Travelling halfway across the world to a region of tonal languages, I was daunted by my complete unfamiliarity of the Thai language concerning tones, script, and that I only knew how to say one word. But four months later, I have come to love the Thai language for its simplicity, logic, and insight into Thai lifestyle.
Let me begin this post by saying one thing: Thai people love rice. “Gin khaao leeo” means “I already ate,” but would be literally translated into English as “I ate rice already.” The word “khaao” means “rice.” But wait…I didn’t eat any rice. I just had some Pad Thai. Oh well, the Thai language forces you to say that. Why? Because the Thai language was developed around culture and tells us about what’s important to Thai people. So, what’s the staple of Thai cuisine? You guessed it, rice! To further this point, if you’re a farmer (which a lot of people are here in Pai), you’re a “chaao naa” where chaao=people and naa=rice fields.
The awesome thing about Thai is that if you don’t know a word, you can probably give it a good guess based on logic. For example, the word for “horse” is “maa.” But what if you needed to use the word zebra in a conversation? It’s simple; a zebra is a striped horse, so you would say “maa laai” where laai=striped. Or let’s take for example the word for “school.” A school is a building where learning takes place. The Thai word for school is “roong rian” where roong=big building and rian=the verb “to learn.” Despite the tones which are difficult for foreigners to grasp, Thai’s logical word construction makes learning vocabulary a fairly painless process.
What I wasn’t expecting when I came to Thailand and started learning Thai was a change in thought process. If you want to speak proper Thai, you have to learn how to group similar objects together because of Thai’s use of dreaded classifiers. What exactly is a classifier? Take this sentence, for example: I have three cats. If I were to translate this in Thai the same way I would say it in English, it would be “mii meeo saam” where mii=I have, meeo=cat, and saam=three. But, that’s incorrect. Any physical object or creature needs a classifier. The correct way to say this is “mii meeo saam dtua,” where “dtua” is the classifier used for things with four legs, like animals, tables, and chairs. As a native English speaker, if you put a picture of an animal, table, and chair in a group in front of me, I would be thinking, “What the heck is the resemblance between a goat and a table??” But it would be obvious for a Thai person. They all have four legs, duh! So yes, trying to learn Thai classifiers makes me feel logically inept. But at the same time, that way of thinking is brilliant and so discreetly obvious.
Lastly, when it comes to Thai verbs, there are no conjugations. If you want to say “I go” and “He goes,” it’s the same word. Neither are there tenses indicated solely by the verb. There are tenses, but again, the verb doesn’t change. “I go” and “I went” are the same word, but the past tense is indicated by adding “leeo” after the verb.
Though Thai’s tonal aspect makes it a tough and sometimes ugly and obnoxious language, it’s so clever! I never cease to be amazed, to feel stupid, and to wish that English was as logical, simple, and insightful as Thai.