Friday, September 19, 2014

Disambiguating the ambiguity between certain compounds and phrases

In Thai, ambiguity emerges when certain compounds and phrases are prosodically indistinct from each other especially when taken out of context.

Compounds in this article are assumed to be words like "greenhouse, wetsuit, honeymoon", while phrases are assumed to be nouns with a modifier like "green house (house that is green), wet suit (suit that is wet), honey moon (moon made out of honey)". Languages like English make use of stress in distinguishing between compounds and phrases. For example, for the compound reading, the primary stress in "wetsuit" is on wet- while the secondary stress in on "-suit", whereas for the phrasal reading, i.e. "wet suit" the phrasal stress is realized on "suit" making "suit" sound more prominent than "wet". When such distinction in the stress patterns occurs, speakers will know whether the meaning is the outfit that you wear for surfing or the suit that you wore at a friend's wedding that is soaked in water.

Thai does not make use of stress the same way English does. Below I will provide three examples of ambiguity found in compounds and phrases in Thai and provide ways on how to resolve the ambiguity.

(M = mid tone, L = low tone, F = falling tone, R = rising tone)

1. แกงจืด kɛɛŋ(M) cɯɯt(L) < from แกง "curry" + จืด "to be insipid"
a) compound reading: name of a kind of soup, e.g. กินแกงจืดหมดแล้ว "I've finished eating the kaengchuet soup."
b) phrasal reading: "the curry that is tasteless", e.g. แกงจืดมากอ่ะ "the curry really has no taste"

2. ตาชั่ง taa(M) chaŋ(F) < from ตา "eye, grandparent" + ชั่ง "to weigh"
a) compound reading: "scale", e.g. เค้าทำตาชั่งหัก "she broke the scale."
b) phrasal reading: "grandpa weighs (something)", e.g. ตาชั่งของอยู่ "grandpa is weighing something right now"

3. หมอดู mƆƆ(R) duu(M) < from หมอ "doctor, expert" + ดู "to see"
a) compound reading: "astrologer, psychic", e.g. หมอดูดูดวงตัวเองไม่ได้ "the psychic can't see his own future."
b) phrasal reading: "the doctor who sees..." , e.g. หมอดูคนไข้อยู่ "the doctor is taking care of a patient."

Ways to prosodically resolve such ambiguity:
A) To get the phrasal reading...
1) Add a pause after the first syllable, e.g. หมอดู --> หมอ #pause# ดู
2) Lengthen the vowel of the first syllable slightly. This process usually automatically emerges as a result of adding the pause.

B) To get the compound reading...
1) Don't add a pause nor lengthen the first syllable.

Similar ambiguity also occurs in Vietnamese. For example, hoa hồng can either mean "rose" (compound reading) or "red flower" (phrasal reading) although there is a bias for the former reading.

Potisuk, S., Gandour, J.T. and Mary, P.H. 1994, "F0 correlates of stress in Thai", in Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 1-27.