Mar 3, 2007

On Language and Transliteration

Looking at this wall hanging should give you some idea of the issues involved. Across the top are the consonants with accompanying pictures of typical words that begin with the sound. The next two thirds is a complicated series of columns representing vowels and their length of pronunciation as well as tones and god knows what else. Now which do you think might be the most easy to understand.

Recently I got a message asking about the way I turn Lao, sorry I mean Laotian, into written English.
Most especially with the name that I spell as Tdooee, but could also be spelled Twee, Doee, Tui, and so forth, all of these examples are approximately right. I often mangle the language in other ways that I’m sure drive Lao speakers nuts. My apologies.
Spoken Lao, has no official way to put it into English. Complicating things, there are also sounds we don’t have in English, and also different phonetic alphabet to use.
I first ran into this problem when I started trying to speak Thai. I wanted to take the bus to get back to where I was living, and the woman selling tickets didn’t speak English. I lived in Lampang and so I said “I go Lampang”, she said “where?” I repeated myself and so on. Eventually I got out my guidebook, pointed, and she pronounced something close to Lambang. The B being close to the B in bong. Often this P/B sound is spelled with a ph. I think it’s called an aspirated P.
When I write words in my notebook to learn vocabulary often I just write the two consonants on top of each other. I also do this with T and D,
My wife has a buddy named Gow. Spelled with the same letter that begins the word for chicken, gai. My wife spells her friend’s nam Keo. Now the K and the G sounds in Lao are different and you would think they would be hard to confuse. I think the problem lies in our G being too soft, the Lao pronounce it harder or with more carry through.
Adding further complications your way to put Lao sounds into the Roman Alphabet might well depend on which school of learning Lao you come from. In Lao they have one way that mostly comes from the sounds as they are spelled in French, and the Thai that most people migrated from use a more English spelling. I began to learn Thai first but try to use Lao spelling because I think it’s more fashionable. Sometimes there is just a problem because the Lao who translate place names can’t speak English and they are just guessing, or they were guessing fifty years ago and now no one dares correct the misspelling because there are issues of face.
I will admit I love misspelling things and being able to get away with it. Without a spell check I’d be lost in the English speaking world.
Besides having tones there are also long and short vowel sounds. My studies have all been, ahem, “informal” so I’ve never learned tones, I just mimic the way Lao people speak and it mostly works. Informal in this case means once a month I might write something down.
Now it’s time for some true apologies. There are a small number of real Laotian Language Scholars out there. If you are reading, sorry. I promise to stop acting as if I know what I’m talking about. I probably fool most others, don’t you think? I’ll also try to stop using Lao words in English when there is a perfectly good English word to use. Except for the flavour enhancer Bang Nua. I do that to protect food Nazis from going completely around the bend. Maybe it’s time for a glossary.


Charles said...

Hi Somsai,

Been spending time on your blog past couple of days. What a trip! I think you're pretty deep into the flow over there. You've got a treasure here for now and for when you get old.

I started with a travelogue and then journal and then journal/reminiscing - which is where I am now. Invite you to stop in.


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