I can, I must, I should, I will, I might, I could…

No maybe not!

My prompt for this little exploration is not a questioning of “willingness”, nor a revelation of procrastination, nor indeed a foray into grammatical niceties. I am struggling with learning Thai and occasionally a language subtlety strikes, puzzles and delights! How and why do particular differentiations assume importance in one language and yet are irrelevant in another?

For our English “can” the Thais have 3 different words to denote • an ability to do something, (“she can speak a foreign language”, “is good at maths”), • having a physical capacity, (“he can walk / crawl”) and the most usual: • having permission to do something, (“you can stay out late tonight”).

Far more puzzling is finding that we need a word for some idea that simply does not exist in one language but is common in another. Se débrouiller in French covers a range of uses depending on the context and I would love its equivalent in English but we have an absence. Maybe someone can correct me but it seems that none of our English phrases capture the French notion. Our phrases imply too much or too little.

I conclude that culture is all. To attempt to understand a culture from the use of language can only go so far – something of a party game – yet the reverse works a little better. With an understanding of a culture one can embrace the language in all its richness.

A Thai illustration: I was introduced by a friend to an official with an affectionate, “Grandma”. A young bilingual friend who was with us overheard this exchange and was somewhat horrified that I was not introduced as, “Auntie”. In Thailand and in the Thai language politeness and convention demand that accurate respect is shown in how a person is addressed and that this should also reveal the nature of the relationship between the two people. This is no trivial matter. The stability and harmony of communities depend upon this.

So how to make sense of Grandma versus Auntie? Perhaps my young friend thought me younger than I was? Perhaps my introduction was to signal that I should be granted the greater respect due to age? Perhaps the introduction was to flag that there was a close relationship that would indicate I was a person to be trusted? And perhaps, in a country undergoing dramatic changes impacting on both common values and on relationships, this was a message that I was of the ‘old guard’? I do not know the answer since I was an outsider to the culture and to the language. What I do know is that this tiny exchange had meaning for the others.

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About veritytraveller

My professional personal website is www.veritygoitein.info This blog is a more personal set of reflections on life and art, art and life.
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