Ratchaburi Continued: “Standard” Thai vs. Passa Chow Ban + What Do Words Refer to, Anyway? (6 June 2013)

6 June 2013; AT5 = 1032 hours; total time = 1970 hours; TV = 160.7 hours

In English I sometimes say that I’m studying Thai, but it would actually be more accurate to add qualifiers and say that I’m studying “standard Thai”, or “official Thai”, or “the national dialect of the Thai language”, or something to that effect. My understanding is that this standardized version of the Thai language is based upon the dialect of Thai spoken in Bangkok, and is used in schools, government, and the media. I think that for many Thais, it is acquired as a second language when they are young. For example, I once spoke with a woman from the south of Thailand, who had a university level education and had been living and working in Bangkok for some time. As we conversed in standard Thai, I asked her about the language she had grown up with and how she had learned the national language. She replied that she’d grown up speaking the local dialect of southern Thai, and had learned to understand standard Thai at school, but did not become proficient in speaking standard Thai until she was older because schoolchildren did not often speak in class.

Thais often divide their country into four main regions: central (which includes Bangkok), southern, northern, and northeastern; and similarly, they often speak of analogous regional variants in the language, ie, southern Thai as opposed to central Thai, etc. But even this is, I think, somewhat of a simplification. For instance, I’ve been told that the local variant of Thai spoken in Surin has a good deal in common with the language spoken just over the border in Cambodia, while the language spoken in Ubon Ratchathani has a good deal in common with the language in nearby Laos – this despite the fact that the two cities, which are both located in Isaan (the northeast), are only about 100 miles away from one another.

So the impression that I get is that the local language or dialect, what the Thais call “passa chow ban”, varies from place to place. Another example: one of my teachers at AUA, who grew up less than 100 miles from Bangkok and has lived in Bangkok for many years at this point, once said that she can only understand about 50% of the speech of someone from a distant part of the country. Likewise, I have heard that people from central Thailand have trouble understanding the local dialects from Isaan, the northeastern part of Thailand.

Within the classrooms at AUA, the teachers use “standard Thai” pretty much exclusively. Only on very rare occasions will they throw out a few words or phrases in one of the regional dialects, but I think this is not so much to teach students “passa chow ban” as it is to alert them to the degree of language variation within the country, as well as for amusement purposes (in the same way that I have, on occasion, and just for fun, broken out a heavy New York accent for some Thai person who’s interested in English language and/or America).

“Official Thai” may be based on Bangkok Thai, but I suspect that at least some of what I hear in Bangkok is provincial dialect. For one thing, my impression is that a large percentage of the people who live and/or work in Bangkok come from other parts of the country. I haven’t been able to find any online demographics for Bangkok that reveal what percentage of Bangkok’s population originated from outside the city, but Wikipedia’s page on Bangkok has a section on demography listing census data from roughly the last hundred years and showing a degree of population growth that I would guess could only be accounted for by migration (just to take the most recent figures, in the year 2000 Bangkok’s population was 6,355,144 whereas in 2010 it was 8,280,925 – a 23% increase in just 10 years).

My personal experience is that when I ask people where they’re from, it’s just about always from one of the provinces, not Bangkok. And in terms of AUA, I’ve had roughly 15 different Thai teachers and I think there are only three who I’m not sure where they’re from – so it might be Bangkok – but the others all come from the provinces. (Mostly from either Central Thailand or the Northeast; only one teacher that I know of is from the South, and none from the North).

All of which is to say that when I encounter someone who’s especially difficult to understand, I sometimes wonder if they’re speaking something other than “official Thai” – particularly if their Thai sounds somewhat unusual compared to what I’m used to. This is less about whether I can recognize and understand the words they’re using, and more to do with the sound of the language they’re using: standard Thai has a certain sound to it that I’ve gotten used to and which has become very recognizable, very familiar; at other times I’ll be listening to someone – and understanding them, to some extent – but there’s something different, less familiar, about the sound of the language they’re using.

But I’m never really sure in cases like that. Maybe I’m listening to someone speaking standard Thai, but they’ve just got their own unique or idiosyncratic way of speaking? Or they’re speaking an informal “sloppy” standard Thai, analogous to the way that I’ll tend to run sounds together and use a lot of contractions when speaking to another native English speaker, as opposed to the more “careful” English that I’ll use when dealing with a foreigner who doesn’t seem to speak English fluently. So it’s hard for me to tell what I’m really dealing with; all I really know is along the lines of, this person’s language sounds more like what I’m used to hearing, that person’s less so; I can understand this person fairly well, that person not so well.

I’ve also wondered to what extent there’s a Bangkok vernacular that differs from standard Thai (which, again, is based on the Thai spoken in Bangkok). Like what do native Bangkokites (Bangkokians? Krungthepers?) speak if they’re not well educated or if they’re being informal? Is it just “standard Thai” with a lot of slang thrown in and a lot of the formalities removed? Or something else?

During my recent stay in Ratchaburi (a province within central Thailand and only about 50 miles west of Bangkok), the person I probably spoke most with was the woman who gave me a tour of Ayutthaya, as described in the previous (5 June) entry. A successful local businesswoman, O. has lived in Ratchaburi her whole life. Friendly, curious, and sympathetic, O. made for a good Thai teacher and an ideal interlocutor given my current abilities in Thai, in that she was always willing to rephrase, restate, or explain things that she saw I didn’t understand, as well as to answer questions and expand on things that interested me (and not simply unfamiliar language, but unfamiliar cultural concepts and beliefs as well). Although I didn’t think to ask her at the time, I have since wondered if she has a fairly high level of education compared to some of the other local people who I spoke with who were more challenging for me to understand. My difficulties with some of these other people were twofold. For one thing, if I didn’t understand what they’d said the conversation would tend to grind to a halt; it was as if they lacked a certain ability to explain things or to restate the same idea in different words, as if they could only think of one way to say something. The other difficulty was related to what I wrote above about some people speaking a Thai that just doesn’t sound familiar, doesn’t sound quite like the “standard Thai” that I’ve picked up at AUA, and often hear being spoken around me in Bangkok. So perhaps these people had what in America would be described as a heavy (regional) accent; maybe they were speaking very casually, something like the way English speakers (at least in America, where I’m from) will run sounds together or drop them out altogether (ie, “what are you doing?” becomes “watcha doin’?”); maybe this was Ratchaburi Thai instead of Standard Thai. Again, my Thai is still too rudimentary for me to be able to answer such questions; all I really know is, this person’s Thai is kind of unfamiliar sounding and is much harder to understand than that person’s Thai, which sounds more like what I’m used to.

This goes back to the other reason O. was relatively easy to understand: the Thai that she was speaking sounded familiar, sounded like the standard Thai that I’ve gotten used to. So was she speaking standard Thai? That would seem to be the case, but she would sometimes say something and then tell me that the expression she had just used was “passa chow ban” (ie, the local dialect), and go on to “translate” it for me into standard Thai. The “passa chow ban” expressions that she used didn’t sound different than the rest of her speech, didn’t stick out as being obviously different from standard Thai, and to me it just sounded like more (standard) Thai, albeit language that I was unfamiliar with and didn’t understand (like so much of the Thai that I hear). Was she basically speaking standard Thai but occasionally throwing in some local expressions? Or was what she was calling “passa chow ban” actually just informal idiom, maybe not even specific to Ratchaburi?

One thing that I did pick up on was that at least sometimes, what would be pronounced KW in standard Thai would turn into F in Ratchaburi. This really threw me for a loop on a previous trip to Ratchaburi – the whole story is too complicated to be worth explaining in detail, but the KW to F change, in combination with another alternative pronunciation that I’d not encountered elsewhere, led me to think that one of the monks at the temple was telling me that he was taking a trip to the dentist, when in reality he was just asking me to summon one of the other monks!

As I’ve noted a number of times in other entries, it’s usually easier for me to understand someone who I’m speaking with than to understand other people’s conversations that I’m overhearing but not participating in. I think this is because in the first case the person is often to some extent adjusting their speech, based on their perception of how well I understand, in order to successfully communicate with me, plus to a greater extent I might be aware of the context within which the conversation is occurring (ie, discussing plans for later on, or asking me about life in America, etc); whereas in the latter case (just listening in, not participating) the people who are speaking are not gearing their speech to me personally, and I’m often less aware of the context or what the general topic is.

Anyway, one day I was on a long car ride, about three and a half hours each way, going from Ratchaburi to the adjoining province of Kanchanaburi (just to the north), with two other people who, I never inquired, but I’m sure had been living in Ratchaburi for a long time if not their whole lives. The two of them did a fair amount of talking; every once in awhile they would address me specifically, usually pointing out and commenting on something that we were passing, but for the most part they spoke to each other without making any attempt to explain things to me or include me in the conversation. I would sometimes pay attention – I of course wanted to be able to understand what they were saying, but without much success my attention would usually wander off to the passing scenery or unrelated thoughts.

This wasn’t the first time that I was in such a situation – I’ve listened in on Thai conversations before, have been on long car rides with Thais before, have been out to Ratchaburi before. And I’d known these two particular people for a number of months, and had listened to and spoken with them on a number of occasions. So at some point – I don’t think I was even listening really attentively – but at some point I started to understand the general drift of the conversation. Mostly they were talking about agriculture, about the crops being grown at the side of the road. I could never catch that many details; it was kind of like being back at AUA and just having “moved up” to a higher class, listening and understanding what the general topic was but not much more than that.

Of course, whatever difficulties may have been posed by this being, to some extent, the local vernacular as opposed to standard Thai, and by it being conversation not directed at nor tailored to me specifically, there’s the further problem of the unfamiliar topic. Most of my life I’ve lived in cities or suburbs, and even during the times that I’ve been in rural areas, I’ve never farmed or engaged in agriculture; in fact, I barely have experience gardening. And I’m probably even less familiar with the plants and crops grown in Thailand than I am with the ones in America. So the things that they were talking about were unfamiliar to me, things of which I have no experience and little knowledge. Had I been in an analogous situation in America – taking a ride through farm country with knowledgeable local people and listening to their conversation in English – there might still have been a lot that I wouldn’t have understood, if they were referring to techniques, equipment, crops etc. that I was unfamiliar with, using specialized language specific to farming (whether slang or jargon), or alluding to things so basic to agriculture and farm life that they would feel no need to explain it unless talking to an outsider.

I think about this in relation to a health care profession that I’d been in for several years before coming to Thailand. It was a rather specialized profession, and some of the conversations that I had with my colleagues would probably have been largely incomprehensible to most people without a medical background; but I suspect that even some of my fellow health care workers from other fields would not have fully understood these conversations, because the language that we used was heavily laced not only with the kind of standard medical jargon used throughout a lot of health care (such as names of diseases, medications, procedures, etc), but jargon particular to our specific profession (which to really understand would require a lot of highly specialized knowledge), as well as medical slang, a lot of which which I was uncertain as to how far widespread it was beyond our particular hospital.

The problem in understanding is one not only of unfamiliar language, but of unfamiliar customs, beliefs, ways of relating, etc. – ie, it’s not just the words, but what they refer to. What happens when the words refer to things that have no equivalent in the culture that you come from?

I don’t think anyone visiting Thailand, even for a short period of time, would fail to notice the many “shrines” that can be seen in public places. I think one of my travel guidebooks called these “spirit houses”, and they can be seen outside of buildings (private homes and apartment buildings, but also hotels, banks, etc) and sometimes at the side of the road. They come in different sizes and styles, some are more elaborate than others, some look fairly new while others look like they’re ready to fall apart. Usually there are little figurines of people and animals placed inside and out, as well as offerings such as fruit, soda, flowers and incense. People often pause in front of these shrines and wai (place their hands together palm to palm). What would the American equivalent of all this be?

While driving past some of these “shrines” at the roadside, I pointed them out because I was curious if O. would tell me about them. I incorrectly called them “ban pee” (which might mean something like “haunted house”) and O. laughed and corrected my Thai (I think she called them “saan”). She told me a bit about the entities they housed – I think these would be different types of “tewada” (deities or gods). I didn’t really catch all of it but I got the impression that different shrines have different occupants.

But what does it really mean to wai at these places? Even waiing people is kind of complicated, because the manner in which you wai someone (or “receive” someone else’s wai), or even whether you wai them at all, depends on the relationship and what I would describe as the “status” relative to each other of the parties involved. In general, the wai seems to be a respectful greeting, but differing statuses seem to merit different amounts (or types?) of respect, and thus different wais.

So when people wai at a shrine, I’m assuming they’re offering a respectful greeting, but are they also asking for something specific in a manner analogous to petitionary prayer? Or are they merely reaffirming a relationship? Are there expectations or hopes about that relationship, about how the occupant(s) of the shrine will behave toward the person who wais?

Even if I knew all this stuff – if I learned the relevant Thai words and also understood people’s feelings and attitudes – I think it still wouldn’t have the same meaning for me as for the Thais who wai and make offerings at these shrines, given that I’m agnostic about the existence of the shrines’ occupants, don’t have any particular emotional feeling about relating to such entities (should they exist), and (since I’m a foreigner) don’t feel any social pressure to (if nothing else) go through the motions of offering respect to the shrine.


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