the elevated “skytrain”) are in both English and Thai. And in fact I’ll see plenty of obviously non-Thai people on the trains, whereas the bus passengers seem to be overwhelmingly Thai. The trains are all air conditioned, while only some of the buses are; the trains are also faster and more expensive than the buses, which tend to get bogged down in Bangkok’s notorious traffic. The bus system (or systems?) is much more extensive than the trains, which cover only a limited part of the city – though the parts that the trains cover include some of the more expensive, more developed, more cosmopolitan parts of the city, ie, parts heavily frequented by foreigners. These observations may seem a little off-topic in terms of language learning – maybe more along sociological lines – but riding the trains and riding the buses are quite different experiences, and are located in quite different environments, not only spatially and culturally / socially, but linguistically as well. These are very different aspects of Bangkok.

Anyway, looking at this sign, which consisted of a single line of Thai text – all characters and no spaces – I could make out what I thought was the word for sit toward the beginning, and what I thought was the word for disabled or handicapped at the end – though I couldn’t understand anything in the middle of the text. A similar sign nearby also seemed to start with the word for sit, but to end with the word for age.

So I guess the first sign said something along the lines of, this seat reserved for disabled people, or please give this seat to the disabled; with the second sign saying something similar but concerning elderly people instead. Again, I couldn’t say that this is reading, but I can pick out enough of the characters to get a rough idea of what sound is being expressed (analogous to say, being able to read only the consonants in an English word), and then use the context to come up with a word that makes sense given the situation.

A few more observations about writing / reading, as long as I’m on that topic:

There are some characters that I feel like I really understand quite well what sound they symbolize, whereas other characters I haven’t a clue. But in between those extremes are the characters that I seem to keep figuring out and forgetting and then refiguring out again and again. Maybe these are characters that appear somewhat less frequently so that I’ve seen them less often; and in some cases I think that they are characters that confuse me because they look so similar to one another. Then there are characters that seem to represent the same sound – for instance, there are a number of characters that represent the t (or is it d?) sound, a number that represent the s sound, etc. But do all the “t” characters really represent the same sound, or are there differences that I haven’t yet noticed?

Then there is the matter of font. The font or style of writing that is easiest for me to decode is what the teachers use in the classroom. I think that this is largely because the classroom is really the only situation I’ve been in where I see the words written and hear them pronounced at the same time, so this is the font that I’ve come closest to directly correlating with the sounds it represents. But it might also be because this font is in a middle ground of neither too ornate nor too simplified. Other fonts are harder to figure out.

There is what I think of as a kind of streamlined, modernized font, mostly used in advertising of the kind I see on billboards, and on posters and signs on the train systems. This font seems to have been modified to make it look more like the Roman alphabet used in English and a lot of other European (etc) languages. So the characters look a little less ornate, a little less baroque, than in other fonts; some of the detail has been eliminated, including the little circle (they call it a “head” in Thai) that a lot of characters start with. These characters look like they could be drawn on top of a very simplified grid to a much greater extent than the characters of some other fonts (see below). And some characters have really been squeezed or stretched to make them closely resemble actual letters from the Roman alphabet – s, a, and u come to mind – even though they don’t sound like those letters. (In fact there is a brand of laundry detergent whose name looks for all the world like “usa”). However the upshot of this is that I have more difficulty recognizing these characters – not only can they look quite different than what I see in the classroom, but some of the characters, due to the streamlining of detail, now resemble one another to a much greater extent, making it harder to distinguish between them. (I have to admit that I really like the look of this type of font. Maybe I’m prejudiced because it looks like the English alphabet, but this font has a kind of bold, punchy graphic design, and was one of the things that really struck me during my first days in Bangkok, as I took in all the really neat looking advertising on highway billboards, on the skytrain, in the big shopping malls, etc. All of a sudden advertising, which in English is an annoyance at best, seemed beautiful and exotic and mysterious!)

There are also other fonts, kinds that I often see on the shop signs of small businesses in certain areas – Chinatown comes to mind. They are more ornate, more script-like than the characters used by my teachers in the classroom. I wonder if these are older styles of writing; there seems to me to be a similarity, stylistically, to Indian and Chinese writing. And I find them harder to read– even harder than the “pseudo-Roman alphabet” font of modern advertising.

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2 thoughts on “Buses, Trains, Signs and Reading (24 Sept 2012)

  1. Pingback: thaiwithoutstudy’s First Birthday, ครบรอบ๑ปี! | learning thai without studying

  2. Pingback: Woeful Transliteration #3 | learning thai without studying

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