This is what my Thai language textbook tells me.
I’m back at school.
It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for some time. For ages I’ve been thinking that it would be great to be able to communicate properly with my fellow man and to know what my Thai-speaking friends are saying when, clearly, they have reverted to a language of which I am ignorant in order to exclude me from the conversation, possibly to say I’m drinking too much or I’ve got gravy down the front of my shirt. It reminds me of when we were kids and our parents would say things conspiratorially in French if they didn’t want us to know what was going on.
To avoid all that, I’ve signed up for Thai lessons. But I had no idea it was going to be so complicated. Of course I knew that Thai was a tonal language and I was aware that there are five spins you can put on a vowel, some of which can completely change the meaning of the word it’s in. But I didn’t know I was going to need a laptop to work out what the tone should be.
‘If it’s a dead syllable with a low-class consonant and a short vowel, what’s the tone?’ I look up from my homework and enquire of Mrs Pobaan innocently.
‘What’s a dead syllable?’ she replies.
‘It’s one that kind of cuts dead at the end.’
‘I have no idea. I wouldn’t worry too much about tones if I were you.’
‘But my teacher said that people will laugh at me if I go into a clothes shop and ask for an extra large tiger.’
‘No, that’s not going to happen.’
The trouble is, you see, that the Thai words for ‘shirt’ and ‘tiger’ are made of the same basic letters; the only thing that distinguishes them from each other are their tones. Also ‘mat’—same letters as ‘shirt’ and ‘tiger’ but yet another tone.
‘You’re worrying too much,’ my wife continues. ‘Just have fun speaking the language.’
I think about all this for a while and come to realise that Mrs Pobaan could be right. I’ve become intimidated by tones. Thai kids manage to get through this dead syllable and low-class consonant business, so why shouldn’t I?
It’s not as if English doesn’t have tones itself, of a sort. Although they don’t completely change the meaning of a word as they do in Thai, they do alter its circumstances. Reflect for a moment on the different tones you might apply to the name of your beloved (a) when he or she is lying sleepily in your arms and gazing languidly up at your face, and (b) when you have just discovered that he or she has been lying sleepily in the arms of another, gazing languidly up at his (or her) face. It’s still the same name, of course, but I think you’d be able to pack into it quite a wide range of meanings just by changing your tone.
And then we have context. A salesperson in a clothes shop in downtown Pattaya is just not expecting someone to come in and ask for a tiger, particularly not a pink one, say, or one with short sleeves and a coconut-palm pattern. Because they are primed to expect more enquiries about shirts than about tigers, menswear shop assistants will make certain allowances for faulty pronunciation by foreign-looking customers before they burst out laughing, clutching their sides at the absurdity of expecting to be able to purchase a tiger with a button-down collar.
It can’t be that different from English. We have homonyms—by which I mean words that sound the same but have different meanings—that could potentially cause confusion if taken literally. But the context in which they’re used goes a long way to clarify the sense. I suppose if a coiffeur were to be in a thoroughly bolshie mood, he could interpret your innocent request: ‘Can you cut my hair?’ as you enter his salon as incitement to butcher some long-eared rodent you have concealed about your person. But, generally speaking, anglophones manage to avoid confusion between ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ simply by being reasonable. Surely thaiphones must do the same.
After a lot of thought, I make up three sentences in Thai containing the words ‘shirt’, ‘tiger’ and ‘mat’ and ask Mrs Pobaan to read them to me in her poshest Thai.
When she says the words on their own I can recognise the individual tones, but in a sentence there’s really nothing. No rising, no falling, no soprano, contralto or bass tones. She’s depending on the context to make the sense clear. She’s relying on the listener considering it unlikely that an enraged mat would emerge from the jungle to attack a goat.
As a break from all this studying, we drive to Bangkok to attend a concert given by cool American songster Jason Mraz at the Impact Arena near the old airport. I’m feeling pretty good about my language skills until Jason sidles on to the stage and says some things in Thai. The crowd go wild. I go wild too because, for one of the things our entertainer says, I have to turn to Mrs Pobaan for a translation, and he’s only been in the country for a day.
After a couple of well-performed songs, I turn my gaze at the audience—12,000 enthusiastic but well-behaved fans. I notice that most of them are mouthing the lyrics; I can hear people close to me actually singing along! With a mixture of admiration and inadequacy at my own feeble language skills I realise that they can all speak English, seemingly with ease.
In the car on the way home, I mention this to my lovely wife.
‘Oh yes; they’re very clever in Bangkok.’
Then she asks me the name of the singer we’ve just seen perform. It takes her about six attempts to say ‘Mraz’, and even then I’m not impressed with the tone.
In the dark of the car I feel ever so slightly better.