Linguistic Adventures: be careful what you ask for in Thailand…

While still living in Thailand, my language teacher went on holiday for a few days and that forced me to apply what I had learned thus far, and the best linguistic guinea pigs happened to be the building maintenance crew. They were all incredibly friendly and always buzzing around doing endless jobs and improvements around the property, in addition to being unbelievably patient with the linguistic attempts of the foreign residents, knowing that no matter how long they live in Thailand, the foreigners will never get the intonations right.

Who ordered the elephant? ©MTHerzog

We had not been living in Bangkok for long, and most of the boxes had been unpacked. As a general rule, I never hang any frames on the wall until I finish moving the furniture around. Having just moved from a much bigger house in Delhi, there were plenty of frame to unpack and choose from, however, my issue was not the lack of walls in the new place, but rather the strict building regulations in Bangkok to comply with. So out of necessity (and short stature) I decided to ask the building carpenters to hang the frames for me before calling any outsiders. I boldly went down to the front office to pay a bill and place a request for the job order. In my best Thai, or what I thought was my best, I asked the custodian to send me a chaang whenever they have a gap in their busy schedule. She stared at me in befuddlement, so I repeated my request. Seeing that she was none the wiser I decided to try in English instead and she broke out in laughter, losing all decorum until she was almost in tears. Once she calmed down she immediately corrected my intonation and explained that I had placed the accent on the wrong vowel and was asking her for an elephant instead of a carpenter!!! I should have asked for a chang… I retorted that she was most welcome to send me an elephant as well, but that a carpenter would be much more efficient with the hammer. So a chang is scheduled to come and do the job but whether a chaang will also be sent I have no clue…

Thai is by no means an easy language to learn and you have to memorize so much of it because you can’t associate it with any other language to form some sort of bridge. Memorising is one thing, but getting those tones right is something else. My daughter also ran into a few linguistic bumps at the nearby restaurant. She thought she was ordering fried rice with shredded pork but when the waitress started snickering and giggling, we realised far too late that she had ordered riced with shredded doctor.

Even Champagne our Thai Persian cat has a very Thai intonation when she meows and it’s very different from any other cat I’ve encountered before, especially now when I can compare her to Lolita and Cherry, who sound very Berliner. I can’t really describe it and you would have to hear her to understand, but she meows in an upward tone that is distinctly Thai.

There are a few other words in Thai where one has to be very careful with the accent here or else you end up with the complete opposite of what you really want to say! Many think, for example, that they are praising a Thai woman by saying she is suay, but said with the wrong tone, you will telling her that she is cursed.

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