The southern tongue

Thai, like any other language, is marked by regional differences. Although Thailand is often perceived to be an ethnically homogenous society, but in actual fact, it is as ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse as its many Southeast Asian neighbours. Linguistically, each main region in Thailand can also be differentiated by the type of Thai spoken, namely the Central Thai, the Northern Thai (kham mueng), the Northeastern Thai (Thai-Lao) and Southern Thai.

Once, I had the chance to take a train from Bangkok to Chiangmai. And as the train chugged up north and the flat landscapes slowly gave way to hills and mountains, a keen listener would be able to discern the greetings of the many female snacks and drinks sellers that came onboard the train drinks at each station, changing from “sawatdii kha” to sawatdii jao”.

Most of the time, Thais will be able understand you when you speak standard Thai. But whether one would be able to understand and decipher their replies is another matter, especially when they reply with a thick local accent.

The South is another region where the Thai language has evolved into a distinct dialect. Due to its geographical proximity to Malaysia, many Malay words are adopted and infused into the Southern dialect, thus partly adding to its unique flavour. Prior to that, my Thai friends have often remarked about the seemingly less comprehensible and curt speaking style of the southern Thais, who tend to “eat” their words. I have also noticed that each time a southern Thai person speaks during a Thai movie, subtitles in Thai will invariably appear on the screen. I reckoned if native Thais themselves are having an “earful” in trying to understand the southern dialect, I am definitely not going to be spared from this if I visit the southern provinces.

Indeed, this linguistic problem posed some challenges to me when I had to do fieldwork in the tsunami-stricken provinces of Krabi and Phangnga in southern Thailand last July. Thai is often known as a melodious language, but I find the southern tongue even more singsong-like. It seems like the tonal rules undergo some change when spoken in the southern dialect. I often had to utter phases like “phuut phasaa klaang thao nan, phuut phasaa tai mai dai (I’m only able to speak the central language, but not the southern)”.

Despite being rather proficient in spoken standard Thai, both my professor and I had a hard but enjoyable time interviewing the residents in the fishing villagers of Baan Hua Laem in Koh Lanta. Luckily, we had a Thai friend who came along as an interpreter with us on the project. However, even my Thai friend admitted that he had to pay very close attention to the conversation.

The Southern tongue, I realized, is not that indecipherable. After a while, I started making some sense of the conversations. It is only a matter of getting used to the southern tongue, and developing a keener sense of hearing. After all, when feelings of “mai khao jai” set in, just give a smile. Well, my research project has proven that regardless of the dialects spoken locally, the friendliness of Thais still reigned.

Personally, instead of a simplistic conception of a homogenous society, I feel that this linguistic diversity adds even more colour, flavour and character to Thailand, doesn’t it?

This lady had a strong and thick southern accent, but her amiable and forthcoming replies when we questioned her about the tsunami were not “lost in translation”.

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