Monday, October 10, 2005

Thai Names, Tongue Purgatory

Did you take phonetics in primary school? It finally paid off for me in my old age when I have one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. My first day of teaching in Thailand, May 3, 2003, I faced the daunting task of deciphering the class list.

Unmercifully, it was in Thai script.

Mercifully, I passed around the list and the students transliterated their names into English script.

Unmercifully, I was no better off.

When the list came back to me, I faced the most confusing combination of vowels and consonants I'd ever laid eyes on. It must be a cruel joke. No one has a name this long. Up until that point, I thought "supercalifragilisticexpialadocious" was The King Tongue-Twister. Well, I hadn't been to Thailand yet. I stared at the list. The drops of perspiration belied my faked calm. My students had that "Now watcha gonna do?" smirk.

Hope you finally learn one difficult last name, and at least there will be a few repeats? (Like Smith, Jones, Wilson in the USA?) Dream on. Nearly every last name in my classes is unique, unless more than one student is from the same village (rare). In many villages many, and sometimes, the majority of the inhabitants have the same last name, which identifies their geographic origins. (Imagine every couple in a little Washington State town having the same name: "Mr. and Mrs. Duvall", or "Mr. and Mrs. Moses Lake").

Fortunately, the Thai like to go by their first names in conversation, and there are repeats. Still, three-syllable first names abound, so I had a BETTER idea--ah, the NICKNAME!

Thank God, most Thai also go by a one-syllable nickname (and they are sometimes very strange: Beer, Golf, Dung, Wit, Nit, Cat, Rat, Pooh, etc.). One syllable, even if it's a bit strange? I can handle that! Ah, pitffall ahead! Read on...

So after staring at my English-script class list until the students thought I'd turned into stone, I sent it around again. I cleverly had the students add their nicknames to their never-ending real names, and knew I’d licked the problem. I was now smirking.

Nope. False victory.

Now, with their "simple" one-syllable nicknames, I had to master the tones and dipthongs (vowel combinations). At least one girl in every class had the nickname “Koy”. OK, so I said it like it looked. Every day at roll call, my classes erupted into gales of laughter at my "Koy", and none of my mischievous little darlings would divulge the reason. Somehow they wanted me to keep this up. Normally, they talked and laughed with each other during the calling of their other nicknames, but when I came to Miss Koy, they hushed, edging forward in their seats, in eager anticipation of hearing the Farang Teacher botch her name once more. I hesitated every time, the proverbial pregnant pause, but couldn't think of any other way to give birth to it. "KOY" I would finally blurt out, in resignation. Their exuberance at my verbal offspring never diminished. Howls of delight could be heard up and down the halls of academia. A couple of times a nearby teacher would stick her nose in the open door to see what the ruckus was about, only to see 50 students gesticulating and guffawing, repeating my "Koy" to prolong the entertainment.

And only two silent human beings in their midst. Only two red faces. Mine and Miss Koy's.

After three months (I know, too patient), I’d had enough. One day, while having lunch in a crowded noodle shop with one of my Thai teacher friends, I loudly inquired, “So why do my students always laugh at "KOY" during roll call?” I thought I was going to have to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him as he gagged on his mouthful of noodles. Wiping half-chewed noodles off his shirt, and hastily looking around with a red face, he hissed the explanation to the farang in a tone that said, "Don't ever say that again in public!" Oh.

Well, because my tone was a little off, my “K” wasn’t soft enough, and my dipthong didn’t come through quite right (it should have sounded more like “Gawy”), I was daily calling the sweet female student a part of the male anatomy—the genitalia family, to be more specific--and to make it worse, it was the slang rendition. OK, so I had an x-rated roll call everyday. What’s a poor farang teacher to do?

Go to lunch with a Thai confidant early-on, and keep your voice down.

If your name is John or Jane Doe, count your blessings. If your nickname is a meaningless "JJ", double blessings on you. And to prove it, wrap your tongue around these twisters...

Miss Kittiya Buahom
Miss Yanan Woraphaibun
Miss Tanyarat Nasui
Miss Teeraporn Kaewpiw-Ard
Miss Nipaporn Noichan
Miss Nutsara Jaijumnong
Miss Sophita Sokaokha
Mr. Suradetch Amornsitticharoen
Miss Khanungnit Ariyatugun
Miss Pratana Somnongbua
Miss Phiraya Sinphromma
Miss Phiangphit Rungrotchawalit
Miss Rompruek Hanwongsar
Miss Wilaiwan Junpratak
Miss Sayamon Unboonruang
Miss Suwincha Thoranong
Miss Kritsana Nakhowong
Miss Thanyalak Somprasopsuk
Miss Patcharamas Singhol
Miss Monthakan Saenpradit
Miss Sirilak Chansaengsri

That's a typical class list (and multiply this times seven or eight classes...). Notice the only male in the class wins, hands-down, with a nine-syllable first and last name combination. Well, nearly three years later, I now use their more formal first names to bring a bit of decorum back to the class atmosphere, and even once in a while take a stab at a last name, thanks to those phonetics lessons way back in the Dark Ages.

~ God bless my first grade phonetics teacher, Mrs. Peterson ~

From Your
"Forever-Grateful JD"

P.S. Did I tell you I was going down to Phayakhapoomphisai Village to visit a friend this weekend? You're thinking the same thing? Yep, you can drive through it faster than you can say its name.


Chaichakri said...

do you think kitjar sukjaideenabangsar is a little too long?

JD said...

Not any more!

him said...

One of my favourite Thai-name "problems" is something I see with my partners global email. Many Thais go by the shortened name "Porn".

My g/fs server, in the UK and the USA see this in email and do not deliver the mail!

It took a good while to catch on as to why xx amount of emails simply were not getting through...

JD said...

Very funny (and frustrating!) We have a dignified, talented and sensitive guy at work. I just can't bring myself to call him by his desired nickname: "Pooh". Albeit, said with slight "bp" sound, but still too close for me...