Saturday, March 1, 2014

Polite Forms of Address

For better or worse, having only the briefest and most limited acquaintance with almost anything has never kept me from offering an opinion about it.

So why should I make an exception for the Thai language?

After just over a week in this country, I have a very unimpressive handful of functional phrases in Thai. I don't expect I'll manage to expand my repertory much further over the next days before heading back into the ongoing grip of the Canadian winter. "Hello," "Thank you," "How are you?" "Fine, and you?" go a long way in a place where kind smiles and palms pressed together in greeting, thanks, or farewell count for as much as they do here.

Partly, I'm daunted by the writing system, which though alphabetic seems to have more exceptions than straightforward rules: 44 consonantal letters to cover 21 sounds, silent letters to represent sounds that were pronounced in earlier versions of the language (think of the phonetic mess that is the "gh" combination in English), vowels that often, but not always, have to be represented by diacritical marks above or below the letter. Transliteration into the Roman alphabet doesn't help much. I've seen "Thank you" printed (and written out) as "kob khun krab," "karp kuhn krap," and "korp kun krab."

And then, oh, God, as in most East Asian languages--the tones. Low, middle, falling, high, and rising. Asking someone to demonstrate only makes me feel more moronic, when I fail to hear the distinctions they're so patiently trying to explain.

Language geek that I am, I'm as fascinated as I am stumped. Every road sign with a Roman transcription feels like a Rosetta Stone whizzing past at 120 km an hour, if I only had time and patience.

I promise I won't go on about this much longer, but here's the kicker: in the polite register of respectful speech, you end many statements with a particle denoting esteem for the person you're talking to. But unlike English "sir" or ma'am," the gender of these markers doesn't refer to the person addressed but to the speaker: "krap" and "ka," used by men and women respectively, either one spoken on the high tone at the top of the voice register--so if you're a man exchanging hellos with a woman, the easiest gaffe to make is to imitate the "ka" at the end of her phrase instead of substituting "krap." I expect Thais who deal with clueless visitors like me must make jokes about this all the time.

Soooo----if gender really is a social role that's handed to us to perform, here's a performance that the individual is required by social nicety to repeat dozens of times a day. Is my mistaken "ka" the linguistic equivalent of walking into the hotel lobby in genderfuck drag? If it is, it's taken in stride by the endlessly kind, polite people who've served me here.

More to the point, more importantly: what kind of space do "krap" and "ka" make for folks who need, or who choose, to renegotiate their gender? I'm thinking of the endless struggle trans people face in Western countries to get it through other people's heads what third-person gender markers they prefer should be used of them. (Justin Vivian Bond's insistence on "ve," is as playfully ingenious as it is serious, but I suspect it's not going to gain wide currency.) I'm thinking at the same time of the relative ease with which trans folks seem to find space in Thai society, like the taxi driver I met yesterday, the museum attendant who waited on me earlier in the week, the guide who took us on a bike tour out into the countryside south of Chiang Mai. I'm thinking what it would be like to use "krap" and/or "ka" to say, "This is who I am. For now, at least. Get used to it." Or for that matter, "Don't get too used to it. I may change my mind. Next year. Or tomorrow."

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