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How Languages Reflect – And Sift Out – Reality


A language, any language, is nothing more than a series of codes at various levels. The speaker sees or feels a reality, his / her brain encodes that impulse, utters it and then the other speaker's brain decodes it. This is an oversimplication, perhaps, but that is more or less how it works.

A language is a set of codes that reflects reality in a different, often unique way. Even among people who know the same language, reality may be reflected in a different way. Let us take, for instance, a glass containing water in which 50% of its total capacity is used up. For one person, it might be "half-full". For another, it might be "half-empty", but the reality, the glass, is still there, with 50% of its capacity used up. Only the interpretation is different.

There was a theory in linguistics a half century ago, the Whorf-Sapir theory, that maintained that a given language shapes its speakers thoughts, not the other way around. This was based on Benjamin Whorf's observations of the Hopi language. This has largely been discredited since then. However, I would maintain the other way around: the way people think may be reflected in how they talk.

Just like the "half-full/half-empty" glass analogy, some languages pick up on bits of reality that other languages do not.

In English, if someone says:

A: A friend called you
B: Boy or girl?

In English, Thai, and Basque, the word "friend /pheuan/ lagun" does not tell us the gender of the person but in other languages, this is automatically done.

For the same sentence, "A friend called you", we have the following:

Spanish:
A: Te ha llamado una amiga
B: ¿Chico o chica? *

German:
A: Eine Freundin hat dich angerufen.
B: Mann oder Frau? * (man or woman)

* = such an answer would be redundant and unlikely

The "a" in "amiga" in Spanish and "-in" in German automatically tell us the gender of the person who called. Thus, B's answer would be useless. German and Spanish have reflected a reality that English and Thai do not expressly call for though words could be added to make that readily apparent.

In Basque, we can even know the gender of the person that A is talking to (B), even if we only see the speaker (A) talking on the phone

A: Lagun batek deitu dik
B. Mutila ala neska?

The -k in "dik" tells us that the other person the speaker A is talking to (B) is a boy.

If the other person being talked to is a girl, the sentence would be

A: Lagun batek deitu din
B: Mutila ala neska?

The -n in "din" tells us us that the other person being spoken to (B) is a girl. Yet, we don't know the gender of the friend unless we know who they are talking about.

Thus, we can see from above that reality is the same, but it is handled in different ways by different languages. Spanish and German automatically tell us the gender of the person who called, but not the gender of the person being spoken to. Basque leaves out the gender of the person who called, but not the gender of the person being spoken to. English and Thai leave all that detail out altogether. Yet, reality is the same. Same reality, different reflections.

What does this have to do with learning Thai? I'm getting there. Essentially, Thai is concerned about the gender of the speaker and hear but it is more concerned with the social status of the speaker and with person being talked to. Thai is also very concerned with saving face. It skimps on some aspects of reality, in comparison with some Indo-European languages (gender, elaborate verb tense systems, etc.) but then it makes up for it by having an elaborate system of reflecting Thai concerns about social status and saving face.

Thai's extensive family of pronouns

While many languages have a formal "you" and an informal "you" (Vous, Sie, Usted, Você, Vy, Nin are formal ways of saying "you" in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese respectively with their informal counterparts tu, du, tu, tu, ty, ni), Thai has a whole battery of pronouns to reflect this social sizing up, In any case, Thai often leaves out pronouns altogether, reserving them for the right moment such as clarity of speech or emphasis.

I won't give the whole gamut of possibilities as I don't wish to bore anyone too much but I will give a taste of what it is all about and will talk about some of the first and second person singular pronouns (i.e. "I " and "you") :

How to say "I"

In European languages, this is fairly straightforward. There is usually just one way. In Thai, it is more interesting.

Essentially, there are many ways to say "I", and the choice of which pronoun to use is basically determined by

1. Gender of the person
2. Social status of the person the speaker is talking to or their relationship with that person
3. Age
4. Absolute formality or informality

Phom

This is the exclusive domain of the male. It is generally used when talking with equals or superiors. It is the more "polite" pronoun.

Dichan

This is the exclusive domain of the female. It is generally used when talking with equals or superiors. It is the more "polite" pronoun.

Chan

This is familiar and may be used by both female and male. However, the person you are talking to is superior in rank or social status, you are not supposed to use it. It is all right with friends, servants, or children.

Nuu

This literally means "mouse". This is said by young women and girls who wish to come across as acting "cute".

Gan

This is used with close, male friends.

Guu

This is one of those Thai pronouns Faràngs are not supposed to use. It is considered "coarse". To be used only with good, close friends in a very informal setting.

Khâphájâo

This is highly formal and only found in written Thai

How to say "You" (sing.)

Khun

The polite pronoun for "you". It can be used for both genders. The one Faràngs mostly use and the one most Thais expect most Faràngs to use.

Thân

This is even more polite than "khun". It is used to address someone who is higher in rank or is very deserving of special respect. For example, when addressing a Buddhist monk, one's in-laws (at least when first meeting them), etc.

Gae

This pronoun sounds coarse to the Thai ear and used in very informal circumstances. Faràngs are advised to avoid using it.

Theuh (in other transliterations, Ther)

Used with close female friends. It is used by women talking to each other or a man who is talking to his wife, girlfriend, or little children.

Nuu

Literally, mouse. Used to address little children. Sometimes even used with girlfriends. A cute word. (also used as first person pronoun)

Man

"Man" is mostly used as "it" or "they" (indicating things). However, typical of some Thai pronouns, it can also be used in other persons, namely the second person. However, it is only good for insulting. To be strictly avoided as a second person pronoun.

Should anyone have an insufferably weird suicidal death wish with masochistic overtones, and wish to end it all by being brutally and painfully beaten to death, I would suggest going up to one of the uniformed boys in brown, and say, while patting him on his head (another no-no):

Âi hîa, man pen khîi mäa! (Hey/You monitor lizard, you are dog shit)

Expect instant results.

The following pronouns also reflects how Thais size each other up by age.

Phîi

Used to address someone who is from the same generation as you but who is older

Nóng

Used to address someone who is from the same generation as you but who is younger

There are plenty of other such pronouns used with one's great uncles, great aunts, etc.

Use of speaker's name

Sometimes, Thais will use their nickname instead of a pronoun. Such a practice strikes Faràngs as childish (i.e. that they are being talked to as children) but that is not how Thais see it. It is used when the speaker feels comfortable around the person being addressed:

Plaa mâi chôp mamuang I don't like mangos (literally, Plaa doesn't like mangos)

In conclusion, the myriad of Thai pronouns, not all of which have been listed, reflects the reality of a Thai concern for sizing up himself / herself in reference to the person they are addressing. This is not so thoroughly reflected by European languages in such a systematic manner although there are, to be sure, certain coincidences and overlapping to be found.

How Thai reflects its concern for saving face or being polite

Since Thai is a kind of language that has little morphology (i.e. no verb endings, case endings, plural suffixes, etc.), it uses particles to express certain nuances that would be translated by European languages in other ways. However, often this reflection of the need to be polite is not normally systematically reflected in European languages, save for formal clichés, formal pronouns, or special vocabulary.

khráp (said by man) , khâa (said by woman)

These particles are mostly untranslatable though sometimes they can be translated as "yes" in certain circumstances. If "khun" or "thâan" is used with the person being addressed then use of khráp/khâa is advised. Failure to use these particles when you first meet someone, especially a formal situation, is often said to mark you as an uncouth person. It is not generally used in situations in which the person would use more familiar pronouns.



It is used in requests, friendly warnings. It is used to soften things up when telling people things directly. It probably reflects the Thai concept of "jai yen" and, in theory at least, the desire to offend or say anything resembling confrontation.

glai nòi, ná it's a bit far

sàai nói-nói, ná just a little

phaaeng mâak, ná It's very expensive

chok dii na khráp good luck

rook

A handy particle that indicates that you politely disagree. Can be glossed as "not really". It has other meanings as well.

A: phaaeng mâak, ná It's very expensive
B: mâi phaeng rook No, it isn't really expensive

In a nutshell, there are many other particles in Thai but, all in all, the particles above offer a brief glimpse into the Thai mind and how it operates as it reflects the concern for face (which includes being polite, correct, etc.).

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One kind reader asked me if, in my submission entitled "Linguistically-challenged Dana" whether I actually believed Norwegian was a tonal language (tonal like Thai or Chinese). I replied that I did not believe that, of course. However, in Norwegian tonal contours of a word often aid in differentiating words.

Tones in words are also important in English. For instance, take the example of a sign hanging outside a men's restroom:

"We aim to please. You aim, too, please".

If you say it in a monotone voice, the hearer will probably not grasp the intended meaning until it is repeated a few times. Thus, even English-speaking people "sing" their language, but in a different tune.

In the next submission, I will talk about what it really means to speak a language and offer some quite practical advice about how to learn Thai.

Stickman's thoughts:

Great stuff!