Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Thais' worrisome Western names: Mafia, Big, Money

Thomas Fuller, New York Times

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

(08-29) 04:00 PDT Bangkok --

America has Tom, Dick and Harry. Thailand has Pig, Money and Fat.

For as long as people here can remember, children have been given playful nicknames - classics include Shrimp, Chubby and Crab - that are carried into adulthood.

But now, to the consternation of some nickname purists, children are being given offbeat English-language nicknames such as Mafia or Seven - as in 7-Eleven, the convenience store.

The spread of foreign names mirrors a rapidly urbanizing society that has absorbed any number of influences, including Hollywood, fast-food chains and English Premier League soccer.

The trend worries Vira Rojpojchanarat, the permanent secretary of the Thai Ministry of Culture. Vira, whose nickname is the relatively unimaginative Ra, is embarking on a campaign to revive the simple and often more pastoral nicknames of yore.

"It's important because it's about the usage of the Thai language," Vira said in his office that is decorated with Thai theatrical masks and a small Buddhist altar; he is an architect by training. "We worry that Thai culture will vanish."

With help from language experts at the Royal Institute, the official arbiter of the Thai language, Vira plans to produce by the end of the year a collection of thousands of old-fashioned nicknames, listed by wholesome categories such as colors, animals and fruit and including simple favorites like Yaay (big), Ouan (fat) and Dam (black).



rikker said...

Torben beat me to posting this--I've been thinking about this for a few days. I don't think this article is all that it could be.

For one thing, they don't address the significance of nicknames in Thailand, and how their use differs from the American (or Western) conception of one.

Second, it's a bit misleading to intermix English nicknames with English translations of nicknames. Of the three in the opening sentence, Pig, Money, and Fat, only Money is a legitimate English nickname. Pig and Fat are translations of the common Thai nicknames, หมู /muu/ and อ้วน /uan/. Likewise, Shrimp, Chubby, and Crab are translations of the nicknames กุ้ง /kung/, probably ตุ้ยนุ้ย /tui-nui/ or ตุ๊ต๊ะ /tu?-ta?, and ปู /puu/. None of their English translations are used.

I think this is just yet another example of Thai xenophobia (or, more specifically, anglophobia), and a waste of effort on the part of the Thai Ministry of Culture. To the Who's Whos in Thailand, change is bad. A change toward more foreign nicknames means a disappearance of culture, instead of simply a change of culture.

These same folks don't have a problem that most legal names and many nicknames are of Sanskrit (or other Indic) origin. Because Thailand is one of the "Indianized" nations of Asia, the borrowed culture and language has gained legitimacy.

In addition, Thai culture (particularly in Bangkok) has undergone significant Sinocization due to the massive number of Chinese immigrants to Bangkok in the last two centuries. Almost everyone who is a true native of Bangkok (not from up-country) has Chinese heritage. There are many common nicknames from Chinese, such as ตี๋ /tii/, หมวย /muay/, มี่ /mii/, หลิน /lin/, เจ๊ก /jek/, etc. Usually that's an indicator that a person is of Chinese origin, but sometimes it just means their parents thought they looked kinda Chinese when they came out.

The culture isn't going to vanish, any more than the country itself is going to vanish. But it is going to change. Just like the language. And I doubt everyday people are likely to respond much to publicity campaigns telling them to pick names of a particular etymology. Time and money down the drain.

Trivia fact of the day: the King's nickname is เล็ก /lek/ 'small', which is still common today, even mentioned in the article--probably just as common as it was 80 years ago. Go figure.

[Note: I'll be cross-posting with a more well-thought-out response on my blog.]