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Published: February 1st 2009
According to a survey conducted by Project Gutenberg
and based on 30 million words used in cinema and literature, the three most common words in the English language are You, I
. If, instead of thousands of movies and books, had the research been carried on using Ya (the bungalows' keeper of the place where I'm lodged on Ko Chang)'s english as basis, the results would have been surprisingly different. After ten weeks on the island I've come to understand that Ya is a minimalist. Not in the philosophical or artistic meaning of the word, but in the plain, literal one: Ya reduces everything to its bare minimum, vocabulary included. He's got three phrases that combine a hundred different meanings: 1. For sure
, which might mean surely, are you sure? I'm not sure, maybe
and would be better
. 2. You want to
, which stands for want, can, must, have to, should
and applies, unchanged, to the second and third person, both singular and plural. 3. Something like that
, this last expression usually follows, as to strengthen it, a inintellegibile word (any) previously pronounced. I fear the day when Ya might decide to merge its three major topics in a single
sentence: "For sure you want to have something like that" could mean anything from Would you like a plate of rice?
to I'm not sure the ball is inflated at the right pressure
We've recently received a visit from two elderly English couples. One of the ladies, an opulent female in both her body and her much affected high class bridge club english accent, complimented Ya for his excellent English. For my part, I couldn't restrain myself from adding a "For sure", but neither of them actually caught the subtle irony and I begin to fear that my sense of humor is getting really older and has precociously reached the dehydration level of a stranded jellyfish.
The aforementioned gentle lady has gladdened my days with other gems such as "Oh, you have tea here, just like in England!" or "We wanted to go to Greece, but nowadays Greece is just like Spain, so we came to Thailand instead" (I think, therefore I am...
). She also told me that since they retired they've moved to France, and I was not surprised in the least. You know the type: "There are far too many criminals in England today, so we
move to the Mediterranean coast, where Yes, there is plenty of greedy, dangerous indigenous folks as well, but at least they are white". Following one of her usual howling of surprise (I think after discovering that also Thai people have cat pets...), I suggested Ya that I was sure that sooner or later she would ask him how many years had been now since he gave up cannibalism. Ya answered For sure
, and I'm afraid that in that circumstance it was meant to say something like: "I did not fully grasp the subtle, though deep irony of your comment". Again, I'm afraid my sense of humor is travelling towards shores less linear than a Norwegian fjord!
Admittedly, I'm fond of Ya and have little right of making fun of his English, my Thai is a thousand times worse! This is a problem of data storing system. Thai is a rather simple language with regard to its grammatical structure, but presents three almost insurmountable obstacles for someone like me, who has a reasonable degree of learning skills when the data to be swallowed (and digested) offer holds, a similarity of sort to something already existing in my brain, but who
also rejects any data labelled as abstract
. To be more clear: I'm one of those who need to write his own phone number down not to forget it!
The first of these obstacles is the Thai alphabet, so different from the Latin one that doesn't offer any kind of visual aid. The second problem is the shortness of Thai words. They're almost all monosyllables: kuu, kin, muu, Khap
, etc... Impossible to attach them to something pre-existing in my personal database. It might seem a paradox, but retaining German vocabols, for example, is thousand times easier. How might one forget words such as Krankenschwester
once learned? And the same rule applies to names. Everyone is here called Ho, Ha, Ya, So and likes. And, continuing with the German exemple, I find easier to peg a face to names like Augenthaler, Beckenbauer or Schumacher!
The last and by far my most formidable foe, is the presence of tones that, if changed, change the meaning of the word itself. That's a concept completely unknown to my neurons and try to explain it to them would be like asking someone with no notion of fungus
at all to understand which
mushrooms are edible and which aren't. The word suai
, for example, can mean either pretty
or bad luck
. Hey, it doesn't produce the same effect to be told "You look so pretty" or "I wish you bad luck"! Even worse is the word kluai
. It means, depending on the rising or falling tone, banana
. No further comments needed...
But, how did I end up talking about...? Hmm... Alzheimer in progress... What am I doing in this internet cafe'? What's my name?
Actually, I meant to write a couple of lines on a altogether different aspect of the everyday Thai life. It seems that Thailand, in my opinion one of the most beautiful and hospitable countries in the world, is full of aliens with the hobby of criticizing and their backpack full of not too kind remarks for the country that is hosting them. They range from complaints about prices ("20 bahts for a coffee is a theft"), to those about the new, more restrictive immigration policy, to the degradation of the country's natural resources, to end with, and this is my favourite, the ones on the moral laxity this country have precipitate into. We Westerners making
comments on the lack of morale of Thai society is like a Spanish matador
asking the public to stop eating meat. But the rest of those criticisms are insubstantial too. Empty. 20 bahts is the equivalent of 40 cents of a euro, does any of you know any place in Europe, America or Australia where a cup of coffee costs 40 cents? The new rules about immigration are a pain in the ass, true, but for 25 euros you can obtain -in one day- a Thai visa valid for three months. Local natural resources are at risk, that's true as well, but in which country are they not today? It's too easy to blame these people for building bungalows on the beaches for the sake of money. When in Europe hectares of forest were cleared to build factories, was it not for making money? If the US drill Alaska to extract oil, are they doing so because a pipeline embellishes the surrounding area?
Thais are ever smiling people who make the best out of life, who always see the glass half full. For any dishonest Thai ripping a tourist off there are one hundred who daily perform acts of
selfless friendship towards foreigners not always sufficiently respectful. And to highlight the evil ignoring the good is as dishonest and partial as most twentyfirst century TV news are.
I almost forgot one last kind of negative comment: "Thailand is not anymore the country it used to be". One day, on the Ko Chang-Ranong ferry, I met a middle-aged German guy, half bald and by the not too healthy look. He told me that he was here in 1991 and that the place had back then an altogether different look. I replied, not without malice, that he probably had an altogether different look too seventeen years back. Yet, I'm afraid he did not grasp the subtle irony of the response. And, once again, I'm afraid my sense of humor is... ITALIANO
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