Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hypercorrection in Thai: /k(h)w/ and /f/ sounds

Me standing in front of some cute water buffaloes which are locally known as "faai"
This entry is a part of my 2013 Thailand and Laos summer trip. 

The distinction and the merge
It has been observed that in the most colloquial form of Thai (Siamese, the Tai variety that is spoken natively in Bangkok and surrounding provinces), khw and kw sounds are pronounced as f. (Brown 1965) In other words, the distinction among khw, kw, and f sounds has been lost. For instance, ขวา (khwaa) "right" and ฝา (faa) "lid" would both be pronounced as faa, and กวาง (kwaang) "deer" and ฟาง (faang) "straw" would both be pronounced as faang. The distinction is maintained in Standard Thai.

Based on my observations, the merge is more prevalent among people in my parents' generation (ages 40-50) and older. Due to our better access to education, people in my generation regularly maintain the distinction. The only time people my age (and perhaps in my circle) merge these seconds is when we do it jokingly. (I suppose this is analogous to how young New Yorkers may say "thirty-third" as toity-toid to mock the speech of older generations, or how young Americans may jokingly say "what, which, whip, where, why" with the /ʍ/ sound, the voiceless labiovelar fricative (for non-linguists, it sounds like there is an emphasis on the h in wh: hhw).)

How did k(h)w become f? (Linguistic explanations)
De-velarization and spirantization of stops may have motivated the merge.
(hypothesis 1)
To account for how khw and kw became f, one may propose that khw and k simply underwent the processes of de-velarization and spirantization. In particular, khw and kw lost its velar-ity whereby both became pv which thereafter became fv due to the process of spirantization, and finally fv became f due to the fact that Thai disallows v sound.
(hypothesis 2)
An alternative explanation might be that khw and kw first both merged into khw. The khw sound, being a sound which often gets pronounced as xw (it is a known fact that kh and x are pronounced interchangeably in Thai), thence underwent the process of de-velarization-- fv --which thereafter became f since Thai disallows v sound.

Why did k(h)w become f?
As with any diachronic alternation in sounds in languages around the world, one explanation might be that people in one generation did not correctly perceive the sounds produced by an older generation. Perhaps at one point Siamese speakers failed to hear the velar-ity of the khw and the kw, and all they perceived was the labial-ity (from w) and the supposed frication, thus leading them to hear khw and kw as f, and thereafter they commenced to produce khw, kw, and f in an identical way.

When I was visiting Thailand this summer (2013), I came across a person in Chonburi province who was apparently unaware that she had hypercorrected her speech. Although I indeed heard many people there merging khw, khw, and f sounds, I also heard an elderly woman utter ฝาก (faak) as ขวาก (khwaak). I was utterly surprised by this because I had never heard anyone do this.

Why did she over-correct herself?
One reason might be that perhaps she in fact does not hypercorrect at all; it is simply the way her ancestors spoke. The "merge" had been passed down to her.
Another reason might be that she did not go to school or only finished 4th grade (as it was common then) and therefore did not learn of the distinction which exists in Standard Thai.
Another reason might be that she in fact went to school but is too old to remember the distinction that she had learned in school.

Corresponding sounds in other Tai languages
The distinction seems to be maintained in other Tai languages including Northern Thai, Shan, and Lao. Interestingly, in Lao the khw and kw seem to induce vowel shortening. For example, khwaa "right" and kwaang "deer" are pronounced as khua and kuang respectively.

Traveling to Chiang Mai and Observation on the Usage of Northern Thai Language

Here I'm having some authentic "khao soy" (noodle curry)-- a dish originating from Northern Thailand. 

This entry is a part of my Thailand and Laos summer trip in 2013.

Transportation thither

Chiangmai, Northern Thailand was amazing. It took me about 12 hours to ride a first-class bus from Chonburi province (not too far from Bangkok) to the northern province. The ride costed me about ฿700 (about $22).

The bus made me feel as if I were on an airplane. There was a bus stewardess who was beautifully dressed up like a flight attendant. The seats remarkably resembled those from an airplane. Meals were provided.

Transportation within Chiangmai
Public transportation in Chiangmai was distinctive from that of Bangkok. While there were tuk tuk and songtaew, there were no "motorcycle taxis" (มอเตอร์ไซค์รับจ้อง) nor buses.

Their songtaews, red in color, function differently from those from Bangkok and nearby provinces. In Bangkok, songtaews run on their designated streets--they function like buses wherein one must know which line to take in order to go wherever he/she wants. In Chiangmai, however, songtaews are practically similar to taxis. In particular, passengers have to inform the drivers of their destinations. Their songtaews can be ridden in two ways: sharing the service with other passengers or have the whole songtaew all by yourself. The latter choice is more expensive than the former.

Speaking Northern Thai is very useful. The first and the most important thing which I learned from riding my first Northern Thai songtaew was that if one does not speak the local language, he/she will likely be charged with a non-local price. My first ride costed me ฿40 (about $1.25), which I was informed thereafter that I had been severely ripped off. Before riding a songtaew for the second time, I made sure that I would be charged with the local price--฿20 (about $0.62). (Bear in mind that price varies according to the distance as well) Yes, I am quite aware that I seem very cheap right now, but it always comforts me more the idea of NOT getting ripped off than the idea of paying the cheapest price possible ($1.25 is cheap for Americans; it costs $1.50 in Los Angeles to ride buses).

There are at least two ways in which one can receive the local price: speak Northern Thai with no foreign accent (not even a Standard Thai accent), or directly request for a local price. Alas the former is not an easy option; so, I suggest the latter. I personally would always choose the latter, for fear that they notice my non-native-like Northern Thai pronunciation. Here is how my mother would do it: she would do it dramatically (I really admire her for possessing such ability):

songtaew: (in Northern Thai) where to ma'am?

my mother: (in Standard Thai) to Night Bazaar, please. How much will that be?

songtaew: (switches to Standard Thai) All right ma'am. That will be ฿40. That alright with you?

my mother: (looks at the driver incredulously and raises her right hand to her forehead abruptly, both eyes widely open as if she has never been this surprised before in her entire life) Huuh..Wh-what?! I thought it was only ฿20! OMG how could this be?! Impossible! (raises the amplitude in her voice a little more) Has the price changed?! This is extremely bizarre!!! All other songtaews I've been on have only charged me ฿20! Does yours come with a special service?! I just---

songtaew: OK ma'am. It's ฿20 for you.

my mother: Oh ok (gets on the songtaew).

If you are not as brave as my mother, I suggest you only ask them this: "excuse me, sir/ma'am, I thought it was only ฿20. Why does yours cost ฿20 more than the others?" And hopefully this will suffice.

Northern Thai language

People here natively speak Northern Thai, or Kam Mueang, which is another Tai language with which up until now I have been obsessed. Northern Thai is euphonious.Their six tonal system (cf. five tonal system in Standard Thai) is utterly pleasant to my ears. It was a great opportunity for me to practice my Northern Thai.

Prior to my arrival, I had been informed by many that the Northern Thai language was slowly dying. In particular, many had informed me that it was not being passed onto the younger generations. However, this did not seem to be completely true. Based on my observations, the language indeed is slowly dying, but it is dying very slowly. Young Northerners do seem to use Northern Thai regularly. Although many would speak Standard Thai to non-Northerners, many teenagers seemed to choose to converse in Northern Thai among themselves. In some cases, younger people in convenient stores even code-switched with me in Standard Thai/Northern Thai. Older speakers (from 40 and up) were more conservative. In particular, they were usually the ones that would speak Northern Thai, even to non-Northerners. Outsiders would speak Standard Thai to them, and they would respond in Northern Thai and would use Standard Thai words whenever there was any confusion.

Northern Thai script--Tai Tham script--seemed to be highly revered. Northern Thai writings, along with Standard Thai writings, could be seen on various signs on Temple entrances. A few stores also had beautiful Northern Thai signs.

Books in Northern Thai

Books written in Northern Thai can be purchased at a terrific bookstore called "Suriwong Book Centre". On the second floor of the store, there is a small section wherein there are Northern Thai books--written in Northern Thai script. There are also some books written in Shan and Tai Lue. I completely love this place! I spent quite a long time in there, happily browsing through the books. I was really happy to have discovered such a place. Consequently, I ended up purchasing nearly 10 books in Northern Thai. Sadly, although I had longed to buy all Northern Thai books in the store, I could not buy every book because I was afraid of running out of money. The next time I go there, I will certainly buy more Northern Thai books. I also hope that the next time I return, there will be more Northern Thai books; hopefully the Northern Thai section continues to expand.

Here are some of the purchased books from there:

More pictures:
I had a chance to try Shan khao feun (tho phu) for the first time! Super delicious!

Me at Wat Doi Suthep (Suthep hill temple)

Me clad in a Northern Thai attire (khian hua (turban), suea mueang (shirt), khian ew (waistcloth), and sa-dauw (fisherman pants). 

I had an opportunity to try some exotic beans/nuts. The left ones are good.
Me clad in a Hmong outfit on Doi Pui (Pui Hill), Hmong village.