My Shame in BabelPosted: August 29, 2008
When we opened an office in Thailand I started learning the local language, as I always do when new to a country. Because Thai sounds like voice-over on a Donald Duck movie, I hired a teacher for one-on-one lessons.
As most “small” language Thai is not well documented and any word will have various translations depending on which book you open.
Thai doesn’t have many words, hardly any grammar; it has no articles, no inflection of noun, and no declension of objectives, no variation of verbs in regard to gender, number, tenses or cases and many other simplifying no-rules. A sentence like “If I would have known, I would have had the chance to use past perfect.” does defy translation.
Furthermore Thai belongs to the group of tonal languages. Tonal languages, as opposed to the non-tonal Indo-Germanic languages, root meaning in tone, not in grammar. Hence the same word may have a myriad of meanings depending on how you pronounce it while the written form remains identical.
“Leo” for example means “beer”, “right”, “quickly”, “come” and “here” and some unidentified food. Imagine you want to say: “Quickly, come here with the beer.”
My teacher described this tactfully as a three-dimensional language concept but I smelled the competitive disadvantage of a nation, especially when one realizes that the locals do not understand each other very well.
In my lessons, I focused on simple sentences of importance (like the one mentioned). After four weeks of study my teacher deemed me ready to order my favorite dish “Fried rice” which is “Khao pad” plus “Nung, krap” which is “One please”.
Confidently I walked up to a fried rice vendor and said “Khao pad, nung krap”. He looked irritated and called his wife.
By the time I had said “Khao pad” about eight times, the fried rice vendor and a group of spectators had organized someone who supposedly spoke English. He didn’t understand me neither.
Exhausted I pointed at the fried rice, said not a word and gestured “one”. That went through like a revelation. “Oooh, he wants fried rice! Man, why doesn’t he say so? God dammed foreigner.”
The bi-lingual Thai laughed, padded my shoulder and called out: “Yuu wiht eiis on.” and meant “You fried rice, one.”
I took another 6 months of private lessons, and then I gave up. Now, when in Bangkok I never say a word in Thai except a Buddhist “Mai pen rai.” which means “Never mind”, I hope.
How flat is that Mr. Friedman?