A "Wild Boar" proficient in five languages — English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin, and Wa

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At the same time as the World Cup was being held in Russia, an even more intense soccer-related drama was unfolding in Thailand.  A group of teenage boys and their coach had become trapped in a cave complex for more than a week after the entrance had been sealed by rapidly rising floodwaters.  An international team of rescuers worked tirelessly to bring them out of the cave, and one brave hero lost his life in the attempt.  His name was Saman Gunan (Guana/Kunan); he died while taking oxygen to the Thai youngsters trapped in the cave.  Requiescat in pace!

But there was another hero of the Thai rescue operation, and he was a 14-year-old polyglot:

"Teen hero emerges from Thai cave rescue mission", NZ Herald (7/11/18)

Adul Sam-on, a 14-year-old member of the Wild Boars soccer team, played a vital role in the dramatic rescue mission of his teammates and coach.

The teenager is proficient in five languages — English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, a language spoken near the [border between] Myanmar and China.

It was his knowledge of English that was crucial because it allowed him to talk to the British rescue divers on behalf of the group when it was discovered nine days after becoming stuck.


The Thai Navy SEAL Force shared a photo of the boy with a huge smile on his face. No matter how dire the situation looked, he could afford to smile with optimism.

"I'm Adul, I'm in good health," the rake-thin teenager said in Thai in a video that emerged hours after the group was discovered. He also offered a traditional Thai "wai" greeting — trademark politeness, his teachers say.


Adul has been praised for his ability to speak proficient English in a country where less than a third of the population understand the language.

He was the only one able to communicate with the British divers that discovered the boys on Monday night.

AntC, who called this report to my attention, remarks:

I did wonder, when the news announced it was a Brit/Australian team going into the cave complex, how they were going to communicate with the soccer team. Now we know.

Probably few people, even on Language Log, have ever heard of Wa.  Because of the importance of this Mon-Khmer (Palaungic branch) group for the history and culture of tea, I had studied their folkways and language when doing research for The True History of Tea, which I wrote with Erling Hoh in 2009.  I wonder if Adul Sam-on's mother tongue is Wa.


"Caucasian words for tea" (1/26/17)

"Multilingual tea packaging" (4/7/18)

"Trump tea" (1/13/17


  1. Matthew Moppett said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

    A note about the name of the late Thai diver: both "Kunan" and "Gunan" are reasonable romanizations of the diver's surname (กุนัน, pronounced /kuˈnan/), using different spelling conventions.

    "Guana", on the other hand, cannot be anything but a mistake. There's nothing about the spelling or pronunciation of the name in Thai that could possibly justify it.

  2. Matthew Moppett said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 12:00 am

    "Guana" is not the only strange mistake in the transcription of Saman Kunan's name in various media sources — a quick survey yields "Guran", "Kunont", "Funan", and "Kunam" as well.

  3. cameron said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 12:10 am

    I've often heard the old saw that if you meet someone from Central Europe who speaks five languages, and one of those languages is Hungarian, then the polyglot Central European is almost certainly a native Hungarian speaker.

    I suspect that if someone in Thailand speaks five languages, and one of them is Wa, then that person's mother tongue is almost certainly Wa.

  4. ajay said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:49 am

    Probably few people, even on Language Log, have ever heard of Wa.

    I have! But not as a language, as a people, specifically the originators of the UWSA.

    [VHM: UWSA = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Wa_State_Army ]

  5. ajay said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:51 am

    cameron: or, possibly, a Martian. http://www.setileague.org/askdr/hungary.htm

    [VHM: I know what you're trying to say, but I still think it requires a tiny bit of explication]

  6. ajay said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:52 am

    I did wonder, when the news announced it was a Brit/Australian team going into the cave complex, how they were going to communicate with the soccer team. Now we know.

    By speaking English VERY LOUDLY AND SLOWLY, of course.

    How else?

    [VHM: gestures? picture cards? songs?]

  7. Chris Button said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

    I've always liked how the name "Wa" in Burmese script is simply a circle: ဝ

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    Since ajay has gotten somewhat silly on us, I'll add a few things:

    "Wa" is an important word and key cultural concept in Japanese: see here, here, and here.

    "Wa" is also a key particle in Japanese.

    More seriously, though, "Wa" in the context of the o.p. signifies a language, most likely one from Southeast Asia.

  9. Ray said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    I'm with cameron. the old saw about central european polyglots is really and truly true, if my grandma is any indication!

  10. Trogluddite said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

    "[VHM: gestures? picture cards? songs?]"

    I do hope not the songs. As a British ex-caver, I fear that our subterranean librettos would have expanded Adul's mastery of English into areas which are rather light on "trademark politeness"!

  11. B.Ma said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 12:22 am

    The Wa near to Thai/Burma/China seems to be [vaʔ] which is rather different from the Japanese [ɰᵝa̠].

    I wonder how and why he learned English and how proficient his English actually is (it's obviously good enough to communicate reasonably). English turned out to be very useful in this situation but I expect most Wa people (if he is indeed one) rarely come into contact with English speakers generally.

  12. ajay said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 6:53 am

    [VHM: gestures? picture cards? songs?]

    It's a joke based on the reputation of the British as being terrible linguists, so that everywhere they go in the world they insist on communicating with the locals solely by shouting at them in English.

  13. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    Seems every time there's a disaster I learn a new word. During the Katrina disaster I learned the word "de-water". 'Twas terribly important to de-water New Orleans. This time in the Thai situation, I learn the word "caver". Previously I had known the word "spelunker" from children's story books. But "caver", what a lovely word !

  14. julie lee said,

    July 13, 2018 @ 11:30 am


    It's not just the British who shout. Here in the U.S., I had a Cuban friend who knew little English and complained that everyone was always shouting at her. She said: "I don't understand English, but I'm not deaf."

    My father-in-law and mother-in-law were also shouters. They couldn't understand each other's Chinese topolects. He only spoke Shandongese and she only Shanghainese. So they shouted at each other all day long, hoping that shouting would help. I got used to it.

  15. Trogluddite said,

    July 14, 2018 @ 6:54 am

    @Julie Lee
    In Northern England (Yorkshire/Derbyshire), another common alternative to "caver" is "pot-holer" (caves with vertical entrance shafts, of which there are many there, are locally known as "pot-holes", or just "pots"). This is sometimes shortened to "potter", too, which adds a lovely additional layer of ambiguity – we can be misinterpreted both as making pots and knocking holes in them!

    Personally, I rather like the US term "spelunker"; there's just something about the sound of it and the feel of producing the sounds that I find rather satisfying. As the online Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it; "Spelunker sounds like the noise a pebble makes when you drop it down a deep hole and into dark, hidden water far below."

  16. David, from Wisconsin said,

    July 14, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

    "GUANA" may be wrong, but pictures exist of the man himself wore "SANAM GUANA" as the namepatch on his SEAL uniform before he retired. He might have approved of the spelling.

  17. julie lee said,

    July 14, 2018 @ 7:57 pm


    Thanks for the new words from Northern England, "pot-holer", "potholes",and "pots" for c avers and caves (I had to type "c avers" because every time I typed the word correctly my MacBook laptop corrected it to "savers"–it doesn't know the word "c avers").

    You may already know that "pot-hole" in the U.S. means holes in the road that make driving bumpy and need to be fixed.

  18. Matthew Moppett said,

    July 14, 2018 @ 9:33 pm

    @David from Wisconsin: that doesn't surprise me too much. Romanization practices in Thailand are unsystematic, to say the least. I wouldn't be surprised if he romanized his name differently just about every time he was asked to write it down.

  19. Trogluddite said,

    July 15, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    @Julie Lee
    You're welcome.

    The hole in the road meaning of "pot-hole" would be the most commonly understood one here in the UK, too. It can also mean a cylindrical hole in a river bed worn by pebbles and sediment spinning around in eddy currents, and archaeologists sometimes use it to refer to existing holes dug through a site by treasure hunters.

    Another term for a cave that I rather like, local only to the North Yorkshire Moors, is "windypit"; referring to the drafts of air commonly felt at a cave entrance due to moving water or temperature differences (these have led to the discovery of new caves on occasion.)

    Which leads on to my all-time favourite; the original name of Peak Cavern in Derbyshire. Prior to a visit by Queen Victoria and her delicate sensibilities, it was known simply as "The Devil's Arse" on account of the flatulent and borborygmus noises made by its unusual hydrology!

  20. julie lee said,

    July 15, 2018 @ 10:38 pm


    Last time I forgot to thank you for the word "potter", meaning "caver". And now a new trove of interesting words from the Yorkshire/Derbyshire area related to caves and holes, like "pot-hole" "windypit" and "borborygmus". Thank you.

    I knew someone in Sheffield who drove us around the Yorkshire-Derbyshire area some years ago. Finally saw the moors that I'd read about in "Jane Eyre" and "Withering Heights". Standing on the moors I could see the Derwent River flowing far down below.

    One of my favorite movies is "So Well Remembered" (1947) set in Lancashire. Loved to hear the Yorkshire accent of town councillor George Boswell (John Mills).

    By the way, "Trogluddite" is an expressive combination. Each part of the name reinforces the other, both connected to the meaning of "cave".

  21. mg said,

    July 17, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    If you read the entire article, it says explicitly that the boy is Wa:

    The boy's parents dropped him off at a Thai Baptist church eight years ago, asking that the pastor and his wife care for him, The New York Times reported.

    In Myanmar's self-governing Wa region, which is neither recognised by Myanmar nor internationally, education and employment opportunities are scarce.

    Instead, the region is known for drug trafficking and guerrilla warfare…

    Fighting between ethnic rebels from the United Wa State Army and Myanmar troops has driven thousands to seek safety and greener pastures in other countries, including in Thailand.

    Adul is among more than 400,000 people who are registered as stateless in Thailand, according to the UN Refugee Agency — though some estimates put their numbers at 3.5 million.

    "Whilst some progress has been made, stateless people in Thailand continue to face challenges accessing their basic rights," UNHCR spokeswoman Hannah Macdonald told AFP.

    With no birth certificate, no ID card and no passport, Adul cannot legally marry, get a job or bank account, travel, own property or vote.

  22. BZ said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    To be fair, someone who doesn't know a language well will understand much better if he or she hears something slowly and loudly, such that no parts of words are slurred or inaudible

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