Languages: some thoughts…

I’ve always been fascinated by languages; how they sound, how they develop and how they are used. I usually try to learn at least a few words for any place I visit: please, thank you, hello and so on; you would be amazed how many doors open as a consequence, and the change in attitude that you get just for having a go is very rewarding.The East presents particular problems for a westerner as the sounds are completely different to our ears, and many of the languages use tones to convey meaning. Whilst I understand this, it is difficult to grasp, and even harder to emulate as all western languages use tone to express emotion or emphasis, but not meaning.

Some simple examples from Thai:

Computer is pronounced comput-ER, Heineken is Heinek-EN, with a REALLY heavy emphasis on the end part. You have to do it if you want to be understood, but it sounds odd and over dramatic.
There are nine ways to say what sounds like the word ‘cow’ (to western ears), and of course they all mean different things.
The sound noo, can mean either mouse or snake depending on emphasis; I think they need to sort that one; the consequences are quite different…

In Vietnam they have a noodle dish called Pho, its becoming quite popular in the west, but you are almost certainly mis pronouncing it; and you are asking for a prostitute!

The use of tone also works in reverse and goes some way to explaining why people who speak tonal languages tend to deliver English in a monotone, with little, if any inflection; its a non tonal language, so its all delivered in a mid tone.

It is also striking how many Thai words sound rude in English; cow pat = fried rice, krap = a polite word used by male speakers at the end of almost every sentence  and there is a Spa in Chiang Mai called Wankyeou – which may, or may not be intentional*.

Again the same seems to work in reverse; mis pronouncing anything in Thai usually results in it meaning cock, ‘ben’ in Vietnamese means arsehole – so talk of Big Ben produces much hilarity.

All part of life’s rich pageant…

* If you want a massage in Thailand it helps to be specific; a regular body massage is a ‘Thai Massage’ and may involve oils, depending on the place.
I usually go for a foot massage, which can involve massage as high as the thigh and usually ends with some arm and neck manipulation.
Just asking for ‘a massage’ can result in all sorts of shenanigans; you have been warned.

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