by Rikker Dockum, Thai 101
Let's talk about elaborate expressions. This is a term invented by Mary Haas. And this is in fact where
I first ran across the term, in the preface of Haas' Thai-English Student's Dictionary
. For anyone who
has this dictionary and hasn't ever read the preface, it is excellent. Jim Matisoff (the granddaddy of
Tibeto-Burman linguistics) calls it "the best capsule account of Thai morphology anyone has produced."
And I tend to agree.
What are elaborate expressions? As Haas defines them, they are those four-syllable phrases which exist
to increase the euphony of an existing shorter phrase. That is, to make something sound nicer. This
linguistic phenomenon is very common all over South and Southeast Asia.
Understanding these expressions is absolutely critical to being fluent in a Southeast Asia language
like Thai, and dictionaries across the board sorely underrepresent them. Often if we didn't recognize
the euphonic purpose of many of these, we might overanalyze a sentence and misunderstand it. Or, more
likely, we'll puzzle over a dictionary looking up each syllable in the expression, when frequently a
word is a nonce included purely for rhyme, and is semantically irrelevant, or else only vaguely
connected. Take one of Haas' example from her dictionary preface:หมูเห็ดเป็ดไก่
This phrase means "many varieties of meat." But not necessarily just those explicitly listed.
It gives pork, duck, and chicken—but also เห็ด
, mushroom. What gives? In this case, it's
, a word included purely for rhyming euphony. (If we are to stretch for a semantic connection, we
could say it is also an edible item.) This sort of thing is why it's important to know
how these sorts of idioms work.
I "collect" elaborate expressions. That is, I try to jot them down when I come across them in
speech or writing, and I'm compiling them in a spreadsheet at the moment.
I'm using a wider definition of the term "elaborate expression" than Haas did, by not constraining
it to any specific syllable count or inner structure. And in a series of coming posts, I'm going to
tackle several types commonly used in Thai, as well as any other similar topics I find interesting,
such as reduplication.
Click here for the category Elaborate Expressions