Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Shan vs. Thai: some false friends: หนาว, หนุ่ม, ม่าน, แต้ม, ครัว

You might need to download a Shan font in order to see the Shan words.

"...converting the the Thai sounds to the corresponding Shan sounds or vice versa is not enough because some of these words may actually be false friends..."

A cognate is “a word in one language which is similar in form and meaning to a word in another language because both languages are related” (Richards et al., 1985, p. 43). Figuring out the cognates between two languages may help you learn the languages faster.  But does it always help? You may have heard the term "false friend" which refers to a word in one language which looks and sounds like a word in another language but these two words carry a different meaning (e.g., parent in English vs. pariente in Spanish which means "relative"). These false friends are "especially problematic for language learners as they tend to overgeneralize and assume they know the meaning of these words, which are actually misleading" (Beltrán, 2006, p. 29).

So you have finally figured out which Shan segments (consonants and vowels) and tones correspond to which Thai sounds. For example, you may now know that Thai words with the mid tone beginning with middle class consonants (ก, จ, ต, ป, อ + อย) correspond to Shan words with (almost) the same segments but with the Shan rising tone, e.g., กิน is กิ๋น (ၵိၼ်) "to eat", ปลา is ป๋า (ပႃ) "fish", ตา is ต๋า (တႃ) "eye", and อา is อ๋า (ဢႃ) "younger sister of one's father" etc. You may have found out that the trilled r (ร) and certain aspirated consonants (พ, ท, ค, ช) in Thai correspond to the h and some of the unaspirated consonants (ပ, တ, ၵ, ၸ) in Shan respectively, and you also learned that the diphthong vowels in Thai correspond to certain monophthong vowels in Shan (e.g, เอือ and เอียง in Thai = เออ and เอง in Shan respectively). In fact, you may even know that the Thai d (ด) and b (บ) sounds correspond to the Shan l (လ) and m (မ) sounds respectively, e.g., ด่า is หล่า (လႃႇ) and บ้า is หม้า (မႃႈ). However, you will soon realize that converting the the Thai sounds to the corresponding Shan sounds or vice versa is not enough for you to learn the words because some of these words may actually be false friends. Below are some examples of these false friends which I came across when I first started learning Shan.

  1. Shan: ၼၢဝ် /naaw1/
    1. Shan meaning: to have a fever 
    2. Thai: หนาว /naaw1/
    3. Thai meaning: to be cold
    4. Comment: To have a fever and to be cold are sort of related. Two words which have similar meanings are probably related. I think these two words used to have the same meaning.
  2. Shan: ၼုမ်ႇ /num2/
    1. Shan meaning: to be young (used to describe both men and women)
    2. Thai: หนุ่ม /num2/
    3. Thai meaning: to be young (used to describe men only)
    4. Comment: /Num2/ in other Tai languages is used to describe both genders. 
  3. Shan: မၢၼ်ႈ /maan5/
    1. Shan meaning: Burmese/Burma
    2. Thai: ม่าน /maan5/
    3. Thai meaning: curtain
    4. Comment: Tai Khuen, Northern Thai, and Tai Lue also call the Burmese /maan5/.
  4. Shan: ဢူၼ်ႈ /on3/
    1. Shan meaning: to be weak, gentle
    2. Thai: อ้วน /uan3/
    3. Thai meaning: to be fat
    4. Comment: Could it be that fat people were viewed as weak in the olden days?
  5. Shan: ၵၼ်ႉ /kan6/
    1. Shan meaning: to rape, to wrestle
    2. Thai: คั้น /khan6/
    3. Thai meaning: to squeeze
    4. Comment: The meanings seem to be related. Any thoughts?
  6. Shan: တႅမ်ႈ /taem3/
    1. Shan meaning: to write
    2. Thai: แต้ม /taem3/
    3. Thai meaning: to smear
    4. Comment: Interestingly, /taem3/ in Lao means "to draw."
  7. Shan: ၽိုၼ်ႉ /phuen6/
    1. Shan meaning: to turn back, rebel, revolt, fight back
    2. Thai: ฟื้น /fuen6/
    3. Thai meaning: to regain, recover
    4. Comment: /Fuen6/ in Tai Lue and Northern Thai has the same meaning as the Shan word. When I was in a museum in Chiang Mai in 2013, I learned the Northern Thai phrase "ฟื้นม่าน" (/fuen6 maan5/) which means "to revolt against the Burmese (who had ruled the Chiang Mai kingdom AKA Lanna)," but back then I thought it meant "to recover from the Burmese rule."
  8. Shan: ၵဝ် /kaw1/
    1. Shan meaning: I/me, to stir up, mix together
    2. Thai: เกา /kaw1/
    3. Thai meaning: to scratch
    4. Comment: Are "to stir up" and "to scratch" similar?
  9. Shan: သုၵ်ႉ /shuk5/
    1. Shan meaning: to be confused, tangled
    2. Thai: ซุก /suk6/
    3. Thai meaning: to hide (something)
    4. Comment: My Shan dictionary says that the Shan word also means "to hide" but this meaning does not seem to be common, at least based on what a native speaker of Shan told me.
  10. Shan: မၼ်း /man4/
    1. Shan meaning: he/she/it, him/her/it (can be used to refer any one including your parents)
    2. Thai: มัน /man4/
    3. Thai meaning: also he/she/it, him/her/it but it is usually used to refer to animals or a person who you do not or do not have to respect (young children)
    4. Comment: I was surprised when I learned that this pronoun can be used to refer to your own mother. You would never do that in Thai because it would be really disrespectful.
  11. Shan: ၶူဝ်း /kho4/
    1. Shan meaning: things, property
    2. Thai: ครัว /khrua4/
    3. Thai meaning: kitchen, things/property (rare) 
    4. Comment: In Northern Thai and Tai Lue, /khrua,khua,kho/ still means "property, things."

Why do these words have different meanings?

There are at least two reasons. First, they may not have evolved from the same Proto-Tai word. In other words, they may not have the same common ancestry. Second, some words may have been derived from the same Proto-Tai words but may have undergone a semantic shift (a process in which a word acquires a meaning different from its original meaning). As time goes by, the meaning of word may change. For example, dēor meant "animal, beast" in Old English, but now in Modern English it means "deer."


Beltrán, M. R. C. (2006). Towards a typological classification of false friends (Spanish-English). Revista española de lingüística aplicada, (19), 29-40.
Richards, J. C., Platt, J., & Weber, H. (1985). Dictionary of applied linguistics. Essex: Longman, 43.

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