Bur Ger A Head: Thai fondness for English syllabism

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The following portfolio of photographs illustrating the Thai penchant for separating English words into syllables was taken by Paul Midler over many years of travel in the region:





The Thai sign says:

u bat ti heːt  kʰaːŋ naː (another Romanization gives "ubatihet khang naa")

อุบัติเหตุ ข้างหน้า

accident ahead (or "accident in front of you")

Paul observes:

Traveling to places around Southeast Asia, I've always been tickled to see the way in which English is promoted. In Laos, for example, you see signs that read "Bar Ber," to distinguish this bar from the other, called the "Bar Beer." And in restaurants around the region, one never asks for the check, or the bill, but requests the "check-bill." Across Thailand, there is the occasional effort to break English words into components, and I've found this curious because Thai, unlike Mandarin, is not a character-based language.

Since Thai and Laotian are not Sinographic languages, what then would impel speakers of Thai and Laotian to break up English words this way?  I don't have a good answer.

Readings

[Thanks to Justin McDaniel and Pattira Thaithosaeng]



18 Comments

  1. AG said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

    Thai might not be Sinographic, but it's tonal and monosyllabic. When a Thai person says burger it's more like "Ba!…GA!!!!". Since the thai writing system does not have spaces and is notoriously hard to decode even for Thais, I imagine they feel a great sense of liberation when the English space bar becomes a possibility!

  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 7:18 pm

    "Thai Language Thai Culture: Why Thai is Not a Monosyllabic Language"
    by Hugh Leong, Women Learn Thai (2/17/12)

    http://womenlearnthai.com/index.php/thai-language-thai-culture-why-thai-is-not-a-monosyllabic-language/

    Strongly recommended reading. Lots of examples and analyses. Don't dismiss it offhand until you read all of it.

  3. AG said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 7:44 pm

    I should have known when I typed it that my cavalier use of layman's "monosyllabic" might get me in trouble. No argument here! Scratch that & replace it with "has a high proportion of words with one syllable".

  4. David Morris said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    Because of the way Thai is written, I had always vaguely assumed that Thai was highly polysyllabic. But Chinese is written largely without spaces, and I know that's not highly polysyllabic.

    I noticed that so many of these 'English' words are "English". It's quicker to list the ones which are: spare, ribs, brown and sandwich. You can draw your own conclusion as to what that says about English food.

    I had also vaguely assumed that spare ribs were 'left over' after cutting some other parts of the beast.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

    I notice they split burger but not sandwich.

  6. ponrawee said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 5:14 pm

    Native Thai student of lingusitics here. My areas are syntax and semantics so I'm probably mistaken on some points, but I would like to share my two cents.

    The way Thai children are taught to read is by dissecting words and reading them syllable-by-syllable, conciously stressing every one of them. Each syllable is written separately and connected by hyphen. A typical line in an official Thai language textbook is:

    อร่อย อ่านว่า อะ-หร่อย
    อร่อย ("delicious" /ʔà.rɔ̀j/, pronounced [ə̄ˈɾɔ̀i] in rapid speech) อ่านว่า ("reads") อะ-หร่อย (ʔà-rɔ̀j).

    When students learn new words, the textbooks will give pronunciations this way (up to Grade 6 if I remember correctly). So perhaps Thai speakers tend to think of words in terms of syllables more than, say, English speakers.

    When Thai speakers learn English words, they fit them into Thai phonology (which gives little role to stress; there is no contrastive lexical stress in Thai) and remember the pronunciation using the same scheme. So "burger" would be เบอ-เก้อ (bɤ̄ː.kɤ̂ː). It is possible that when they write English words, they write as each syllable is pronounced separately (unlike Thai words where they are more comfortable writing together due to familiarity), resulting in the space between the corresponding forms, hence "BUR GER."

    I'm not convinced though that the examples given except the "BUR GER" one have to do with breaking up syllables. The fact that the "o" in "GASoLINE" is lowercase seems to an attempt to add the previously missing "o" but not having enough space for a capital "O." The "GA SO // LINE" one could be a poor attempt to justify the text. "ACCIDENT A HEAD" may simply be an error because the sign maker does not know that "ahead" is one word.

    The "IN // TER // NET" one would have received the same treatment even if the language is Thai, viz. "อิน // เตอร์ // เน็ต" (a transliteration). In rural areas, vertical banners of this kind are very common and words on them are broken up according to the syllables too. Because the horizontal space is limited, the words must be broken up in some way anyway. The explanation above might give an account of why breaking them up by syllable seems to be the most intuitive way.

    As a side note, most Thai morphemes directly descending from Proto-Tai are monosyllabic (in Proto-Tai, they were likely sesquisyllabic). Polysyllabic words are typically compounds or loanwords.

  7. ajay said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 4:42 am

    "Since the thai writing system does not have spaces and is notoriously hard to decode even for Thais, I imagine they feel a great sense of liberation when the English space bar becomes a possibility!"

    This may not be the true explanation but it is unquestionably the best.

  8. chris said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 6:34 am

    Nobody's going to comment on a restaurant that serves humus? Is that just too obvious an error to be worthy of comment?

    I notice that one of the other spelling errors, "burito", is also omission of a double letter. Is doubling particularly rare in Thai, predisposing Thai speakers to this particular error when remembering words from other languages? (They got "pizza" right, but that's still 1 out of 3 words that should have a double letter.)

  9. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 7:23 am

    I've seen the foodstuff spelled "humus." Maybe this is a symptom of the decline of agriculture-talk.

  10. Woody Leonhard said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 7:47 am

    Check-bin has become a Thai word. It's not exactly "check bill" anymore.

    Similarly for satay – which likely originated as "steak."

    And then there's "fan"….

  11. KeithB said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 7:56 am

    Look again at "burito", it is actually BURIIO, with a serifed capital "I" used for "T".

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 7:57 am

    "This may not be the true explanation but it is unquestionably the best."

    Wouldn't the true explanation be the best?

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    =====

    Spelling of the word in English can be inconsistent. "Hummus" is the most common spelling in both American and British English. The spelling "houmous" is however common enough in British English to be also listed as a less common spelling in some UK dictionaries but not, for example, in the Cambridge online dictionary. Some US dictionaries also list other spellings such as humus, hommus, and hommos, but not Merriam-Webster, for example.[

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummus#Etymology_and_spelling

    =====

  14. Michele Sharik Pituley said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 9:48 am

    Do they really sell gasoline in glass flip top bottles??

  15. AG said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

    They sell _everything_ in very similar bottles, from fish sauce to moonshine. I have to keep my soy sauce & my lamp alcohol (ethanol)? far apart in my pantry to avoid the slim but real chance of accidental confusion.

  16. ajay said,

    October 16, 2018 @ 4:20 am

    Wouldn't the true explanation be the best?

    See, this is how I can tell you're not a journalist.

  17. ajay said,

    October 16, 2018 @ 4:24 am

    "Hummus" is the most common spelling in both American and British English. The spelling "houmous" is however common enough in British English to be also listed as a less common spelling in some UK dictionaries

    A quick look reveals that Sainsbury's and Fortnum & Mason sell hummus, and Tesco, Asda and Waitrose sell houmous….

  18. Chris Button said,

    October 16, 2018 @ 10:36 am

    Granted Thai and Lao scripts don't seem to make use of the "virama" to suppress the inherent vowel and thereby distinguish an onset from a coda, the scripts are nonetheless alpha-syllabic rather than alphabetic and therefore breaking up English words into syllabic chunks is surely not that surprising.

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