Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sa-beek Thai?

Whenever I manage a feeble “Tao rai? Kohp khun ka,” Thai taxi drivers always ask me eagerly, “sa-beek Thai?”. “Nit-noy”, I reply, gesturing a pinch with my fingers.

And it's still just a very little bit, although I've been learning (albeit not exactly intensively) for a couple of months now. Thai is entirely unlike any language I've ever seen before (unsurprising, since all the other languages I've ever tried to learn have been European. You really realise how very similar French and German are to English once you start trying to learn an Asian language). It has no tenses, no cases, no inflection, no articles, and no prepositions that I've found. What Thai does have is tones, and it has them in abundance. Tones that make tongue-twisters out of one-syllable words. Rising and falling tones that make simple sentences feel like the vocal equivalent of running up and down stairs. Tones that make the difference between white and rice, between near and far (nice irony, that one), between cat and drunk (actually strictly speaking that's a vowel sound difference, but it's a funny one so I've included it in the list anyway), between Dad and enough, and between rose apple and a joke so funny that Smile couldn't even explain it for laughing.

But I'm trying – and I'm improving. Even if my Thai does leave rather a lot to be desired: I imagine my tone-deaf Thai sounding a lot like the equivalent to the vowel-mangling policeman in “Allo Allo” – atrocious enough to sound frightfully amusing to micro-tuned Thai ears, but a close enough approximation to their language that so far I haven't run into too many awkward misunderstandings.

And then there's the written language. Written Thai is something else. They have a 44-letter 'alphabet', and it doesn't include the 30-something vowels. There is no equivalent to our ABC that just lists all the letters. And every consonant has a name, which Thai people learn along with the letter, so the 'alphabet' goes like (and I'm paraphrasing here of course) cha-chicken, sa-snake, ba-bowl, ba-buffalo, la-lid, ha-helmet, ha-human (loads of the letters double-up – or indeed triple-up and even quadruple-up – sounds). The good news is that they're pretty stable in pronunciation, so once you have the letters you can read most things. That is, once you figure out where the word breaks are (that's another thing they don't have: spaces between words). So I've bought myself a kids' learn-the-alphabet book with join-the-dots letters half an inch high to trace, while I attempt to associate squiggles with sounds.

But I'm determined that one day I'm going to be able to reply to that question with “chai, puud passa tai”.


At 12:21 pm, Anonymous Dddy said...

You need a sound-card on the blog to let us hear them all. Dddy


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