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LINGUISTIC CONUNDRUMS
Tones
Vol. 17 No. 5 May 2008

   

May, 2008

The Thai tonal system frightens the hell out of all beginners attempting to learn the language. And rightly so. Who does not threaten to give up when faced with, Mai mai mai mai? Mai mai mai mai mai. (Is the new wood burning? No the new wood is not burning). Once one begins to be slightly fluent, it is usually possible to qualify a doubtful word such as glai meaning ‘far’ by adding another word such as mak, to distinguish it from glai meaning ‘near’. But still it is possible to make terrible mistakes. Once, my daughter called from Israel saying that she wanted to give a party, but (as usual), had no money. She was talking to my wife in Thai and I was listening on the extension. Why, said I brightly, don’t you sell tickets? Now the word for ticket is dua with a rising tone. The word for body is dua with a common tone. I got it wrong and my wife did not talk to me for a week.

English has no tones and is therefore an easy language to learn, but wait a minute (minute, meaning a unit of time, not minute, meaning something very small). Let us start with the word RIGHT.

Left and right; right and wrong – in Burma they drive on the wrong side of the road – they drive on the right, which to them is the right thing to do and it is wrong to drive on the left.

All the men were lying flat on the ground, only the guard was standing up-right. Send her in; I will see her right away. Keep right on to the end of the road; don’t turn to the left or to the right. Labour are to the left in politics, conservatives to the right, and they believe that they can set right all problems. Then, of course, there are right angle triangles, and Right Honourable Gentlemen. This is not a right of way, all trespassers will be prosecuted (as a child I thought that meant executed). In the plural we have the Bill of Rights.

Then to keep matters simple, consider funeral rites or the Rites of Spring. Or consider the humble craftsman or wright, as in playwright or shipwright. It is all the same whether you say or write it.

But things are not as simple as this. Sailors do not say left or right, but port or larboard and starboard. Equestrians talk, looking towards the head of the horse, of course, of near (left) and off (right); cricketers field at mid-on or mid-off (not to be confused with ‘off-side’. Those interested in heraldry refer to the right of a shield as the dexter and to the left as the sinister (which, if you happen to be left-handed, also means evil, inauspicious). Easy, right? No wrong (what on earth is the point of the ‘w’ anyway)?

Have I left anything out? Well, if you are into sport, remember that a left-handed boxer is a southpaw. If you happen to be left-handed and do not have a stutter as a result of being forced, when young, to write with your right hand, you will still not be allowed to play polo.

Left may not, of course, have anything to do with the opposite of right. Think of the girl you left behind, the one you left out of the party, left over from the night before.

I give up – but what it is that I give I do not know, or care very much.

Khao kao kao khao kha
 
by J.C.S.
LINGUISTIC CONUNDRUMS<br><em>Tones</em>      CHAING MAI ON THE WWW
 
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