5 June 2013; AT5 = 1032 hours; total time = 1970 hours; TV = 159.1 hours
I spent most of last month at two small rural temples in the province of Ratchaburi, a roughly two hour drive west of Bangkok. It was a pretty much all-Thai situation (a friend who speaks English left after ten days). Here are the Thai language highlights:
Near and Far: I’m finally getting the hang of these two Thai words. Up until this point they had sounded the same (sort of like the English word glide with the d sound lopped off: “glai”), and I was always afraid that I would be misunderstood as saying the exact opposite of what I wanted to say. It almost made me feel that there was some kind of joke going on, that the language would have two words that were opposite in meaning but undistinguishable (to me, at least) in their sound. But now I can not only hear but also reproduce the difference: the word for “far” has a more relaxed, drawn-out vowel sound than the word for “near”; there’s also some kind of difference in intonation – like the vowel in the word for “near” sounds higher pitched than the vowel in the word for “far”.
Insulting my friend: One day a friend drove me to Ayutthaya, the capital city of one of Thailand’s previous kingdoms, and gave me a tour. (Ayutthaya was destroyed by Burmese invaders in 1767 and has since been rebuilt; the city contains many ancient temples, and has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO). While thanking her and trying to tell her that she had been a very good tour guide, I accidentally called her a chicken – which in Thai is also slang for prostitute. (The words for tour guide and chicken both sound kind of like English guy, except that they have different intonations). Laughing, she pointed out my mistake and I corrected myself. What’s interesting is that I know the difference between the two words, and have no problem pronouncing them correctly; but somehow in the process of speaking it’s like the circuits got crossed and the wrong word came out.
Stupid, or just confused?: Commenting on my deficiencies in understanding, I would sometimes refer to myself as no (the n is in the back of the throat, like the n in the English word sing), which after awhile began to upset my friend (the same one I had accidentally called a chicken), who began giving me mini lectures / pep-talks about how I wasn’t no, but there was simply Thai that I didn’t yet understand. Actually, I was really fuzzy on what no means: sometimes I thought it meant “stupid”, sometimes “confused”. Then at a certain point I realized I was confusing no with non (again, the n sounds are all in the back of the throat, like the n in the word sing), the former being more like English “stupid”, the latter like “confused”. Then I remembered that I had actually known about and differentiated between the two words quite a number of months back, and I remembered sometimes seeing them being written out on the whiteboard at school (the spellings are distinct). But then somehow I confused the two words – maybe I hadn’t heard them in some time and only remembered no? Or maybe I somehow stopped hearing the difference between them, with the result that I attributed both meanings to the one word no?
And the confusion is still not completely cleared up, because I’m pretty sure there’s a difference in pronunciation beyond that of simply an extra “n”, but I’m not quite sure that this difference is yet clear enough to me for me to be able to pronounce the two words correctly and distinctly. Such confusion is typical for me – there are a lot of Thai words that I have not yet learned to differentiate out: they sound either the same or very similar. Sometimes if I hear these words one after another I can tell that the pronunciation isn’t quite identical, but can’t really put my finger on what the difference actually is. For example, the Thai words for “shirt”, “tiger”, “to buy”, and “mat” all sound pretty similar, as do the words for “egg” and “to sell”. I think I can usually understand these words when other people use them, because the context makes the meaning clear; and when I use these words, people in general seem to understand me, but I have to wonder if that too is due to context.
Related digression: One of the characters in Ruen Hor Ror Hean (เรือนหอรอเฮี้ยน), the lakorn that I’m currently watching, is a young woman who went to England as a child and who’s just returned to Thailand after years away, with the result that she now speaks a very imperfect Thai. Her heavy (English?) accent, and the tentative and off-sounding rhythms of her speech seem pretty obvious, while the other characters’ reactions to her make it clear that Nudee sometimes says things that are incorrect or inappropriate. (Also, her speech is larded with words from the Isaan [northeastern] dialect, and I suspect there’s a joke that I didn’t quite catch about how this came to be – perhaps along the lines of her having learned Thai from the servants?). Anyway, she’s quite a comical character, and I’m sure that most of her Thai-language bloopers go right over my head, but one that I did catch (kind of) was when toward the end of one particular scene she tries to excuse herself by saying that she has to pee but actually ends up saying that she’s going to ordain as a nun. I say I “kind of” caught it because both statements sound the same to me (“bawt chee”) and my understanding was based on both the context in which Nudee made the statement and on what happened later on in the show. Maybe if I got a Thai person to make both statements for me one after the other, it would be easier for me to compare them and I’d be able to tell whether or not they differ in sound/pronunciation. But I only occasionally try to elicit such head-to-head comparisons. The fact that I’m uncertain as to whether having to pee and ordaining as a nun sound identical or not in Thai to me suggests that this is language that I have thus far only partially assimilated: I know the sounds to the point where I can recognize what these phrases mean in context, but not with the full clarity that lets me distinguish between them if context is lacking or inadequate. I assume that with time the distinctions will become apparent, as they have with the words for “near” and “far”.