Thomas John Hudak
Historical Overview. Thai (Siamese) is the
official language of the Kingdom of Thailand. It is but one of many
languages and dialects belonging to the historical or proto-Tai family,
which is divided into three major branches: Northern Tai, Central Tai, and
Southwestern Tai. Thai (Siamese) is in the third branch of the family, which
also includes the Lao dialects of Laos, the Shan dialects of Upper Burma,
several Tai dialects spoken in Yunnan Province in China, such as Tai Lue in
the Sipsongpanna Region and Tai Dam, which originated in northwestern
Vietnam but has now appeared greatly transformed in Laos and the U.S.
-chiefly in Iowa- as part of the diaspora from the wars in Indochina.
Within Southwestern Tai there is a great deal of mutual
intelligibility, these dialects sharing as much as 70% common lexicon. The
most distinguishing feature of any dialect is tones - their number, shapes,
and historical splits from the three tones of proto-Tai. The maximum number
of possible phonemic tones is nine; seven is the highest number of tones
within Thailand, namely the variety of Thai spoken in the South.
Official or Standard Thai is based on the idealized
speech of the educated elite of Bangkok and large portions of the Central
Plain. The other main regional dialects are Northern Thai, spoken around
Chiangmai; Northeastern Thai (Isan), spoken to the east of Korat; and
Southern Thai, spoken south of Chumpon and into neighboring communities of
northern Malaysia. The younger, educated population of these regions are
bi-dialectal owing to the success of the central government's literacy
programs. However, strong regional identity has served until recently to
keep local dialects alive, even though Central Thai is on the ascendency. In
Bangkok itself there are large communities of Chinese (Taechiew and Hailam,
for example) who speak varieties of Sino-Thai, shaped by age, ethnic
origins, education, and social mobility. Likewise, sizable communities of
Lao and Isan speakers reside in Bangkok as new residents or seasonal
laborers. Because Bangkok is a mosaic of diverse speech communities, it is
difficult to generalize about the "language of the street" because
so little fieldwork has been done on urban conversational Thai.
Thailand has a population of over 60 million. Perhaps as
many as half of these speak Central/Standard Thai at home, school, or
business. The remaining half speak a regional dialect or a non-Tai language,
such as Hmong or Lahu in the North, Lao or Khmer in the Northeast, and Malay
in the South. In the U.S. there are large Thai communities, the largest of
which is in the Los Angeles area. More modest settlements of largely
professional Thais (doctors, nurses, engineers, restauranteurs) live in
Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Phonology. The Thai sound system is best
described in relationship to the syllable, the tone-bearing unit. A Thai
syllable has the maximum shape of C(C)V(V)(C)+Tone. There are five tones,
which will be delineated later. There are twenty consonants in
syllable-initial position, all easily pronounced by English speakers with
the exception of the voiceless unaspirated series p- t- k- ?-
(glottal stop). Initial consonant clusters include labials- pr, pl, phr, phl;
alveolars- tr, thr (mostly literary); and velars- kr, kl, khr, khl, khw.
Cluster simplification (pl > p, for example) is a fixed feature of
dialects in the North and Northeast and in Laos, where tr > k also in
some dialects. The most prominent sociolinguistic index is syllable-initial
r~l variation. Only in the South is r- well-preserved. In Bangkok speech r-
is maintained by the highly-educated and self-conscious and promoted by
schools and the media. (One recent pop song has the title, "Where Has
'R' Gone To?") In varieties of Northern and Northeastern Thai and Lao
the progressions is r>l>h. As for syllable-final consonants, only m,
n, ng [N], y, w, p, t, k and the
glottal stop [?] occur.
There are nine vowels, long and short. Thus vowel length
is phonemic: yaaN 'rubber' vs. yaN
'still, yet'. All but two of the vowels are fairly isomorphic with American
English vowels, except for the high and mid back, unrounded "eu"
and "er," which are often transcribed as f
and e, respectively. There are three diphthongs
composed of the three short and long vowels followed by a centering
off-glide -a. In some dialects n the northern reaches of Southwestern Tai,
the diphthongs become monothongs and are lowered from high to mid position.
Tones. There are 5 phonemic tones on
smooth syllables in Standard Thai, as follows:
1. Mid-level, with a slight
fall in stressed or utterance-final position.
'to be stuck'
3. Falling from high to low,
with glottalized voice quality. (This tone in particular, especially among
females, has undergone striking change in Bangkok speech in the present
generation. It now starts at a higher level, rises in the early part of the
syllable to a peak and then falls to a point below mid-level.)
4. High-level/slight rise,
'to do business'
5. Rising from low to high.
In isolation, tones 1 and 2 are perceptively close and
are difficult to distinguish when context is absent. Tones are relatively
"high, mid, low, falling, and rising", and differ with age and
gender and sex-orientation. On checked syllables, tone is conditioned by
vowel length and phonetic history of the initial consonant.
Morphology. Thai is not inflected for
case, gender, tense, or number. Time situations are dealt with separate
morphemes, word order, and time words (today, last week, next year, for
example). Number is likewise shown with separate numerals, quantifiers, and,
when counting, classifiers.
Derivatives are formed with a limited number of
prefixes and suffixes. For example, the prefix khwaam 'the condition
of', when combined with the class of verb/adjective produces abstract nouns
expressing a state or quality, such as khwaam-ciN
'truth'. Compounds include coordinate nouns, such as phO3O
mE3E 'parents' from phO3O
'father' and mE3E 'mother'; coordinate verbs,
such as cf3a-faN
'to obey' from chf3a 'to
believe' and faN 'to listen
to'; and attributive compounds, such as ro2t-fay
'train' from ro2t 'vehicle, car' and fay
Reduplication is productive and is of three
types. Simple reduplication of a base form, such as dii 'good' to dii-dii
'rather good', which softens the meaning or pluralizes, as in de1k-de1k
'children' from de1k 'a child'. With a change
of tone where the first tone is always higher in pitch, the significance is
one of emphasis: dii2-dii 'really
good!' Ablauting reduplication alternates a back vowel with a corresponding
front vowel: soo-see 'to stagger'; or alternation of any vowel with
'to hate, loathe'.
Semantic doublets and elaborate expressions are
a special type of compounding formed on the basis of sharing a certain
degree of similarity. Examples are tha2N-si2n
'all' (adv.) from (adj.) tha2N 'all' and si2n
'all through' (prep.). In their most elaborate form, they have a poetic
quality as in huu4-pa1a-taa-thf1an
'ear-forest-eye-forest', which means 'to be ignorant of what is going on.'
Syntax. Thai is an SVO (Subject+Verb+Object)
language. It is also described with benefit as a Topic+Comment/Question
language. A good deal of "grammaticality" is dictated by word
order: ma3y da3y pay
'...didn't go' vs. pay ma3y da3y
Nouns and verbs comprise the two largest
classes of words in the lexicon. There is no clear-cut distinction between
verbs and adjectives. Thus phO3O dii can be
translated as 'Father is good' or 'the good father.' Noun substitutes
include formal pronouns and -more commonly among family and friends- kin
terms. Titles are also commonly used as noun substitutes: ?aacaan
'professor'; khun mO4O 'doctor', for
example. The choice of formal pronouns follow a hierarchy of power, with age
and social position (money, title and education) and social setting being
the chief determinants. The most socially neutral first person pronouns are
the only ones that identify the sex of the speaker: pho4m
'I-male' and dicha4n 'I-female'. Thai is
noted as a "pro-drop" language, both as a means of avoiding
decisions about what pronoun to use and because the referent is understood
from context, especially in face-to-face conversation. Pronouns have also
been borrowed into Thai from Chinese and English. The English pronouns
"I" and "You" are employed by Thai urbanites because
they are socially neutral, exhibiting mild indifference. The historically
older pronouns kuu-mfN 'I-You' are used
chiefly by "buddies" to demonstrate bonding or, conversely, to
heap invective on adversaries. The equivalent of the English 'it' is man
and is used to refer to animals, children, and outsiders, such as
foreigners. The demonstrative pronouns ni3i, na3n,
no3on 'this one, that one, yonder one',
divides space into three degrees of proximity. A single form is used for the
interrogative/indefinite pronoun: khray 'who/anybody or nobody'; thi3i
na4y 'where/anywhere or nowhere', and so forth.
Nouns+Attributes are simple -lu3uk pho4m
'my child'- and complex -lu3uk sa4am
khon 'three children' [Noun + Number + Classifier: offspring + 3 +
Predicates. Subject is followed by the
predicate. Time expression such as 'now/yesterday/next month' and preverbs,
such as ca1 'will' and da3y
'got to do or did something' are separate morphemes. Thai is noted for long
verbs strings, with up to seven in a single concatenation. Verbs are negated
with the form ma3y + Verb . Modals such as
'must' tO3N 'probably' khoN
'likely to' are likewise preverbs. Postverbs include the forms way4
'to do something for later use' and da3y
Utterance-Final Particles. Statements can be
converted to questions with the addition of a final question particle, such
as ma2y 'yes/no?' rf4f
'eh?/I assume?' Polite particles used to "speak upward" are
initiated by the younger or socially less powerful to show deference; an
"inferior" male will terminate his utterances (statements and
questions) with the particle khra2p and
female subordinates will use kha2 to
terminate questions and kha3 for
statements. These particles are also employed as a polite confirmation
particle. A "semi-polite" variant is ha2/ha3.
A number of "mood particles" are used where stress might be in
English to show attitude toward a situation or listener: rO1Ok
corrects a misapprehension or refutes; na2?
asks for compliance or an indication of understanding.
Complements include relative clauses headed by
thi3i 'that/which'; causatives initiated by ha3y
'to make, let, have someone do something'; and the comparative- superlative
-kwa1a 'more/-er' and thi3i-su1t
The Lexicon and Problem Areas for Translators and
Interpreters. Chief among the problems faced by even rather advanced
students of Thai in dealing with both spoken and written Thai is the matter
of who is speaking to whom or being spoken about. As explained earlier, Thai
is a pro-drop language, and only the skilled student or native speaker is
able to figure out from the topic and context who the centers of action and
focus are with any degree of certainty. As difficult, or more so, is being
able to follow and make sense of conversations involving multiple speakers
and the complexities of turn-taking and topic-changing that goes on at a
rapid pace. The rapidity of natural speech and the resulting reduction and
"smearing" of sounds at boundaries in contrast to the
clearly-enunciated, simplified "motherese" of caretaker or teacher
talk, is a supreme challenge. Depending on the domain of discourse, the
ultimate test of a skilled translator is his or her knowledge of slang and
idiomatic usages, in the case of everyday language, or the technical jargon
or argot of particular professions -largely a lexical matter, but one which
also demands skillful syntactic analytical skills. Syntactic complexities
range from equating temporal and spacial relationships in two languages
-Thai and English- from such devices as the directionals pay 'to go'
and maa 'to come' to reconstructing meaning from widely discontinuous
constructions. In interpreting a language, parallel processing goes on
between syntax and semantics. Forming an hypothesis about power
relationships in a conversation, for example, builds upon the semantic-sytactic
cues of utterance-final particles: who is speaking "up or down,"
(i.e., with or without deference), who is coercing or cajoling whom, and
other types of inferences that can be drawn to create a total translation.
Social appropriateness or "linguistic
etiquette" can be sampled on the macro level. Micro-testing would probe
the listener's ability to separate out speakers of Standard from
non-Standard Thai, and ideally the regional, social, or ethnic background of
the speaker, and possibly their values, behaviors and intentions.
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