There has been a debate raging in the Thai press for the last few weeks which hasn't really crossed over to the English media.
There's probably a good reason for that; it's all about the Thai language and a little difficult to explain, despite being directly related to English. But I am going to try.
There is a group of academics in this country whose task it is to keep an eye on the Thai language to make sure everybody is using it correctly.
I don't know any of these academics personally, but they are probably like Mrs Sanderson from the primary school I attended.
Mrs Sanderson was a steely-eyed lady of about 120 years old with pince-nez and hair the colour of storm clouds. She smelled of mothballs.
When I was seven years old she towered over me and the only thing more frightening than her pear-shaped physique and furrowed brow was her tongue.
Every school should have a Mrs Sanderson. She's the one who would crack a ruler over your backside if you said "My mother and me went to Sunnybank Plaza" or "A team of doctors are operating on the patient" (the latter of which I see the Bangkok Post doing with alarming regularity, though not in Brunch of course.)
Thanks to Mrs Sanderson, I still never use "one another" with just two people as I will burn in eternal semantic hell if I don't use "each other". I am never "gonna" do anything for fear my backside will sting from Mrs Sanderson's ruler exactly three seconds after uttering that word.
Nor do I ever use "hung" with condemned men.
"A man is never hung!" Mrs Sanderson would boom at us. She clearly didn't subscribe to Playgirl magazine.
"Your underwear can be 'hung' on the washing line, but murderers and child molesters get 'hanged'. Remember that!"
Indeed I have. To this day I wonder why she grouped murderers with child molesters _ when was the last time a child molester got the noose? _ but the "hung-hanged" rule has stuck.
Many decades have passed since Mrs Sanderson rocked my pre-pubescent world. So many of her rules have gone with the wind, no doubt like Mrs Sanderson herself, as the English language morphs and relaxes with these modern times.
In Thailand the national equivalent of Mrs Sanderson is the Ratchabanditayasatharn and believe me, the name is as lofty and regal as it is lengthy.
It is translated as the Royal Institute and it is the official governing body of the Thai language. One of its tasks is to put out the "official" Thai dictionary every decade or so and there's a new one due next year.
At the beginning of this month, as newspapers thundered about impending floods and a tropical storm by the name of Gaemi, the Royal Institute threw out a bone.
It was meant to be an innocuous press release about changes to the way Thai words are spelled. Sigh. If only those floods had materialised. If only Gaemi had lived up to its hype. Neither did. Suddenly we were in a news vacuum, and the institute came to the rescue.
So what is the problem?
While the Thai language is rich in descriptive phrase and colour, the Thais themselves love nothing more than to pepper their Thai with English words.
The way to say "I am very happy" in Thai, for example, is Chan (I) mee (have) khwam (the feeling of) sook (happiness) mahk (a lot).
Did you notice, dear reader, that mee khwam suk is three syllables long? That's about two too many for the average Thai speaker, who loves to shorten every word, much like we say "ain't" instead of "am not" or "gonna" instead of the lengthy "going to", with or without Mrs Sanderson's ensuing ruler .
Mee khwam suk. Three syllables. A much shorter word, by 33%, is "happy". Thus a Thai is more likely to proclaim: Chan happy mahk.
At the risk of sounding like a kitchen appliance infomercial, that's not all! It's not just choosing the word "happy" over its Thai equivalent that's causing the Royal Institute some headaches.
Thais stress the last syllable of the word so that it becomes "hap-PEE", in direct contrast to the way we native English speakers say it.
Just about every English word, when used in Thai, is stressed where it shouldn't be _ shop-PING ... danc-SING ... drink-KING.
No wonder we can't understand the Thais, even when they are ripping us off! "You want to buy joo-well-REE? My friend, he has joo-well-REE shop. Special price for you!" It's only as the tuk-tuk pulls up to the newly painted dilapidated townhouse in a soi-dog infested laneway do we realise the guy was saying "jewellery"!
I can hear you a mile off, dear reader. So Thais stress the wrong syllable _ big deal. Hardly worth getting upset about, or spending an entire page whingeing about, Andrew.
Look, I told you this needed a little explanation, OK?
The problem is this: Thai is a tonal language. The tone is as important to the language as, say, tenses are to English. These transliterated English words are written one way (toneless _ they are foreign words, after all), but pronounced another.
That stressed final syllable needs a tone mark on top of it to tell you that it's stressed, but there is none on paper.
Take, for example, the word "calorie". Thais write it as "calorie" but pronounce it as "calor-REE". Cute, I know, but not to a Royal Institute academic. There is no tone mark to turn that "ree" into a "REE!" That is akin to deleting the verb "to be" from the English language _ it's just not crick-KET!
There are 176 words from the English language that are written one way but pronounced another, and thus need to be changed. You can see the storm this has caused, albeit swirling and roiling in a teacup.
The institute has come up against intense opposition. One suspects that any major change like this is going to send Thai students into tailspins on their exam papers. But that's not even the most intriguing part.
In defending their desire to incorporate tone marks into these English words, so as to reflect the way they are spoken, the institute announced it was only right to do so because it reflected the way native English speakers pronounced the words.
It does? We do?
Look, I may be an Australian and prone to a little wacky pronunciation myself, but nobody counts calor-REES where I come from! We expats need to band together and stop the Thais from making changes, if they sincerely believe they are going to end up sounding more like us!
The debate still rages, with the institute saying it will now print up its recommendations and send it to its 84 academic members and another 90 academics for them to mull over.
Good lord, this is going to be endless. I can't imagine being in a room with 174 academics all trying to reach a consensus.
But it is nice to know the Thai language, along with the Royal Institute, is alive and kicking and considering changes to the language, rather than believing language is something set in stone and unable to change.
As for me, I was contacted by two media organisations this week asking my opinions on the furore. I chose to be indisposed.
There are some topics best to stand back from. Me and Mrs Sanderson are gonna stay quiet on this one, lest I be hung from a tree for my opinions.
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs