What Is This?

19 June 2013, TV = 803.8 hours

I like taking advantage of Thai people – by asking them what stuff is called in Thai. I tend to do this with physical, tangible things – things I can touch or point to. In other words, I’m not asking how to say “good governance” or “aesthetics”; I don’t ask about those funny little “grammatical” words (in English, these would be words like to, of, should). Instead, I’m pointing at a beehive or a screwdriver and asking What is this in Thai?

I’ve come up with a few different ways of asking. (The question itself is, of course, posed in Thai). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes I don’t get any answer at all.

Could there be something defective or confusing about the ways I formulate this question? This is possible – after all, the best way to learn how to say something in Thai is to listen to how an actual native speaker says it. The problem is, I’ve never heard a Thai person asking What is this called?1 So I had to make up my own versions of these questions.

On the other hand, the question of What is this?, posed while pointing at something, isn’t as straightforward as it seems; there’s usually a certain ambiguity as to what’s really being asked.

A few weeks ago I was at a shop in my neighborhood. I’d just bought a few picture frames, and the proprietor was about to wrap up my purchase. I decided to take advantage of the situation and try to find out what the Thai for “picture frame” is. I pointed at one of the frames and asked What is this?

A4 he said, pointing at the print on the box which gave the frame’s dimensions.

No, I said, and pointed at one of the store’s sample picture frames. This, I said, touching the frame, in Thai, what is this?

Wood, he told me. Well, it really was a wooden frame, but I guess I had a little doubt that maybe he’d said another word that merely sounded like the word for wood: there are so many words in Thai that are distinguished from one another by really minute variations in sound – at least from my point of view as an English speaker – and though I seem to be getting better at telling the difference between such words, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of distinctions that still elude me. What if he wasn’t saying wood, but another word instead?

I pointed at the wooden counter: Wood, I said. Wood, he confirmed.

I still hadn’t found out how to say “picture frame” in Thai. He’d first thought I was asking about the size of the frame, then the material. I didn’t know how to make the question more precise, and suddenly I felt weary at the prospect of trying to do so. I also started to feel like if I asked any more questions, I was going to be badgering this poor guy who was, after all, a businessman who sold picture frames for a living, not a language teacher.

So I gave up. I smiled, thanked him, took my purchase, and left.

And I still don’t know how to say “picture frame” in Thai. Oh well: ไม่เป็นไร. It’ll just have to wait for another day.

* * *

Notes:

1. I’ve since run into a question in Thai that could probably be translated as What should I call you? or How should I address you? It seems that the verb that’s used in this question can be used for objects as well: What do you call this?

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