Conlangery 114 medallion

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This month Britton joined us and we talked about the wonders of reduplication and nicknames in Thai.

Top of Show Greeting: Dzuish (English-based conlang)

8 Responses to “Conlangery #114: Thai (natlang)”

  1. Shemtov

    The 108 thing probably has to do with the fact that Buddhism believes in 108 temptations and 108 feeling. BTW, completely true story, I only know that fact because of Pokemon.

  2. John N.

    Great show, guys. I traveled to Southeast Asia earlier this year, so I made a point of learning some Thai beforehand, including the writing system. I found it to be quite enjoyable. Everything in the show jived with my experience. I hope you’ll appreciate a few things that came to my mind while listening.

    1. My understanding is that Lao and the Isaan dialect of Thai are identical, except for the writing system (Lao simplified a lot of the spelling and the letters are slightly different) and the politics (as so often happens). A few decades ago, when the Laotian government became communist, the Thai government didn’t want red sentiment to leak into the Lao population in Thailand, so at that time, they invented the word Isaan for the Lao speaking region of Thailand in an attempt to create a separate identity by fiat. It worked.

    2. Here’s a good video on the historical sound changes that led to the modern tones in the various dialects, including ramifications for the orthography. It may be hard to follow if you haven’t studied the writing system a little bit:

    Why Are the 3 Consonant Classes Called High, Mid and Low? by Stuart Jay Raj

    3. I tried to leave the circles off the letters while in Thailand, and that just made my handwriting illegible to Thais. They corrected my writing and added the circles back. Exactly which strokes of ink are important in what context was the subject of a whole paper on handwriting and fonts, which will be interesting if, again, you know a bit of the writing system:

    How Do Thais Tell Letters Apart? by Doug Cooper

    4. The numbers are largely from Middle Chinese. Compare the numbers in a conservative dialect of Chinese, like Cantonese, with Thai, and it’s unmistakable. I believe the oddball 20 is also a Sinicism.

    5. Speaking of Chinese, the longest and most ornate non-royal names in Thailand belong to ethnic Chinese. Like most of Southeast Asia, there is a considerable Chinese minority. In this case, when they immigrated some centuries ago, they adopted what they thought were Thai-sounding names, but with a distinct flavor. You could draw a parallel with Jews in Germany in the Middle Ages adopting names like Goldberg and Silberstein.

    6. The most interesting thing about the nicknames are the ones based on English, sometimes mangled by the Thai phonological filter. While traveling, I encountered people named [pən] (< [æ:ppən] < Apple), Beam, Olive, Jeep, Lin (< Linda), Dia (< Dear), in addition to the native Thai nicknames: Miao (the sound a cat makes), Fai (=cotton), Rung (=rainbow), etc. Here’s a list I found, and some of them are delightfully bizarre:

    7. Unique intensifiers – English has these too, just not as many. The examples that come to mind are color intensifiers: pitch black, snow white, hot pink.

    Again, loved the show!

    • admin

      Your point (5) is really interesting, considering how short actual Chinese names tend to be. It’s very curious that they decided to adopt the long Thai names whole hog.

      On point (6), I actually have a couple papers on loanword adaptation, but I cut that from the show as it didn’t generate much discussion, and really the focus was rightly on the morphology. In the future I may do a short on oddities in loanword adaptation that will include a note on Thai.

      Finally, with (7), all of the modifiers you mention for English are existing lexical words, so I really take pitch black, snow white, and hot pink to be compounds (and hot pink is really more than just more pink, to me — it’s a particular highly saturated and almost fluorescent pink color), but that could potentially be a source for unique modifiers. I think that in the Thai examples we brought up, though, the modifiers are really more like idiosyncratic modifications of a reduplicated word.

    • /sɑɪ̯f ɑsɑd ɑˈsːətjə/

      by the way, Wikipedia believes that 2 through 4 and 6 through 10 in Thai are loanwords from Middle Chinese, but 5 is a loan from Old Chinese. Seems a little hard to believe. Looks like only 1 is an indigenous Zhuang-Tai word.

      Is the “oddball 20” that you refer to the N. Thai “sao” / Lao “xao” that Wikipedia mentions. I wonder what the Chinese equivalent is if that’s a Sinocism.

      • John N.

        I didn’t know about “sao” — I was referring to “yi sip”. It’s an oddball because one would expect based on other numbers that 20 would be *[sɔng sip]. The Cantonese word for 20 is [yi sɐp].

        • /sɑɪ̯f ɑsɑd ɑˈsːətjə/̟

          Interesting, interesting. Wikipedia claims that something along the lines of “yi” (/ji/) is an archaic Thai word for two. It also relates the more common Thai word for two, song, to Chinese 雙 (simplified: 双), roughly “pair”.

          By the way, for those who are familiar with Mandarin, lest we be confused, yi is Cantonese for 二 (this sounds very similar to the Mandarin word for one).

  3. Daniel

    Korean, Japanese, and Chinese are some of the Asian cultures and languages that have been fascinating me more or less. Thailand was not one of them. However, your podcast made me want to instantly learn Thai… Well done, guys! And thank you for the great show. 🙂

  4. Jason

    Great episode.

    Re: “108 kinds” idiom — it is most likely referring to the 108 auspicious signs on the foot of the Buddha. It is said that as Buddha is a great person with potential for enlightenment, he had all these signs from Sun and Moon to elephants and horses to mythical creatures and levels of heavens. (cf.: — please see a few pages at the end for the list/pictures.) So by saying “108 kinds of x,” it’s an interesting reference pointing towards variety.


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